Global Hunger: Blame to Go Around

The problem has only worsened since pledges were made 12 years ago.

Workers harvest green beans on a farm in Kagio, Kenya.

Workers harvest green beans on a farm in Kagio, Kenya.

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In 1996, at a United Nations summit in Rome, more than 180 world leaders met to discuss the problem of global hunger. Fidel Castro was there, as were Pope John Paul II and Taha Marouf, the vice president of Iraq. Not surprisingly, there were disagreements, but the participants managed to reach an accord, pledging to halve the world's malnourished population by 2015.

Twelve years later, that goal appears increasingly unreachable. Malnourishment, rather than shrinking has expanded, affecting an additional 30 million to 40 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, and is being further inflamed now by rising global food prices. And as a new U.S. Government Accountability Office report shows, the failure rests heavily on the unfulfilled promises of world leaders, whose efforts, the report finds, have been insufficient, fragmented, and at times counterproductive.

The report, released Thursday, casts the blame widely: to African countries, rich western nations, and international organizations. Time and time again, the report finds, plans for international cooperation, action, and increased aid and assistance have been issued with gusto, only to be ignored or squandered.

Among the most food-stricken African countries—Mozambique, Kenya, and Tanzania, for example, where more than 40 percent of the population is undernourished—basic farming necessities remain elusive. Since the 1960s, disparities between sub-Saharan African countries and the rest of the world have grown wider, not narrower: The average grain yield there is now 40 percent of what it is in the average developing country and far lower than in the United States or Europe. Fertilizer and better seeds remain inaccessible or absurdly expensive. Taxes on local farmers in some places exceed 50 percent. And infrastructure is poor: More than half of sub-Saharan Africans do not live near a road accessible year-round.

The standard response from African countries, the report finds, has been depressingly hollow. In 2003, more than 40 African countries agreed to devote, by 2008, 10 percent of their budgets to agriculture development and to provide updates on their efforts. But few have done so or made measurable progress in that direction. In Kenya, the amount being spent on agriculture is actually falling. There and elsewhere, military and political conflicts have distracted attention or made stable commitments to farming and food security impossible. And even for more stable but equally poor countries, the report finds, their updates to regional agencies on their progress have been erratic and unreliable, often offering "selective information" or focusing on "irrelevant issues."

The international response has been lacking, too. In the past two decades, as many studies have already shown, foreign funding for agricultural development has declined sharply, even as pledges for future investments continue. The United States spent $500 million in 1988 on African agriculture development assistance but only $100 million in 2006. Funding for emergency food aid has shot up in recent years, but money to address the long-term problems that tend to cause the emergencies has stagnated. Meanwhile, the World Bank, starting in the 1980s, began to shift money from agriculture to education and healthcare, citing a high rate of program failures. (Only recently has it begun to reverse this trend.)

Indeed, of the money that remains, the report finds that much is being used unwisely, in a haphazard or fragmented manner. Simply throwing more money at agriculture, in other words, is not a good solution. In Ethiopia, for example, 20 different donors in 2005 were operating more than 100 development projects. Many were overlapping or duplicative, and communication between groups was limited. Even within donor countries themselves, interests can conflict: The U.S. Agriculture, State, and Treasury departments, along with USAID, which administers most of the government's food aid, have different priorities, and the report found that the United States still lacks a "comprehensive" strategy for foreign agriculture development. (A work group convened in the 1990s for such a purpose disbanded in 2003.)