It was surreal.
While an aid agency representative talked about hunger and poverty, a uniformed waiter asked journalists attending a press conference what they prefer for breakfast – bangus belly or chicken-pork adobo.
The woman aid worker narrated how a poor wife somewhere in Africa had to boil water for dinner so that her children could go to sleep. As she talked, forks and spoons clashed over steaming white rice topped with soft egg and achara at the restaurant.
I understand what hunger and poverty is. I understand the dilemma aid workers and nongovernment groups face when they try to put across their message to the public via the media. I understand why only few journalists attended the press con. (It was embarrassing to touch the bangus belly breakfast laid in front of me by the uniformed waiter.)
The world marks World Food Day this week amid the hunger and food insecurity. Hunger and poverty, Lan Mercado of Oxfam, said are here to stay unless the government implements policies to address these threats to our survival.
Mercado’s organization released this week a study that calls on everyone to learn “lessons” from the food price crisis that became more apparent in the Philippines early this year after the price of rice jumped more than a hundred percent.
“Double Edged Prices,” Oxfam’s study, found out that small farmers in developing countries have not benefited from higher food prices partly because of flawed trade and agricultural policies.
Kalayaan Pulido-Constantino, also of Oxfam-Philippines, agreed that the government has indeed a responsibility to address the problem. The Arroyo administration might have exerted efforts to mitigate the situation, but these efforts are not enough.
The reality on the ground consists of structural problems, corruption and even governance, which should be more transparent. Civil society groups must continue to play an active role in monitoring, for instance, money allocated for agriculture.
‘Double Edged Prices’
Oxfam’s study noted that while the world’s attention is currently focused on the global financial crisis, “a large part of the world is also immersed in a dramatic increase in food prices and an equally sharp rise in the price of fuel.”
Prices of staple foods have increased from 30 per cent to 150 per cent in 2007 and 2008. At least 290 million people in countries most vulnerable to the crisis are at risk of falling into poverty.
But while poor farmers and communities in countries like the Philippines face the brunt of the economic crisis, many in the food business appear to be cashing in on the situation. For instance, Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Foods, a major player in Asia, is forecasting revenue growth of 237 percent this year; Nestlé's global sales grew 8.9 percent in the first half of 2008; Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, reported a 26 percent increase in revenues from March to May 2008. UK supermarket Tesco has reported a record 10 percent jump in profits from last year.
The impact of the crisis could have been prevented, Oxfam stated in its report. “If rich countries, donors, and developing country governments had invested in smallholder agriculture over the past two decades, poor countries and communities would now be far less vulnerable.”
The group observed that the global response to the food prices crisis has been inadequate, in contrast with the response to the current financial crisis, where huge financial resources have been mobilized by the international community in a matter of days.
Countries suffering from the food crisis received promises of just $12.3 billion at the Rome FAO conference in June 2008, short of UN estimates of the $25b-$40b needed (and five months on, little more than $1bn has been disbursed).