DESA News Vol. 12, No. 05 May 2008


Food crisis: Scarcity amid plentyFood crisis: Scarcity amid plenty

The current surge in commodity prices threatens millions with hunger though there is enough food for everyone

The recent spike in food prices has mobilized political efforts at the highest levels worldwide. The rise in prices represents fundamental underlying shifts in the supply and demand for food, rather than a mere transitory fluctuation. Most importantly, rising food prices put at risk the livelihoods and nutrition of people living in poverty, who spend up to 60 percent of their incomes on food alone, thereby further compromising efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Each year until 2015, there must be 31 million fewer hungry people in the world if the goals agreed by the World Food Summit and reaffirmed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Millennium Declaration are to be achieved. Of course not all countries face equal challenges, and many risk being left behind in the fight against hunger. Those that face the most serious difficulties and need to make the largest efforts are often those that have the least means to do so. Addressing the food challenge calls for urgent and concerted political and economic action across the world.

Food prices in perspective

In recent decades, the issue of food was seen above all as an access issue. The general perception was there was enough food supply. The problem was ensuring equitable access to it by all, particularly those living in poverty who could not afford a basic food basket. In fact the global food prices had declined by over 75 percent from 1974 to 2005. Food prices were not perceived as the main problem. Recent developments in the world economy, however, have fundamentally changed the dynamics of food markets.

The long-term decline in food prices was aided by cheap energy from a low price of oil, which had kept down transport costs and input costs, particularly those of fertilizers. All of this changed starting in 2005, particularly as energy prices have surged. Food prices have again returned to their 1974 levels and threaten to rise higher still unless urgent political and economic action is taken across the globe.

How did this happen?

Behind the dramatic surge in food prices lie six major causes: the adverse weather for crops, steep rise in oil prices, speculation in foodstuffs, increasing use of grains to make biofuels, the strong growth of meat consumption and the prevailing inadequate agricultural policies around the world.

Climate change has led to severe weather conditions for agriculture since 2005, with dry weather and droughts in wheat producing areas such as Canada, Argentina, Australia and India, heavy rains in the United States and Southern Africa. Adverse weather conditions have shifted back the supply of basic foodstuffs such as wheat, corn and rice.

Since 2005, the price of a barrel of oil has tripled from $40 to $120, driving up the costs of transporting and storing inputs for agriculture and the harvested products themselves, and the costs of fertilizers and operating costs of farm machinery. The rise in oil prices results in part from the growing demand in emerging economies.

The futures markets for foodstuffs have provoked a speculative bubble as investors have moved funds into commodity futures to hedge against the decline of the US dollar. Investors are betting on the continued rise of food prices in the face of supply constraints. The decline of the dollar against all major currencies has also cushioned the impact of rising commodity prices and maintained high import demand for them.

The rising prosperity in emerging economies in particular has led to an increase in the consumption of meat. Meat production places a disproportionate pressure on prices of grain as livestock feed and also on water resources as compared to the production of grain for human consumption. Policy measures and consumer commitment to limit meat consumption in favour of more sustainable food sources would greatly temper the rise in grain and other food prices and spare other natural resources such as forests and water.

A new green revolution needed

Prevailing agricultural policies have compounded the above factors and deserve special attention because the power to change them to address the current food crisis lies in the hands of Governments and other stakeholders. “The MDG challenge has been complicated by the alarming rise in global food prices,” warned Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at the opening of UNCTAD XII in Accra, Ghana on 21 April.

High prices, he added, threaten to undo the gains achieved so far in fighting hunger and malnutrition. They call for a substantial increase in investment and expenditure in agriculture. And they underscore the importance of pushing for an open trading system in agricultural commodities – which would benefit countries around the world. In particular, he concluded, trade and investment should be used to bring about a new green revolution of improved agricultural productivity across Africa.

The timely meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development from 5 to 18 May addresses in large measure the issue of agriculture and rural development and how it has been affected by public policies and strategies and what might be done in the future, particularly in the light of the current food crisis.

In his report to the Commission on agriculture, the Secretary-General points out that with enough food produced in the world, more than 850 million people still suffer from chronic hunger. Despite a decline in rural poverty over the past 10 years, still there are an estimated 883 million rural poor, the vast majority of whom depend on agriculture for their survival and livelihoods. With global population projected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050, mostly in the developing world, food production will have to expand, perhaps even double, to meet growing world demand.

At the same time, new uncertainties and factors such as climate change, high energy prices and resource scarcities, along with globalization, urbanization and changing consumption and market trends, including the new surge in world agricultural prices, increase the challenges faced by agriculture. In all these efforts, the role of farmers and other rural stakeholders is critical. It is therefore timely that attention is turning again to the role of agriculture as a crucial sector in national, regional and international efforts to reduce hunger and poverty, to improve rural livelihoods and to achieve sustainable development.

Economic policy

Around the world, economic policy has favoured urban development and industry at the expense of rural development and agriculture. As a result, domestic public expenditures by countries in their agricultural sectors have declined as a share of total public spending, from 11.3 percent in 1980 to 6.7 percent in 2002. In Africa, a region where the food crisis is particularly acute, countries have committed under the 2003 Maputo Declaration to a 6 percent annual growth in food production by 2015, and to allocate at least 10 percent of national budgetary resources by 2008-2009 towards agriculture and rural development. The goal is still far off. In 2004, African countries spent only 4 percent of their budgets on agriculture.

Agricultural policies in the industrial countries have acted for decades as a constraint to the growth of food supply in developing countries. It is essential, therefore, that international action resolve the obstacles in the Doha Round of WTO trade negotiations regarding the removal of agricultural subsidies on both domestic and export prices. As the Secretary-General cautioned at the closing of UNCTAD XII, “we cannot be for free and fair trade in the midst of a global trading system rife with unjustified tariffs and subsidies.”

The food crisis has moved up high on the agenda of the United Nations both at intergovernmental and the Secretariat level. At the April meeting of the Chief Executives Board, chaired by the Secretary-General, executive heads of the UN system agreed on concrete Secretariat-level actions within their authority to address the crisis. The Economic and Social Council has decided to hold a high-level meeting on the food crisis in May. The FAO will convene a high-level conference on food security in Rome from 3 to 5 June, and the General Assembly and the Security Council will hold also high-level meetings to address the crisis in June. Outside the United Nations, the G-8 meeting in July will also devote an important part of its agenda to addressing the world food situation.

The political will has clearly been mobilized and is gathering considerable steam. However, the resolution of the food crisis will depend on the behaviour of billions of consumers and producers the world over whose actions collectively determine the demand and supply for foodstuffs and the course of prices in food markets. Ultimately, it is only by placing the world on a path of sustainable consumption and production patterns with a view to achieving sustainable development that the food crisis will be solved in a lasting manner beneficial to current and future generations and to the planet.

For more information:

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonSecretary-General Ban Ki-moon discusses the food crisis and development during an open lecture in Geneva on 29 April. “Trade, economic growth, social progress and even political security” are at risk.
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UN public administration celebrates six decades of achievementUN public administration celebrates six decades of achievement

While societies and technology have changed since 1946, good government is as relevant as ever

Since the birth of the United Nations, Member States have looked to the organization as a standard setter and substantive resource for public service and public administration. The international civil service was itself modelled on the best practices in public management from around the world, as a beacon to others with the principles of integrity, accountability, transparency and diversity at its core.

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations programme on public administration and development, which was intended to respond to the needs of Member States in norm setting and capacity development. The programme has come a long way since 1948 when it was created by the General Assembly. Overall, the UN membership has benefited from this well-established programme, noted Léo Mérores, President of the Economic and Social Council, at the April session of the Committee of Experts on Public Administration, underlining in particular its knowledge sharing and capacity building activities.

The United Nations has always placed a strong emphasis on international cooperation to promote economic and social development for human well-being and as a foundation for international peace and security. In the early years of the organization, effective public administration was identified as a means to promote economic and social development. From its very first session at Westminster’s Central Hall in 1946, the General Assembly mandated the organization to provide technical assistance to national public entities in various economic and social fields, as an important form of support to its Member States.

Changing with the times

The General Assembly, following on its resolution 200 (III) of 1948, decided to build activities for strengthening public administration into all development programmes of the United Nations. This led to its approval, the next year, of the expanded programme of technical assistance, including all the public administration activities that were originally authorized in the 1948 resolution. In the six decades since then, the role of the public administration programme has evolved significantly, as the organization and its membership have grown and changed.

During this period, we have witnessed sea changes in the world, moving from East-West confrontation to greater international partnerships and cooperation. We have also seen rapid economic development, science and technology development, innovation and their application, globalization and so on. Additionally, the use of information and communications technologies as a tool for development and for improvement of governance and public administration has become a common feature.

Changing realities have shaped the public debate on public administration, and the lessons learned from public administration have, in turn, informed the debate. This is the context in which the contribution of the UN programme in public administration and development can best be understood. The UN programme has largely set the agenda on public administration at the global level and continues to do so.

Achievements and challenges

The programme set up at least 14 national public administration institutions in newly independent states in the 1960s and 1970s which flourish to this day. They are Brazil (1952), United Arab Republic (1954), Argentina (1955), Ethiopia (1956), Libya (1957), Laos (1959), Colombia (1960), Sudan (1960), Ghana (1961), Somalia (1964), Yemen (1964), Libya (1967) and Niger (1968). The programme also helped establish another eight such institutions at the regional and sub-regional levels – in Turkey and the Middle East (PAITME), Central America (ESAPAC), Africa (CAFRAD), Latin America (CLAD), Asia (ACDA), the Arab States Region (ARADO), East Africa (EACMDI) and Eastern Europe (ICPE). Many of these institutions are still active and working in partnership with the programme.

Throughout the 1980s, the Group of Experts in Public Administration and Finance, the predecessor to the Committee of Experts on Public Administration, grappled with the questions surrounding the public sector fiscal crises and debt defaults. The Group sought to advise on how public administration could diminish the negative impact of austerity measures so as to promote people-centred development. The Group stressed that public administrations should work more in partnership with the private sector and civil society, within a larger framework of public governance.

During the 1990s, as a series of UN world conferences and summits emerged on the interconnected dimensions of development, the General Assembly dedicated its 50th resumed session, in 1996, to public administration and development. At the session, Member States reaffirmed that the promotion of social justice, equity and equal access to quality services and productive assets, participatory mechanisms, and strengthened public administration and financial management capacities are all essential for sustainable development.

The Millennium Summit served to crystallize the set of internationally agreed development goals that has emerged from the conferences and summits, with governance and civic engagement among the key cross-cutting issues. Since then, the programme has intensified its focus on the public administration and governance components of the United Nations Development Agenda, which represents the synthesis of the internationally agreed development goals.

Public administration today

The programme pools and facilitates access to information, promotes research and training, facilitates advocacy and exchange of experiences, and provides technical advisory and capacity-building services, in support of national development strategies. To support these efforts, the General Assembly, in 2002, endorsed UNPAN, the United Nations Online Network in Public Administration and Finance. In 2003, the Assembly also mandated the UN Public Service Day and Awards, and UN support to the Global Forum on Reinventing Government.

The contributions of the programme cannot be fully separated from those of the Committee of Experts on Public Administration, which provides the United Nations valuable expertise and advice on strengthening governance and public administration for development. Although established in 2002, the Committee has its roots in the Group of Experts created in 1967. During its seventh session in April, the Committee focused especially on state capacity-development. With the spiralling costs of life’s necessities, such as food and energy, and projected downturns of many economies, the strengthening of state capacity to deal with development and emergencies is as relevant today as ever.

According to Guido Bertucci, Director of the Division for Public Administration and Development Management, “Public administration continues to provide the foundation for maintaining confidence in the stability and continuity of the state.” It also enhances professionalism and integrity to buttress impartiality, legality and transparency which are critical to effective governance.

In the years to come, the United Nations will further disseminate new practices and tools to improve governance and public administration capacity, such as public management techniques and e-government applications, and will do more to assist Member States in building those intrinsic capacities of the state that ensure its effectiveness in public service and ultimate accountability to citizens.

For more information:

Disabilities convention: An extraordinary accomplishment and profound responsibility

Disabilities convention: An extraordinary accomplishment and profound responsibility

Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, joined Ambassadors Espinosa of Ecuador, Mansour of Tunisia, and Al-Allaf of Jordan on 4 April to mark the twentieth ratification of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The treaty is deeply rooted in the UN vision of “a just and peaceful world,” noted Sha, and better standards of life in larger freedom for all. The Convention enters into force on 3 May.

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