Remarks by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs to ECOSOC Preparatory meeting “Land and Vulnerable People in a World of Change”
New York, 17 April 2008

Mr. President,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to participate in this important step in the preparatory process for the thematic debate of the Economic and Social Council, during its 2008 substantive session, on the topic “promoting an integrated approach to rural development in developing countries for poverty eradication and sustainable development, taking into account current challenges”.

This meeting is particularly opportune because it comes at a time when there is growing international consensus on the need to take urgent action to tackle the increasing challenges facing rural populations across the globe.

Mr. President,

The rise in global food prices is alarming. FAO reports that by the end of March the prices of wheat and rice were about double their levels a year earlier; while that of maize was more than a third higher. Over the past three years, the World Bank estimates that food prices overall have risen by 83%.

The recent thematic debate of the General Assembly on the MDGs, the Spring Meetings of the World Bank and the IMF - as well as the Special High-level Meeting of ECOSOC with the Bretton Woods Institutions, the WTO and UNCTAD on Monday - have presented the challenges of rising food prices, energy prices and climate change as requiring urgent coordinated action. In the case of rising food prices, this urgency has been underscored by the recent food price riots that have taken place across the globe.

Mr. President,

Allow me to place the current food crisis into context.

This crisis is happening at a time when the world community has begun to celebrate its successes in reducing poverty and hunger. In China, for example, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 33% in 1990 to 10% in 2004, and is projected to reach 2% in 2015. While China’s progress has been exceptional, poverty has also been falling in much of Asia and Latin America. And in Africa, despite a setback in the 1990s, the proportion of those living in extreme poverty has also begun to fall – although the actual numbers continue to increase. Now much of this progress stands to be reversed if we do not deal decisively with this new crisis in food prices. We cannot let this happen! Not on our watch!

Who are the most affected by rising global food prices?

While everyone is affected, we know that poor people suffer the most because they can spend as much as 75% of their income on food. We also know that the majority of the population in developing countries lives in rural areas. So rising global food prices. bring serious hardship not only for poor urban consumers but also for the millions of poor rural residents who are net food buyers. Therefore, rural development is of critical importance if the MDGs, especially poverty reduction and environmental sustainability, are to be achieved by 2015.

Mr. President,

In order to properly address the current global food crisis, as well as put in place an enabling environment for a longer-term solution that will promote rural development, we need to craft the right policy responses. In my view, and in the view of the experts from the Food agencies of the UN system and the World Bank, we need to refocus our development efforts on agriculture. Refocusing on agriculture means that we also have to refocus on land – its use, its quality, its ownership, and access to it.

As the President of IFAD has warned us, poor rural people are often powerless but they are not irrelevant. How they manage their land matters to us all not only in terms of food production but also in other ways such as environmental sustainability and climate change. For example, whether poor rural people store or release carbon will depend on the opportunities they can usefully utilize and the incentives they will receive. We can help them to become part of the solution.

But to get there we need to ensure that we fully implement the relevant commitments made at the World Food Summit, the Monterrey Consensus, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, the Brussels Programme of Action, as well as the 2003 ECOSOC Ministerial Declaration.

Therefore, we must build on existing commitments and policy recommendations while refining our response to the serious challenges that we face at this time.

I very much look forward to hearing the panel’s ideas and proposals on this very important topic to assist the Council as it prepares for the thematic debate in July.

I thank you, Mr. President.