Press Conference by World Food Programme on Hunger and Financial, Food Crises

28 May 2009

Press Conference by World Food Programme on Hunger and Financial, Food Crises

28 May 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY World Food Programme on hunger and financial, food crises

The world’s “three F” ‑‑ food, fuel and financial ‑‑ crises had broadened and deepened the extent of hunger and malnutrition around the world, Sheila Sisulu, World Food Programme (WFP) Deputy Executive Director for Hunger Solutions, told correspondents at Headquarters today.  She was joined at the press conference by Henk-Jan Brinkman, WFP’s Senior Adviser for Economic Policy, and the Programme’s Spokesperson, Bettina Luescher.

The effects of those crises had a disproportionate effect on the poorest and most vulnerable, who were least responsible for the crises, said Ms. Sisulu.  The progress the world had made towards the Millennium Development Goals was at stake.  The world had not been doing very well on the hunger target, even before the crises hit, but now it was backtracking.  The number of undernourished people had increased by 115 million in 2007 and 2008 as a result of high food prices.  The total would probably exceed 1 billion this year, as a result of the global economic and financial crisis.

Not only had the numbers increased, she added.  The effects on those who had already been hungry or suffered from micronutrient deficiencies were at least as important.  While the impact of the crises was large, the cost of hunger and malnutrition was large, as well.  The benefits of fighting hunger and malnutrition were even larger.

She said that the world knew rather well how to fight hunger and malnutrition.  It was also known that the benefits were large.  Last year, an expert panel of eight top economists, including five Nobel Laureates, had ranked vitamin A and zinc supplementation for children as the very best investment in development.  Recent research estimated that an annual investment of $60 million in vitamin A and zinc supplementation would yield benefits of over $1 billion per year.  An annual investment in micronutrient programming of $1.2 billion over five years would yield annual benefits of $15.3 billion, representing better health, fewer deaths and increased future earnings.

The WFP was well positioned to help deliver those benefits, she stressed.  Last June, its Executive Board had adopted a new strategic plan for 2008-2011, which had solidified the change from a food aid agency to a food assistance agency.  While in-kind food deliveries still played an important role, the plan contained a wide set of tools, which included cash and voucher transfers, risk-reduction instruments, home-grown school feeding, nutritious food products to prevent and treat malnutrition, and policy dialogue and advocacy.  The WFP’s Purchase for Progress project sought to increase the development impact of the $1.1 billion food procurement footprint of the Programme.  She also described a broad set of ready-to-eat foods, which had shown remarkable results for acute malnutrition among children, including Plumpy’nut paste and date bars.

Mr. Brinkman said that the global financial crisis had significant effects in terms of jobs, poverty, infant mortality, hunger and malnutrition, particularly in developing countries.  Therefore, it was important to expand social protection, food and assistance programmes, which should, in fact, be included in the stimulus packages that countries adopted.  The crisis might temporarily contribute to lower food and energy prices, but those prices were still high at both the global and local levels, in many cases more than 50 per cent over the level of 2000.  When households were affected by shock, people tended to switch to cheaper foods.  But, in many cases, those had fewer nutrients and were of lower quality, and inadequate nutrition could have lifelong consequences for children.

The good news was that effective tools to fight the hunger and nutrition crisis already existed, he continued.  The World Food Programme argued that countries should pay more attention to those tools and make them part of the stimulus packages they adopted.  The cost of alleviating world hunger was negligible, compared to the trillion-dollar rescue packages that had been designed to save financial institutions and stimulate economies in industrialized countries.  Among other things, it was necessary to expand social protection nets, such as WFP school feeding, or nutritional support programmes.

To a question about the role of markets, he said that markets were part of both the problem and the solution today, and it was important to find a balance in that regard, using “the markets when we can and Governments when we need”.  As an example, he cited products that commercial businesses had an interest in developing, because rich and middle-class segments of the population were able to pay for them.  For the poor segments of the population, on the other hand, those products might need to be subsidized or made available free by Governments and non-governmental organizations.  That represented a combination of market-based distribution, social marketing on behalf of the private sector, and the Governments providing for the poor.

Asked about WFP assistance to Myanmar, a country receiving food assistance while profiting from rice exports, Mr. Brinkman said that there was no contradiction.  The Programme was delivering food to the areas affected by the cyclone, purchasing locally with internationally acquired funds.  The WFP tried to buy locally in Myanmar, buying from big traders and farmers, and increasingly from small holders, as well.

Responding to several questions regarding the Programme’s work in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Ms. Sisulu emphasized WFP’s policy that there should be no delivery without monitoring.  The Programme would “restrict itself” when faced with problems of access to certain areas for food monitoring.  That was one of the reasons it was currently phasing down its efforts in the country.

The Spokesperson added that, obviously, WFP was concerned about the well-being of the people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  The main reason why the WFP was scaling down its operations in the country was the lack of funding.  At the moment, the Programme was feeding some 1.8 million people, but when emergency assistance had been launched last fall, it had been hoping to feed 6.2 million.  However, funds had not come in, and the Programme had received only about 14 per cent of what was needed.

“Our concern is always for the people,” she said.  “Politics does not matter, it is the people that are a concern.”

To a question about China, Mr. Brinkman said that it was an amazing example of how to fight hunger and poverty.  Rural poverty there had decreased by about 200 million people.  Starting in 1978, the country had introduced a new approach, allowing farmers or households to produce and sell from the plots they tended.  Markets were introduced in a very controlled and systematic way, contributing significantly to the decline of hunger in China.  At the same time, the manufacturing sector had “taken off”.

About genetically modified products, Ms. Sisulu said that, generally, in delivering food, the Programme tried to meet the requirements of each country.  If a country did not accept genetically modified products, those preferences were taken into account.

Regarding the Programme’s role in feeding internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka, Ms. Luescher said that the situation in the country was obviously fluid, but WFP vehicles had been allowed to go into some areas where they had not been allowed before.  The WFP was providing rations to over 280,000 people in transit camps, also bringing high-energy biscuits and additional fortified food for children under the age of 5, as well as pregnant and breast-feeding women.  That was a real challenge.  The WFP had made an appeal for about $35 million in 2009.  At the moment, it had enough food to meet the current needs, but with several operations under way, it was very important that the Programme received those funds.

Asked what countries were in the best position to embrace the market model, Mr. Brinkman said that there were no particular countries that were well or poorly positioned, in that regard.  Any country could implement the suggestions made by the WFP, but it was very important to tailor those efforts to the situation on the ground.  Markets did not work in a vacuum.  Among the requirements were the infrastructure and supporting institutions, as well as measures to ensure contract enforcement and quality standards for the implementation of the programmes.  Those programmes needed to be adjusted, depending on what was available in a particular country.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.