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Leaders Vow to Tackle Hunger in Much Criticized Summit

The UN food crisis summit ended with world leaders agreeing on the need for urgent action to prevent soaring food prices. But campaigners say rich nations need to do more to boost food output and free trade.

A vendor transport bananas in a wheel barrow at a market, Wednesday, June 4, 2008 in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

As much as $20 billion a year may be needed to combat hunger

Delegates representing some 181 nations at a food summit in Rome on Thursday, June 5, issued a declaration on fighting world hunger, which has been exacerbated by the highest food prices in 30 years, but failed to agree on a set of concrete proposals.

The declaration reaffirmed a 1996 pledge by world leaders to halve the number of hungry people by 2015. Current estimates put the number of hungry at more than 862 million.

However, with participants divided over the causes of the soaring food costs and what role biofuels play in food prices, the declaration stopped short of setting firm, long-term measures to deal with the crisis.

More action needed

The summit was an "important first step" but not sufficient to tackle the global food crisis, British charity Oxfam said.

Oxfam Chief Executive Barbara Stocking said in a statement that, while leaders of the world's richest countries had "acknowledged the importance of aid to agriculture," the global food crisis needed "a wide-ranging plan to resolve it."

"As the world's most powerful countries, they must provide more money to deal with the immediate impact of the current crisis but also tackle some of the contributing causes by ending compulsory biofuels targets and providing more long term aid for agriculture," she said. "The current crisis illustrates starkly that what we need is not business as usual but deep reform of the international trading system."

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul

Wieczorek-Zeul saw the conference as an important impulse

The declaration was criticized even before it was formally agreed, with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini calling it "disappointing." The text was "unfortunately very watered down with respect to the initial ambitions," he said, according to the ANSA news agency.

German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul meanwhile said that the conference was "an important programmatic impulse."

"The global food crisis has to remain on top of the agenda for the international community," she said.

Short-term results

Wrangling over the document -- in particular objections over its wording by Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba -- delayed its adoption until late in the evening, many hours later than expected.

Disagreements also remained over trade barriers, such as import tariffs and other taxes, and food export restrictions, with some countries opposing the easing or lifting of such measures.

Instead, the declaration committed its signatories to two immediate and short-term lines of action: to respond urgently to requests for assistance from hunger-threatened countries and to lend immediate support for agricultural production and trade.

A child in Niger reaches out with his hand

Quick help is needed in countries like Niger

The summit host, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), had listed 22 countries that are particularly vulnerable due to a combination of high levels of chronic hunger -- defined as more than 30 percent undernourishment -- and being net importers of both food and fuel.

Countries such as Eritrea, Niger, Comoros, Haiti and Liberia are particularly affected.

To help such food-importing, low-income countries cope with the high food prices, the declaration specified donors and international financial institutions should "provide, in a timely manner, balance of payment support."

Not enough pledges

The summit was more successful in winning donor emergency aid to counter the food crisis, with several billion dollars pledged. Major donors included France with $1.5 billion, the Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank, with $1.5 billion, the African Development Bank with $1 billion, and the World Bank with $1.2 billion.

Other pledges included $773 million by Spain over four years, $100 million by Kuwait and $100 million from Venezuela.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested at the start of the summit that some $20 billion a year was needed to tackle hunger and that world food and production must be doubled by 2030.

"We simply cannot fail," Ban said.

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