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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La faim sans fin des pays pauvres

by Marie-Noëlle Bertrand

No end to hunger for poor countries

Translated Wednesday 28 October 2009, by Clare Faulder and reviewed by Bill Scoble

While free trade mechanisms continue to regulate the global agriculture market, developing countries sink further into famine. 1.02 billion people are victims. That is nearly 1 in 6 of the world’s population who suffers today from chronic malnutrition.

The figure has rocketed in a short space of time. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), 1.02 billion people suffer from hunger today. In September 2008, the figure was 923 million and in January 2008 it was 963 million. The threshold of a billion victims was breached in spring, only to be exceeded further in autumn.

This is the situation then: following the worldwide anti-hunger riots in March 2008, the number of people suffering from chronic malnutrition has increased by more than 90 million. Sparked by soaring prices of basic foodstuffs, this unrest shows the instability of a global market subject equally to fluctuation linked to the vagaries of the climate as well as free trade.

That year, global production plummeted due to droughts in Australia & New Zealand, two key food exporters relied on by a majority of countries. In the market, supply dwindled, fueling speculation. This affected above all the poorest people who were unable to buy enough to eat, starting with African, Asian and South American countries.

What has been done then to regulate this market? Nothing, or next to nothing. Last August, the extended G8, meeting in Aquila, Italy, decided to increase agricultural production capacity in developing countries. A notable event, according to several experts, as that is the first time that rich countries have admitted the need to produce where people are starving.

But this is a limited change of heart, one has to say, when it doesn’t overturn a mechanism opposed to self-sufficiency in terms of food for the poorest countries. An obvious example is the Doha Negotiation Round. Kicked off around 2001, its objective is complete liberalisation of agricultural trade, pushing developing countries to open their borders to the financial and commercial markets.

“It remains a non-negotiable point in the discussions,” notes an expert from the French Development Agency. “And yet it has to be said, structured in such a way as to push prices lower, free trade harms countries’ economic and social development. An urgent change of perspective is needed.”

Because this is the paradox: if the surge in food prices was a warning sign to the world, it is their collapse that has caused chronic starvation. “Nearly two thirds of famine victims are farmers,” points out Marc Dufumier, professor at AgroParisTech. It’s a vicious circle that is also perfectly simple: the poorer they are, the less they have to invest. The less they invest, the less productive they are and the poorer they are. The opening of borders in the South brought about under pressure from the World Bank has only increased their vulnerability.

“When we over-produce, prices fall. And when we produce less, prices still fall because our borders open to take the surplus of the rich countries,” noted an African expert during a summit held in Rome this week.

A recent illustration is the milk crisis that hit Europe. When the production surplus led to price collapse, the European Union decided to put things right by subsidising the price of butter and milk powder exports, which flooded African markets.

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