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World Must Act to End Hunger, Summit Is Told

Forum: Progress in battling poverty is too slow, U.N. chief says. Conference in Italy is criticized for suggesting open trade as a solution.


ROME — A four-day conference on world hunger opened here amid heavy security Monday, with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others calling for greater efforts to meet a goal set six years ago of halving the number of hungry people by 2015.

The summit, which on its opening day brought together 35 heads of state or government and 4,000 delegates, was originally scheduled for last November but was postponed out of fear that it would attract violent protesters.

"In a world of plenty, ending hunger is within our grasp," Annan told the summit's opening session. "Failure to reach this goal should fill every one of us with shame. The time for making promises is over. It is time to act. It is time to do what we have long promised to do: eliminate hunger from the face of the Earth."

Some critics of the summit's approach to easing poverty and hunger partly through open trade have also gathered here. They staged a peaceful demonstration Saturday and attended a parallel meeting of nongovernmental organizations. But the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which planned the official event, does not appear to be an attractive target for violence-prone demonstrators.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi withdrew Rome's commitment to play host to the meeting after anti-globalization protests erupted in violence at a Group of 8 summit in Genoa in July. His government later agreed to the Rome venue.

A World Food Summit held here in 1996 set the goal of reducing the number of poorly fed people to 400 million from about 800 million at the time of that conference. Since then, the number of hungry people has fallen by about 8 million a year, according to FAO statistics.

The United Nations estimates that $11 billion is spent each year on agricultural assistance and that it would take an additional $24 billion annually to reach the goal.

Annan noted Monday that the basic problem is poverty, rather than a lack of sufficient food in the world.

"There is no shortage of food on the planet," he said. "But while some countries produce more than they need to feed their people, others do not, and many of these cannot afford to import enough to make up the gap. Even more shamefully ... there are countries which have enough food for their people, and yet many of them go hungry."

Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi told summit participants that the international framework for battling hunger must be debt relief for the most impoverished nations, the opening of markets in the industrialized world and promotion of investment in poorer countries.

"The main problem related to food ... is to bring to the world's poorest rural areas decent living and working conditions, higher household incomes, social services, education and health," Ciampi said.

Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar were the only two heads of government from major industrialized nations to attend Monday's session, prompting criticism from several speakers about the absence of others.

"It's absurd that at the G-8 summits, the rich do not let the poor participate," said Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni. "What is even more absurd is that when the poor invite the rich to their summit, they don't show up."

At the informal shadow summit, French farmer-turned-anti-globalization activist Jose Bove said the relatively junior delegations sent by the world's richest countries showed a lack of commitment to the problem of hunger.

"France is not here....The United States is not here," Bove said. "All these countries don't care about this. What they want is to sell more food to the southern [developing] countries. They don't want these people to have their own agriculture to feed their own population."

The United States is represented at the summit by a delegation headed by Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.

Annan said in his speech that by some estimates, 24,000 people die each day from starvation or diseases made fatal by malnutrition. He warned that "today, for the first time in a decade, several countries in the southern African region face a risk of outright famine over the coming months."

Annan also cited the complex relationship between world hunger and agricultural subsidies in rich nations, which can lead to exports of inexpensive food.

"By lowering food prices in the poorest countries, [such subsidies] may help alleviate hunger in some cases and in the short-term only," he said. "But dumping surpluses can also have devastating long-term effects," such as reduced farm production and higher unemployment in impoverished countries.

South African President Thabo Mbeki said rich nations must free up their heavily subsidized agricultural markets so that farmers in the developing world can compete on fairer terms.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was among heads of state at the summit who drew the greatest attention. Despite being barred in most circumstances from travel to the European Union, he was able to attend the Rome summit under an exception for meetings of international organizations. The ban was imposed after Mugabe refused to allow EU observers to freely monitor elections in February.

Critics charge that mismanagement by Mugabe, including the violent takeover of white-owned farms, is the fundamental cause of a food crisis in Zimbabwe. Mugabe says the main problem is drought. The World Food Program estimates that half of Zimbabwe's people will need food aid to avert starvation this year.

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