Rome’s food summit: a torch passed

Simon Maxwell
6 June 2008

The high-level conference on world food security in Rome on 3-5 June 2008 under the auspices of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) turned out better than expected. It was not derailed by Robert Mugabe; it survived the unedifying wrangling over a final communiqué; it gave the topic a good hearing; it confirmed some practical actions; and it passed the torch successfully to the next major international gathering, the G8 in Hokkaido, Japan on 7-9 July 2008.

Simon Maxwell is director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

This article was published on the ODI's website on 6 June 2008

Also by Simon Maxwell in openDemocracy:

Inside the palace of glass” (27 June 2001)

Chemical warfare in the bathroom” (15 August 2001)

The global development agenda in 2007” (21 December 2006) As usual, delegates spent too much time arguing about statements of principle and too much time on political issues only loosely linked to the summit theme. Not surprisingly, they found it hard to reach agreement on contentious issues, like biofuels. But there have been some large new funding pledges, and a high degree of consensus on the twin issues of agricultural development and social protection for the poorest.

The summit showed that the United Nations works best when it works as one. There was good cooperation between the Rome agencies (the FAO and the World Food Programme [WFP]) and the World Bank, for example. Now, as the G8 prepares for its own summit, it has work to do.

An unremarked feature of the current focus on the world food crisis is that large financial pledges are being made by donors, but there is, as yet, no clear evidence that current pledges are additional to existing aid budgets. This raises questions about who or what will lose out. When the World Bank pledges $1.2 billion, for example, this is not new money, but comes from the existing budgets of the World Bank Group. The same is true of other big multilateral pledges, like the $500m offered by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and by the many bilateral pledges of food and cash, for example to support the humanitarian programmes of the World Food Programme. This is at a time when donor aid funds overall are falling way below the pledges made at the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005 – by as much as $30 billion a year. Who will pay the price? The knock-on effects of this crisis will need to be watched, and the pressure kept on donors to keep their promises.

There is one exception to the lack of additionality, which is the funding promised by non-traditional donors. Saudi Arabia, for example, gave $500 million to the WFP in May 2008, helping that agency to exceed its appeal target for emergency aid. That’s a generous, one-off gift. But, at the same time, Saudi Arabia is reaping huge profits from the rise in the price of oil. When the price of oil goes up by, say, $30 per barrel, then Saudi Arabia is gifted nearly $300 million a day in extra revenue – so the gift to WFP represents the windfall profit from one weekend. Saudi Arabia is not alone, of course. The top ten oil exporters include Russia, Iran, the UAE, Venezuela, Kuwait, and Algeria, none of which are mainstream aid donors.

Click here for more on the 2008 world food crisis

Some have suggested a windfall tax on oil producers. A better suggestion might be to sign up large and rich oil exporters to the club of aid donors. One-off gifts are very welcome; even better would be long-term commitments, predictable and accountable, delivered bilaterally or through the United Nations, the World Bank and the regional development banks. The richer oil producers should commit themselves to the UN target of providing 0.7% of GNP as aid, and sign up to donor best practice in areas where they can make a real difference.

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