Will the G7 deliver on their promise
to commit resources to end world hunger by 2030?
From the first World Food Conference in 1974,
no resolutions or pledges have ever been fulfilled.
So, what guarantees are there that this one will be?

Ruth Oniang'o

Does it make sense that in this 21st century, children and adults are starving and that families are going hungry? That nearly one billion people go to bed hungry every day? That right now in 2017, seventeen (17) million people, amongst them six million children, in the horn of Africa are facing serious hunger and food emergency? There are more millionaires and now billionaires in the world than at any other time in history. There is more money in circulation than ever before. Globalization was supposed to help, not to hurt. However, there appears to be more losers than winners and even world leaders who normally would pay attention to such basic but serious issues as hunger are pre-occupied by an ever changing political landscape and growing intolerance and insecurity.

I recall severe droughts and famine in my lifetime. However, nobody was ever allowed to starve. I recall unique movements of people, when relatives would arrive from afar with food or when my mother and fellow women would set out on a long journey to go and look for food (mostly grains). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations was founded on October 16, 1945, to help developing countries deal with food emergencies and be able to put in place programs to help feed their populations. To date October 16 is marked every year as World Food Day to remind us of the unfulfilled pledges of 1945.

The first World Food Conference was held in Rome in 1974, on the heels of a major food crisis in Bangladesh due to a 2 year drought. The final resolutions decided on three important aspects: Early warning systems on food and agriculture, food stocks and food aid. By that time, India and Pakistan were out of danger as they had fully collaborated with the international community to use modern technology to produce rice, wheat and other grains.

The 1974 World Food Conference was the first of its kind and lasted 11 days, November 5 to 16. The challenge was on how to get enough food to people to avoid starvation. Nutrition was not a point of focus here, nor was food safety. At this conference, governments recognized the global challenge of food production and consumption and resolved that “every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties”. As has become normal practice, many smaller meetings were held at various levels and in different parts of the world to address the very issues. Clearly issues are highlighted for a while then it all goes back to the base, as new problems emerge, rendering more people vulnerable to food and nutrition insecurity.

Then in 1992, the first International Conference on Nutrition (ICN) was held in Rome at the FAO headquarters, co-organized by FAO and WHO (World Health Organization). I got involved in this one, at the Kenya country level and at the Africa regional level. I served on the technical team and helped in the preparation of Kenya country paper. The ICN attracted huge participation by delegations from UN member countries, European Economic Commission, UN agencies and NGOs, intergovernmental organizations and many other United Nations agencies, all once again looking at ways to eradicate hunger and malnutrition. This was a landmark conference as one could see that nutrition was beginning to be taken seriously. As I recall, the one disappointing aspect was the very few heads of state who attended the ICN 1992. All the same, the business community was an added voice in the conference. Two main outcomes were: the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and the Framework for Action.

"Hunger and malnutrition are unacceptable in a world that has both the knowledge and the resources to end this human catastrophe.... We recognize that globally there is enough food for all and... pledge to act in solidarity to ensure that freedom from hunger becomes a reality."
World Declaration on Nutrition, 1992

Four years later, in 1996, the World Food Summit was held from 13 to 17 November again at the FAO headquarters in Rome. This was another high level meeting, attended by representatives from 185 countries, including heads or deputy heads of state, European Community and NGO and business community representatives. I was again privileged to attend this one. The summit culminated in the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action. There was a clarion call to put in place policies and programmes that would achieve Food for All. Was much achieved following this Summit? Other than once again raising awareness, I am not sure what else was achieved. What was clear here was that nutrition was still struggling to find its place. Again there was a lot focus on these issues with many pledges being made, and many not being fulfilled.

In 2002, World Food Summit +5 was held in Rome. This was a review conference to examine progress made since the 1996 towards poverty eradication, and try to enact ways of accelerating the efforts. Dr. Jacques Diouf, the then Director General of FAO stated, "The purpose of this event is to give new impetus to worldwide efforts on behalf of hungry people. We must raise both the political will and the financial resources to fight hunger. The international community has repeatedly declared that it is dedicated to the eradication of poverty. Eliminating hunger is a vital first step." Clearly, with this slow progress, the goal set in 1996 to halve the number of undernourished people by 2015 was unlikely to be met. Ways to increase resources to agriculture and rural development were considered.

Then from 19-21 November 2014, ICN2 was held in Rome, 22 years after ICN1. Micronutrient deficiencies were highlighted, noting that about one third of the developing country population suffered from vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. This constituted further efforts to bring nutrition to the fore.

Looking at the phasing of these global meetings, one is bound to ask a number of questions. The most important one is: what progress have we made? Could we do better? Do we really understand the problem? Is there enough commitment around the world to eradicate hunger and malnutrition? The Millennium Development Goals came and ended in 2015. They were very keen on hunger eradication. In 2016 Sustainable Development Goals ushered in and are supposed to achieve a lot by 2030 when they end. Sustainable Development Goals are very strong on nutrition, and partnerships.

It has been an interesting, sometimes fascinating journey for me. It is like running a marathon that never seems to come to an end. There have been times when I feel like we are making some progress; then more pictures appear on television of miserable, hungry and emaciated children and dying livestock where there is drought.

Now climate variability is a big challenge, causing havoc all over the world and leaving farmers in the dark as to when they should plant. A number of organizations are working on technologies that can address the climate variability issue. For example, our NGO - Rural Outreach Program is helping the AATF (Africa Agriculture Technology Foundation) to promote water efficient maize. The farmers love it. This seed is conventionally produced; it gives good yields and maize which is sweet and can be incorporated in the local dishes without any problem. Farmers have no problem where to store their grains without using chemicals as we have introduced to them the PICS, Purdue Improved Crop Storage bags.

Well, our farmers can store soy beans in these bags also, and be able to have them as a nutritious addition to their diets year round. Soy beans are doing wonders to soils that are acidic and nitrogen deficient. We are now engaging our women farmers in Nutrition Education, incorporating soy beans in children’s and family diets. BUT, it takes more than a few NGOs doing what they can at their level. First, all these rich countries which have pledged over and over again should find a way of channeling their resources to those who can and do deliver. That includes small NGOs such as mine and bigger NGOs such as AATF, CABI, Sasakawa Africa Association and many others out there that are doing a great job against many odds. Another very effective way is for governments of affected countries to make serious pronouncements to prioritize eradication of hunger, poverty and malnutrition. I have no doubt that if they were to do this and assured transparency in the use of resources, that more external resources would come their way.

We can do it, but pledges need to be honoured. Let us continue the struggle.