Helen Clark: Speech at the Famine Commemoration Event

21 May 2010

“Hunger in the 21st Century: Ireland and the Fight against Famine"

The Irish famine of the mid-nineteenth century was a catastrophe which left deep scars on the nation.  I wish to commend the Government of Ireland for its determination to make the fight against hunger a top priority on its international agenda.

Etched in the historical memory of Ireland is a deep understanding of what chronic hunger means. Ireland today is a developed nation with the resilience, including during the adversity caused by the international recession, to protect its people.

The commitment it makes now is to support others also to overcome the scourge of famine and hunger.

Sadly both still stalk our planet. Spikes in chronic hunger and malnutrition continue to threaten nations and sub-regions – with Niger, the Horn of Africa, and Haiti particularly at risk this year.

This misfortune may be the result of tragic events, such as the earthquake in Haiti, or of failing crops, increases in violence and conflict, or poor logistics and food distribution networks.  

Four years ago, world food prices began to rise after a long and relatively stable period.  They peaked in mid 2008, with a devastating impact on the world’s poor.

During the global recession, prices have reduced somewhat, but they are still well above the pre-food crisis level. Overall these high food prices have left many of the world’s poorest people not only hungry, but also more vulnerable and angry.

Our changing climate threatens food production and food security too. Shifts in weather patterns and increasing numbers of natural disasters could destroy crops and livelihoods on a scale which leads to famine. Indeed, the International Panel on Climate Change predicts that by 2020 the productivity of some staple crops could be reduced by up to fifty per cent in Africa alone.

In our globalised world, shocks to food systems in one area can quickly hinder food availability in others, just as shocks in the financial systems of a small number of countries cascaded into a global economic crisis. That crisis, in turn, threatened food security as families and nations saw their incomes dry up.

The combination of the global food crisis and the recession, together with the fuel price spike of two years ago, a series of catastrophic natural disasters, and the continuation of many conflicts has undoubtedly been a setback to development.

In particular, it makes the MDG target of halving the proportion of people who suffer from chronic hunger between 1990 and 2015 harder to reach.  The FAO estimates that in 2009 the number of chronically hungry people exceeded one billion – up around 150 million on the already high numbers which existed before the food crisis.

The effect of this setback is not temporary. Children will be impacted by malnutrition long into their future – with the effects felt on their physical development and their cognitive skills. Children who are hungry are less likely to stay in school. Chronic hunger and malnutrition can slow progress towards the full range of MDG targets.

Addressing malnutrition and hunger requires co-ordinated action across a broad spectrum of actors and sectors.  Recognizing this, the Secretary General of the United Nations constituted the High Level Task Force on Food Security in 2008. It brings together 22 agencies to focus on expanding food security.  

The Irish Government has been a generous supporter of the High Level Task Force. I understand that Ireland has just hosted a meeting of the Task Force and a range of stakeholders to revise the Comprehensive Framework for Action on Food Security, so that it can continue to be a strong force for co-ordinated action.

The reach of the Task Force, and therefore the potential return on improving co-ordination further, is great. Taken together, over 2008-2009, the entities which make up the Task Force have provided direct support to as many as twenty per cent of the world’s hungry people. They have also supported small holder food production.

Addressing chronic hunger, however, is about far more than increasing the availability of food. Food needs to be accessible to all, including the poor and marginalized, and it needs to be sufficiently nutritious.

UNDP’s role in this area, along with partners, has been to help build the capacities of governments and communities to strengthen food systems. In Nepal, for example, in the wake of the 2008 food crisis, we worked with local authorities to establish and manage grain reserves, so that those most in need could access food.  

Malnutrition can also result from a diet, which, while sufficient in calories, lacks the nutrients needed for good health. Here the work of the Micronutrient Initiative, supported by Canada’s CIDA, the WHO, UNICEF, and others is important. It identifies ways of ensuring that vulnerable women and children get the vitamins and minerals they need.

It is important too to build an understanding of the divergent nutritional needs of children, pregnant women, older persons, and those living with HIV/AIDS and other illnesses. Education and advocacy campaigns around these needs can be significant interventions in themselves.

Take Zambia, for example, where the FAO has worked with local partners to broadcast nutrition and food security messages through local radio stations. As a result, a notable improvement was registered in the diet of the targeted communities, particularly among children and sick adults.

The High Level Task Force’s Comprehensive Framework of Action stresses the importance of tackling chronic hunger and malnutrition through both immediate, targeted interventions and through longer term measures which help expand food production and stable livelihoods.

Recent decades saw a sharp decline in the share of official development assistance which went to agricultural sector development. The good news is that there is renewed global interest in the sector and in addressing hunger and malnutrition. The G8 agreement at L’Aquila last year to invest in Global Food Security was a very positive move.

Indeed investing in agriculture’s development will be critical for achieving not only the MDG on reducing chronic hunger, but also that on poverty reduction. Around 2.5 billion people in the developing world depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

To increase crop yields, poor farmers need effective agricultural extension services, better seeds and fertilizers, secure land rights, and access to markets.  Here the work of the FAO to modernize agriculture is critical.   

In Ghana, FAO worked with partners to introduce improved varieties of the staple food grain, cassava. That helped to boost its production by forty per cent - contributing to a sharp reduction of hunger.

Building safety nets to protect farmers and others vulnerable to food insecurity, including through insurance against weather shocks, also helps. UN agencies working together, have, for example, helped the Southern Africa Development Community target food security policies, prepare for food emergencies, and strengthen the institutions needed to cope with the unexpected.

As with nearly all the MDGs, there is ample evidence to show how the target for reducing hunger can be achieved. Vietnam, for example, invested heavily in agricultural research and extension, promoting innovation and new technologies. It lifted its rice production, and it cut the prevalence of hunger and the numbers of children who were underweight by more than half.

I look forward to enhancing the UN and UNDP partnership with Ireland and others working in these areas – to tackle chronic hunger and malnutrition and to put it at the centre of global efforts to achieve the MDGs. The MDG Summit in September is a major opportunity to agree on an action agenda to take us to the MDG targets by 2015.

Again, I commend Ireland’s leadership on these issues, inspired as it is by the memory of what happened to its people and its desire not to see history continually repeat itself in denying our fellow human beings basic sustenance.