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The complex web of global hunger

05 April 2013

Its causes draw in apparently unconnected questions, says Paul Vallely

I HAVE to confess that I was rather mystified, and a little sceptical, when I heard about the IF campaign ( News, 25 January). The "IF" is short for "Enough Food for Everyone if . . .", and it has been launched by a coalition of 100 development charities and faith groups to lobby the Government in the run-up to the next British presidency of the G8 group of world leaders.

The last time the UK held the presidency, it met in Gleneagles, and a similar coalition, Make Poverty History, conducted such an effective campaign that $1 billion a year of debt was dropped, and the rich world pledged more aid; it has given extra $11 billion a year - less than was promised, but a substantial increase.

Make Poverty History had no real success in securing fairer trade practices, but the debt-cancellation and extra aid have saved 1700 children's lives every day, got 21 million more children into African schools, halved malaria deaths in many countries, and provided life-saving drugs to six million people with HIV or AIDS.

This time, the G8 will meet at Lough Erne, near Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland, in June. In the interim, although massive strides have been made in reducing poverty, this is still a world in which one in eight people go to bed hungry every night, and, each year, 2.3 million children die from malnutrition. The new campaign focuses on hunger.

At first glance, its four main planks sound an odd collection. The first "If" suggests that hunger could be alleviated if there were more aid for nutrition programmes and small-scale farming. This sounds obvious enough. But the other three Ifs concern themselves with tax, land, and transparency - a trio that seem to lack the coherence of the Gleneagles aid, trade, and debt strategy.

Last week, however, I chaired an interesting discussion at the Frontline Club under the title "Can we fix a broken food system?". It revealed that the issues that constitute the underlying causes of hunger can appear unconnected - as do the parts of the elephant to the blind men in the Indian proverb - but are actually interrelated.

It is admirable that in the Budget, the Chancellor, George Osborne, stuck to the promise, made by the UK in response to Make Poverty History, to reach the target of spending 0.7 per cent of our annual income on aid. But it is not enough, so long as the rich world indulges in practices that hinder the development of the poorest.

Unfair trade does that - but so do deals that increasingly take soil, which should grow food for the hungry, to grow biofuels to feed Western consumption. And tax-dodging by transnational companies cheats developing countries of three times more tax than they receive in aid each year. The IF campaign wants Western governments to close loopholes that allow this.

But it is the fourth If that can make this effective. If there were greater transparency, forcing governments and investors to be more open about their activities in poor countries, change would come more swiftly. Mr Osborne missed a trick in the Budget by not requiring UK multinationals to reveal the tax-avoidance schemes that they use overseas. But it is not too late. The powerful players in the global food system should be required to make disclosure to public registries. Governments in the developing world should do the same by opening up budget processes, so that citizens can see how their resources are being used.

This is not all. There are questions such as waste to be addressed. The European Commission estimates that up to 50 per cent of edible food is wasted across the EU. Stewardship and justice are interwoven. There will be no shortage of material for the next campaign.

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