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Thousands Protest 'War on Hunger': Leaders Facing Tall Order as They Gather for Food Summit

9 June 2002

Leaders and officials from 183 countries gather for the World Food Summit to boost flagging efforts to halve the number of the world's hungry by 2015, but the richest nations will be conspicuous by their leaders' absence.

The summit, which runs until Thursday, is likely to emphasize the divide between the rich industrial countries of the north and the poor, aid-dependent states of the south.

Rich and poor states will be asked to redouble efforts towards a commitment made by the last World Food Summit in 1996, to slash in half the number of undernourished.

Then the figure was put at 841 million, and this year's summit at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) headquarters in Rome will set the agenda for the coming five years, but already they are falling far behind their target.

Estimates show 815 million people are currently going hungry. Though this is certainly an improvement, the UN says the turnaround is happening at a rate of only six million people a year.

To reach its target, the number of hungry has to decline by 22 million every year.

There is little doubt that the leaders will agree to renew their efforts to slash hunger in a declaration on Thursday, "but there won't be any money put behind it," according to a UN diplomatic source.

Part of the problem is that the leaders of the rich northern industrialized countries who bankroll most of the aid to the developing world will be absent.

The World Food Program (WFP) believes hunger could be slashed by focusing on children, who make up 40 percent of the total, but it has recently had to curtail aid efforts in Afghanistan because of lack of donor funds.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who will address the summit Monday in his capacity as current president of the European Union council, will be one of the few European heads of government present. Most will be represented by senior officials.

However, heads of state from Africa and Latin America, the recipients of a large proportion of emergency food and technical aid, will be here in force.

They include Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, whose country is one of several southern African states facing a food emergency imperiling nearly 13 million people, and for which the World Food Program is launching its biggest emergency field operation.

Mugabe is defying an EU travel ban imposed for rights abuses and alleged fraud during his campaign for re-election in March, exploiting a loophole which gives him the right to attend UN meetings. He may still be restricted to a limited area around the airport and the actual summit venue.

South African President Thabo Mbeki will also attend, in part to discuss a meeting of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development) which proposes good governance and sound democratic and economic principles in exchange for aid, debt relief and access to world markets.

FAO Director General Jacques Diouf, seeking to build the broadest possible coalition against hunger, has welcomed the participation of non-governmental and civil society organizations at the summit.

Some 800 delegates from nearly 100 countries have been meeting in Rome since early Sunday for a parallel summit of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and will submit a separate declaration to the main summit.

The leaders attending the "World Food Summit, five years later," will be urged to back a new Anti-Hunger Program by the UN food body to boost the fight against global hunger at an estimated cost of 24 billion dollars a year.

The summit represents the largest gathering of world leaders since the September 11 attacks in the United States and Italy has mobilized some 5,000 police, backed by a fleet of helicopters, to protect them.

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