A weather eye on...

Weather Eye observes, with regret, nothing of consequence emerging from yet another international meeting.

At the same time as football fever affected the planet with the World Cup reaching its climax, the World Food Summit endorsed the long-standing commitment to halve the number of starving people in the world by 2015. Yet attendance at the meeting, held in Rome, Italy, in June 2002, did little to dispel the widespread belief that this may prove to be a hollow promise.

There seems no doubt that, George W. Bush apart, the world’s leaders will turn out in force for the Earth Summit in August in Johannesburg where economic growth – sorry, sustainable development – is the theme. Indeed, as South Africa President Thabo Mbeki caustically observed at the World Food Summit, “the entire leadership of western Europe and North America was here in Rome two weeks ago to discuss the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, but they don’t come now.” From the North, only the leaders of Italy, the host nation, and Spain attended the Rome summit. Failing to match the high-profile performance of the England team in the World Cup, the United Kingdom delegation did not even address the meeting. “I suppose it’s that they don’t think the problem of 800 million people going hungry in the world is important,” concluded President Mbeki.

While the World Cup was marked by notably few problems on and off the pitch, participants at the World Food Summit received quite a few yellow cards. According to Italian delegate, Piergiorgio Stiffoni, “there are mission representatives here who, in the light of day and without the slightest respect for their citizens, go on mad shopping sprees for clothes and designer goods and eat in the best restaurants, while back home so many children are going hungry.”

Anxious that similar criticism not be directed at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, the UN Secretary-General’s chief of staff warned against lavish entertainments, asking senior staff to bear in mind that famine threatened southern Africa.

© 2002 Lawrence Moore

With similar concerns in mind, the British government scored an impressive own goal in preparing for the Earth Summit. It was decided to reduce the British delegation from 100 to 70 to avoid press criticism. So far so good, but when it was leaked that environment minister Michael Meacher might have to hand in his plane ticket, it made the British government appear totally unaware that the theme of the meeting was both environment and development.

Commenting on the negligible outcome of the Rome meeting, the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung blamed both North and South. The South, it argued, sells its natural resources and buys armaments rather than investing in its own people. The North has cut agricultural support programmes in the developing world yet continues subsidies to farmers at home and fails to open its own markets. A Food and Agriculture Organization request for US$23 billion aid was ignored by World Food Summit delegates.

Economic interests did, however, engage the participants’ attention.

The United States managed to score at least one major economic goal. “We’re here to sell biotech, and that’s what we’ve done,” crowed one member of the United States party as the World Food Summit endorsed a document calling for “research into new technologies, including biotechnology.”

“Biotechnology has tremendous potential to develop products that can be more suited to areas of the world where there is persistent hunger,” argued Ann Veneman, United States agriculture secretary. In response, Fred Kalibwabi, Zimbabwean ecology activist, warned that placing food security in the hands of a few corporations would “be tragic for Africa in the next few years.”

According to Tony Juniper, director-designate of Friends of the Earth, “the subject isn’t environment anymore, it’s the economy... the free market and privileges for big corporations and rich people at the expense of everything else.”

According to the latest Human Development Report from the United Nations, it will take more than 130 years to rid the world of hunger.

Commenting on wide-ranging development goals set back in 1990, the United Nations report concludes that, “most troubling, many of the countries least likely to achieve the goals are the world’s poorest: the least developed countries. And most are in sub-Saharan Africa: 23 of the region’s 44 countries are failing in most areas, and another 11... have too little data to make a judgement.

“South Africa is the only country in the region where less than 10% of children are malnourished. In six countries, the share is more than 40%. Without a dramatic turnaround there is a real possibility that, a generation from now, world leaders will be setting the same targets again.”

The cost of the World Food Summit was US$2.3 million.