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Doha Round must deliver commerce with a conscience

Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, warns that the World Trade Organization's plans to ban in-kind donations of food aid could worsen the plight of the world's 852 million chronically hungry people.

Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, warns that the World Trade Organization's plans to ban in-kind donations of food aid could worsen the plight of the world's 852 million chronically hungry people. This article was first published in the Brussels-based publication The European Voice.

Every five seconds a child dies from hunger and malnutrition – more than six million this year. It is a silent holocaust of indifference in a world now so rich in food that 1 billion people are overweight. Paradoxically, the European Union, Japan and the US compete to see who can lavish greater subsidies on its farmers to produce even more food, smothering agriculture in the developing world in the process.

In theory, the current WTO should address some of these imbalances and offer long-term economic hope for millions of hungry children. The so-called Doha Round bills itself as "pro-poor", but the "poor" were not at the negotiating tables in Doha, nor will they be in Hong Kong.

It is true that Doha's promise to dismantle rich countries' subsidies for agricultural goods and open markets could reap significant benefits for tens of millions of developing country farmers. But a poorly designed agreement could worsen the plight of the world's hungriest families.

A Zambian AIDS widow with six malnourished children cares little if the food aid she receives is purchased or provided in kind. What matters is whether her children have to beg for food to survive
Jean Ziegler, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
How? Some WTO members, especially the EC, believe that in-kind food donations distort world trade. In practice, we’re talking about rations of a few kilos of beans, wheat and cooking oil that poor people in refugee camps, feeding centers and schools need to survive.

Opponents charge that gifts of food rather than cash help wealthy countries dump food surpluses. A ban on in-kind donations of food has been proposed.

The reasoning is flawed and the impact could be devastating. A Zambian AIDS widow with six malnourished children cares little if the food aid she receives is purchased or provided in kind. What matters is whether her children have to beg for food to survive.

Cash is definitely a more flexible instrument than donations in kind. And it is a good idea when donors’ cash buys food in developing countries. I applaud the EC for promoting it. But last year three out of four tons of food aid were purchased in the donating country -- essentially in-kind donations.

Will the aid keep coming if we outlaw food donations? I doubt it. Who suffers then?

The UN distributes half of the world’s food aid. Most of this aid is given to the UN World Food Programme as in kind donations. If trade negotiators restrict that, tens of millions who rely on WFP for food could miss out.

The consequences of not getting enough to eat are low productivity, illness, even death. Officials at UNHCR, which struggles with chronic shortfalls of food in refugee camps, and WFP have both expressed alarm about restrictions on food donated through the United Nations.

Proposals to ban in-kind food donations come as FAO reports that the number of hungry people is rising. After significant progress in the 80s and 90s, the number of hungry people in developing countries is now rising by 6 million a year.

WHO tells us that undernutrition is still the world’s biggest risk to health. More people die from hunger and malnutrition than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

Food aid is already declining sharply, dropping more than 25 percent last year. Even for high profile crises in Darfur or Pakistan, aid organizations struggle to raise the funds and food needed to save lives.

Funding for the millions of people who die from chronic hunger, unseen on CNN or the BBC, is even more scarce.

Is it fair to curb food rations for famished mothers and children who play no role in commercial markets in the name of economic liberalism?
Jean Ziegler, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
There is clearly not enough food aid to go around. Is it reasonable for the EU and US to squabble over how it is given? Why haven’t they made a proposal at WTO to guarantee more food aid when there is not enough for people in Niger, Darfur, and Guatemala?

This debate is not about the hungry, but about commercial advantage.

Suggestions that donors will simply replace their food donations with cash are naive. And while some new food donors – like Kenya, India and Vietnam – can offer commodities, they cannot make equivalent donations in cash.

WTO members claim to respect the basic principles of the United Nations. What more basic human right is there than the right to food?

The United Nations is also about giving everyone a political voice – yet the hungriest of the world are not represented at the WTO rich man's club.

Last year, 45 percent of all food aid went to countries which are not WTO members. Poor countries like Afghanistan and Ethiopia simply have no say in the negotiations.

Is it fair to curb food rations for famished mothers and children who play no role in commercial markets in the name of economic liberalism? Food aid accounts for just 0.3 percent of global cereal production. With so many other things wrong with agricultural trade, why focus on an issue so incredibly marginal, yet so vital to millions of hungry people?

The Doha Round should not discourage food aid. We need the WTO to promote commerce with a conscience -- or millions of hungry children could pay the price.