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Interview with Dr. Pedro Sánchez, Director of Tropical Agriculture at the Earth Institute of Columbia University and Co-chair of the Hunger Task Force of the UN Millennium Project

"UN agencies must work together to fight hunger."

In this interview Dr. Pedro Sánchez shares with the UN System Network the way forward after the launch of the Hunger Task Force report. From Kenya he also talks about the work being done in a "Millennium Village" where the report's recommendations are being translated into concrete actions to fight hunger.

What is the Task Force and what does it do?

The Millennium Project was commissioned by the UN Secretary-General to recommend the best strategies for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The research of the Millennium Project is performed by more than 265 development experts through 10 Task Forces. The Hunger Task Force is in charge of developing a global action plan to reach the first MDG of halving global hunger by 2015. The group completed a report outlining the driving factors behind hunger as well as preliminary recommendations for action. The members of the Hunger Task Force are experts from around the world with diverse backgrounds in science, economics, nutrition, business, and development policy as well coming from a variety of sectors (including international agencies, national governments, business, NGOs, and academia) and regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas).

The title of the report of the Task Force on Hunger is "Halving hunger: it can be done", what main recommendations does the Task Force make?

The report sets out seven recommendations at different levels. At global level, our first recommendation is to move from political commitment to action. This recommendation should be implemented at all levels: governments, UN agencies, communities and citizens. Many promises have been made and now is the time to make them reality. The second recommendation has to do with policy reform and the creation of an enabling environment. This recommendation should address countries with a high prevalence of hunger as well as donor countries. Under this recommendation the report includes a series of interventions in priority areas to promote an integrated policy approach to hunger reduction. Eliminating hunger must be part of countries' national planning as well as Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) also. Many countries have failed to draft their own PRSP. The second intervention seeks to restore budgetary priority to the agricultural and rural sectors, especially in Africa. The task force recommends that African governments invest at least 10 percent of their national budget specifically in agriculture, in addition to making the necessary investments in rural energy, infrastructure, health, education and conservation. NEPAD recommends that this percentage be invested both in agricultural and rural development; however, we strongly recommend that 10 percent should be invested only in agriculture. Improving people's access to land and productive resources brings us to the third intervention: Clearly assigned and enforceable rights to own, inherit and trade land must be established, particularly for women. Small producers represent almost 50 percent of the world's most hungry people and have the right to property titles over their own land. Empowering women and girls, guaranteeing their access to education, healthcare and agrarian extension services is yet another area of intervention which has proven to be a driving factor in reducing child malnutrition.

Another area of intervention is the need to join efforts by linking nutritional and agricultural interventions, too often implemented separately at present. This would also create more effective hunger reduction programmes. Agricultural research has been a major driving force for hunger reduction and is also considered a priority area of intervention. The Task Force recommends increasing investments in national research to at least 2.5 percent of agricultural Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is also recommended that donors increase funding to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) from the current US$ 400 million to US$1 billion.

What about the other recommendations?

The remaining five recommendations are based on the "hunger hotspots" that the Task Force defined as sub-national units (states, provinces or districts) with more than 20 percent of underweight pre-school children.

The third recommendation concerns the increase in agricultural productivity of food insecure farmers, closely linked to the fourth recommendation which seeks to improve nutrition for the chronically hungry and vulnerable located mostly in these hotspots. Education for vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and children, is essential. One of the concrete interventions we are proposing is the implementation of a nutritious lunch in all schools. Here in Kenya a proposal is being made for farmers to repay subsidies received to improve soil and irrigation by providing agricultural products for schools and hospitals. This proposal would help eliminate the dependency on so-called "food aid" that could be reserved for emergency situations, such as that prevailing in Darfur in Sudan. According to our estimates, this practice would increase the demand for agricultural products 25 percent creating a win-win situation, while increasing productivity and demand at the same time.

The fifth recommendation addresses hunger hotspots in which food crises are underway and aims to reduce the vulnerability of the acutely hungry through productive safety nets. Food aid for this type of crises should be purchased locally, either in the same country or at least in the same region. By doing so, dependency on external food aid coming from the United States or European countries could be avoided. These countries should donate resources through specialized agencies and funds. Politically, this proposal is dynamite in countries such as the United States.

The sixth recommendation aims to increase the income and make markets work for the rural poor. This means creating access to market information for the poor, improving grain storage capacity and developing of local markets among other things.

The last recommendation seeks to restore and conserve the natural resources essential for food security by restoring degraded agro-ecosystems through reforestation and improved land conservation and biodiversity.

Why are the Hunger Task Force's recommendations "dynamite" politically speaking?

I'm referring to the recommendation regarding the way food aid is provided: the report recommends that aid be provided in cash and not as food aid coming from European countries or the Unites States. We believe that this kind of proposal will help developing countries eliminate dependencies and promote their empowerment.

Given the Millennium Project's independent and provisional character, we are free to express our views both to the UN Secretary General and to the world. This is something not many institutions are capable of doing. In this regard, changes are starting to happen; the United States are changing their legislation to transform US$ 300 million worth of food aid into cash for local purchasing of food. We are very optimistic especially with regard to the Unites States which was one of the donor countries least supportive of the Millennium Project. As for the remaining countries, we have received wide support from Europe as well as Canada.

What are the next steps?

Many national governments and UN agencies have positively responded to the proposals set out in the report, that's why our next steps are to verify if our recommendations have had a positive effect at the community level both in Kenya and Ethiopia. This project, known as "Millennium Villages", aims at assessing the needs of communities in reaching the Millennium Development Goals.

We are currently working in a village in Kenya with 5 000 inhabitants called Sauri. A hospital and a clinic have been built so far and free distribution of anti-malarial bed nets is also underway. We are working closely with social workers from the health care sector to assist mothers and families affected by HIV/AIDS. The aim is to work under a multisectoral approach providing access to water, electricity, markets and environment and verify if the proposals made can be implemented in 5 years. Up to now we have been working in two villages, Sauri, in western Kenya in the Siaya District and a second one in Ethiopia. The response has been very positive and we are currently developing a national plan with FAO's collaboration. We are also working with NEPAD to implement similar initiatives in other African villages.

We also submitted a proposal, as requested by the government of Japan, to implement the same activities in 10 more villages in Africa, and in the future, also in Asia and Latin America.

In both Kenya and Ethiopia, government representatives have given their full support: presidents, ministries and extension agencies. Our goal is to replicate similar initiatives in order to apply the interventions included in the Hunger Task Force Report.

We are also hoping to launch a worldwide campaign - although it's still under discussion - the idea is to unify the existing campaigns to be able to gain more visibility and spread the results all over the world. Times Magazine included an excerpt from Jeffrey Sach's latest book The End of Poverty, which illustrates the causes of hunger and the steps to end it. Sach's is also the director of the Millennium Project. We are also working closely with the G8 and Tony Blair's Plan for Africa to mobilize resources for our projects. We hope that during the Millennium + 5 Summit to be celebrated in New York in September 2005 we will be able to reach an agreement on financing and implementation.

What roles do networks of people (comprised of governments, civil society and UN agencies) have in reaching the MDGs?

The collaboration with UN agencies has been fantastic. I believe they received a lot of energy with this report. FAO is fully supporting the new African Green Revolution here in Kenya, and so is WFP. There is also a very dynamic UN country team led by UNDP, which is successfully coordinating and organizing the rest of the UN agencies on the ground. WHO is also supporting this initiative by donating medicines. The project is gaining strength, one step at a time. Although it hasn't been regular practice in the past, UN agencies must work together to fight hunger. An intersectoral approach is also needed: those who work in agriculture must create links with those who work in the environment and vice versa. Problems usually aren't isolated or limited to the agriculture sector or sanitary aspects. Limiting these problems to certain areas is a huge mistake. The poor face these challenges as a whole, every single day, that's why it's very important that we all work together. We hope that this type of approach can help revitalize the work of UN agencies on the ground.

How can the International Alliance Against Hunger and the UN System Network on Rural Development and Food Security ,through their National Alliances or Thematic Groups working at the national level, help in ending world hunger?

They can start by giving more visibility to the concrete results that are starting to arise, showing that when recommendations are put into practice, they work. They can also stress the importance of working together. The Alliance should continue its advocacy work and underline the importance of investment to stop hunger not only in food but also in healthcare, access to water and the environment. We should stand united. My vision is to change what most people with access to television have seen when talking about hunger: haunting images of the starvation that typically occurs during famines and disasters. But those suffering from such acute hunger represent only a small proportion - roughly 10 percent - of the world's hungry. Most of the hungry, approximately 90 percent, might not die immediately but are chronically undernourished and are prone to suffer from diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS with little energy left to work. When we talk about hunger I would prefer to see farmers working in fields and eating more nutritious food. This image of hunger must be changed, that's why initiatives such as the IAAH and the UN System Network are essential.

To download the Hunger Task Force report please click here.

Click here to read the declarations of the Rome-based UN food agencies during the launching of the report.

Read the excerpt from Jeffrey Sach's book The End of Poverty published in Time Magazine.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the UN System Network on Rural Development and Food Security nor of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.