Tuesday, 7 October 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Peter Power): I am pleased to have this opportunity to join Members in the Seanad for this debate on the Hunger Task Force report. It comes at a particularly difficult and turbulent time on the international scene. This House has debated long and hard, well into the night and early morning, the crisis in the international financial sector, and Members have been bombarded and lobbied in regard to intricate and exotic financial matters. However, there is another crisis facing the world at present, namely, the hunger crisis. There is one voice Members did not hear, the voice of the 862 million people on this planet who will go to bed hungry tonight. These are the silent, hungry millions who populate our world. Today, in this Chamber, we have an opportunity to listen to their voice and hear their concerns.
I thank the members of the task force, particularly its chairman, our former Oireachtas colleague, Mr. Joe Walsh, for a very clear, concise and focused report. It gives a voice to the hungry and articulates in an urgent tone what needs to be done to put an end to hunger once and for all in this world of plenty, and provides pointers for what Ireland could do to help to achieve this.
The genesis of the report was the White Paper on Irish Aid which was published two years ago, a seminal document which charted the way forward for the Irish Aid programme in the medium to long term. One of the key recommendations of that White Paper was to establish a Hunger Task Force to examine the particular contribution Ireland can make to tackling the root causes of food insecurity, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. It was particularly timely that Ireland as a nation took this initiative before the food security crisis developed throughout the world in the past 12 to 18 months, when basic staple foods and foodstuffs became extremely expensive and inaccessible to hundreds of million of people. That Ireland already had this process in train, and had the foresight to bring some of the world’s top experts together to analyse the issue and ascertain how Ireland could contribute towards resolving this truly difficult problem, is a matter of which we can all be justly proud.
On foot of the recommendation to set up the task force, a 15-member group was established under the chairmanship of Mr. Joe Walsh and composed of prominent national and international experts, including Ms Josette Sheeran, the director of the World Food Programme, and Mr. Jeffrey Sachs, special adviser on food issues to the UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon. The task force commissioned research and analysis of the issues involved, and held a number of meetings in Ireland, in both Dublin and Cork, as well as a field visit and meeting in Malawi. I understand the Malawi visit was particularly rewarding as it gave the task force the opportunity to interact directly with officials and civil society representatives of a country which has had some success in recent years in battling a situation of persistent chronic food insecurity.
That success is a point I would like to highlight. I had the opportunity of visiting Malawi in July to see a country which had faced a food security crisis and serious food shortages for 5 million people a few short years ago. Through very proactive measures, which have been successful and which we have studied and brought into the report, that figure of 5 million going hungry each day has been reduced to approximately 500,000, and perhaps provides a template as to how we can proceed.
This report details the deep-seated challenges we face in ridding the world of hunger. However, at the same time it also highlights a series of success stories to show how we can win this war on hunger. Others have done so. We just need to decide that this is our priority and that we are determined to win this battle. The case studies are available in the report. Some of them like China, Vietnam and Brazil are well known, but others are less well known, especially two cases in sub-Saharan Africa including Ghana and Malawi. Ghana has halved the number of undernourished by increasing agricultural productivity through the application of successful agricultural research coupled with improved public sector services to agriculture. In two years Malawi has almost trebled production of its staple food crop, maize, from 1.2 million tonnes in 2005 to 3.4 million tonnes in 2007. The key to that was the provision of subsidised fertiliser and seed to smallholder farmers, which massively increased their productivity and helped them to get away from subsistence farming. These examples show that the problem can be tackled, that we need to put our minds and political will to the task and decide that it is a priority and we are going to solve it.
The report covers a range of issues involved in the complex task of overcoming and ending hunger. I wish to focus on two issues, namely, gender and nutrition. It is fair to say that in Ireland when we think of a farmer, we think of a man. However, a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa is most likely to be a woman. In sub-Saharan Africa women are responsible for 80% of food production. That simple fact has major implications for how we should approach the task of increasing smallholder production in Africa — one of the three main approaches recommended in the report. The African smallholder has a multiplicity of roles — farmer, mother, and home maker. The demands on her time are insatiable. She may well be undernourished, at risk of, or suffering from HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis or a myriad of other ever-present health threats. To increase smallholder productivity we must factor in that very difficult and challenging reality. Our programmes must not treat smallholders as some kind of unit of production. They are human beings with a range of needs and our programmes must be broad enough to encompass the full range of needs including health, welfare and the welfare of children.
The other element I wish to highlight is under-nutrition. This is the silent and least visible thread running through global hunger. Maternal under-nutrition is prevalent in both sub-Saharan Africa and in south Asia. The report shows that such under-nutrition can run through the generations with an undernourished mother giving birth to an undernourished infant. A child that has inherited under-nutrition from the womb is at a severe disadvantage from birth. Unless we can get proper nutrition services to such a child he or she will in turn grow up undernourished and will pass on that low nutrition status to the next generation, and so on through the generations. Research shows that we must intervene with such children in their first two years of life. If we do not, then it is likely they will suffer irreversible damage to their future physical and mental development.
Anyone present who has children will know how difficult it would be to see a child growing up undernourished in its early years, consigned to a life of misery, and physical and mental retardation. Such lives are lives lost. Already, 50% of children in east Africa and 42% of children in central Africa are stunted — a clear symptom of chronic malnutrition where children are much smaller than they should be for their age. At a global level, 10% of all children are wasted — a clear symptom of acute malnutrition where they are grossly underweight and may be in need of therapeutic intervention. Yet, as the report points out, nutrition is frequently an institutional orphan — falling between the responsibilities of Ministries of health, agriculture, women’s affairs, education or whatever else. The report rightly characterises nutrition as “the partial responsibility of many — but the main responsibility of none”. I very much welcome the spotlight that the report has placed on the nutrition and the need to break the cycle of under-nutrition.
I also very much welcome the findings of the report and I agree with its analysis of hunger. The analysis is well-informed and was carried out by eminent people with expertise and high standing nationally and internationally. I welcome also the overall thrust of the report. I support fully its recommendations that we focus on three key elements, namely, to prioritise the abolition of hunger in our development policy and in our broader foreign policy and to follow through on commitments made, to target smallholder agricultural productivity, and to promote effective actions to counter maternal and infant under-nutrition.
The report will influence the future direction of development policy and of broader foreign policy. On foot of the report’s recommendations I will establish within Irish Aid a special unit on food security that will be tasked with advancing our work to address hunger. The recommendations are both detailed and focused. The first task of the unit will be to carry out a full analysis of the recommendations, and of the extent to which current programming by Irish Aid responds to the many facets of hunger. The House has previously discussed the millennium development goals. The primary goal is the right to life and the right to feed everyone on the planet. Unless we fulfil that commitment, all of the other goals are meaningless. Once that exercise has been completed, we will be in a position to plan how we can best pursue the recommendations with a view to making a real and lasting contribution to the abolition of hunger from the world.
Development aid is often described in percentages and comparative volumes of money relative to what other countries contribute. Ireland has shown that one can contribute in many different ways. We can bring our genius and ingenuity to the world stage. The chairman, Joe Walsh, and members of the hunger task force brought the report to the Secretary General of the United Nations. The report was presented to the UN in the presence of such luminaries as Bono and Mr. Geldof who have worked tirelessly in this area. We have shown that we can bring added value by using our own ingenuity and initiative to produce a report that has application not just in Ireland but in many other countries. I was proud to bring the report to the attention of European development ministers at last week’s meeting. I invited them to examine the report to see whether they could apply it to their aid programmes. That shows we can bring our influence to bear to tackle this most intractable problem.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power. I join him in thanking the task force for producing such a report, which I hope will play a pivotal role in the global fight against hunger. The report gets straight to the point in outlining a record of world failure to tackle world hunger. All our promises to the Third World have failed. In honouring commitments, all those who placed their trust in us and those who work to ensure that hunger is eradicated have been betrayed. One in five developed countries have reached the 0.7% gross national income target. The United Nations millennium development goals target on hunger is unlikely to be met in either sub-Saharan Africa or is south-east Asia. The hunger target set by the world food summit in 1996 will not be met either. The official development assistance commitments of the G8 Gleneagles summit will not be met either, despite commitments given at that time. Of the African states, only five will reach the target for agricultural spending adopted at the Maputo conference in 2003. This is a poor record of failure and a betrayal of those who are weakest, namely, those in danger of losing the most important thing of all, their lives.
What are the reasons for this failure? It is prevalent at so many policy levels, including international, governmental, regional, local and administrative. Perhaps part of the problem is that the matter is seen as a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Well-meaning leaders at summits can make commitments, which they may sincerely believe, but in many instances they and their administrators have no experience of what is happening. In their offices, thousands of miles from the starving, the statistics they read in briefs are merely cold, hard statistics. They have no connection or first-hand knowledge of the starving families whose lives are in danger because of food shortages.
Irish people died in the 1840s in the great Famine because policy makers in Dublin Castle and Westminster could not grasp the scale of what was happening. This “out of sight, out of mind” approach echoes in capitals worldwide at present. The problem also exists in Africa where leadership elites have failed to deliver reforms to help eradicate hunger. Some of the countries worst affected often do not have a single ministry or national authority to deal with their plight. Those most affected by malnutrition, as the Minister of State, Deputy Power, stated are usually women and children. These are often some of the most marginalised in states. They are targeted in conflicts, caught between sides in wars and outsiders in society. These are people that African governments can often marginalise and ignore.
This report is a welcome initiative in focusing our minds on these issues, including the aims and the failures. Ireland has a proud history in tackling and taking seriously the problems of famine and food shortages. Memories of the great Irish Famine spur us to ensure that others do not suffer as we did. We also have an awareness of African issues through our missionaries, who brought home an awareness of the Third World to every parish and community. Our NGOs are among the most professional, experienced and respected worldwide.
Many developing countries in Africa and Asia are aware of their colonial past. We share with them the experience of being colonised, so we possess a greater empathy with new nations setting up after wars of independence. This cultural and historical background leaves Ireland uniquely placed to contribute an independent voice which understands their hopes and fears. We must use this independence of mind and spirit to work for the eradication of hunger and malnutrition and lead the world in honouring our commitments. Even if the millennium development goals were on target — they are not — some 585 million people will still be hungry in the world by 2015, which is a frightening statistic. To put this number into context, it means the number of hungry people would be some 205 million greater than the population of the United States of America, or some 86 million greater than the population of the entire 27 countries of the European Union. This is the magnitude of the task which confronts us.
Climate change, water shortages, rising population levels and spiralling food costs will add to the difficulties faced by the poorest regions. If we could not achieve progress in securing the millennium development goals at a time when the western world was experiencing boom times, as in recent years, what chance is there when it goes into recession, as is happening now?
It is imperative that Ireland gives the lead and that we meet the 0.7% gross national income target by 2012, as promised. I hope that even after a tough budget these people will not be neglected. We should do everything possible to achieve our targets. We should not sacrifice the right of starving children to food even when we find ourselves in a recession. Even in recessionary times our society is richer than such people could ever hope to be. They need us to deliver for them at this time.
This report is a welcome study, but it must be more than just a study. I was pleased to hear the Minister of State indicate that he has presented it to EU Ministers for their perusal and that it has been presented to the United Nations. We need this sort of action and such reports should be given to the people who make decisions. We must become facilitators to ensure that both the developed world and the developing world deliver on their commitments. In the 21st century there can be no moral, social or economic justification for a situation where millions of our fellow human beings do not get adequate food and face starvation. That is an abomination and something we must do all in our power to prevent.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael P. Kitt, and acknowledge he became aware of his new role last year. I wish him well in that new role. I acknowledge the role of our former colleague, Mr. Joe Walsh, who oversaw the production of this report and analysed the reasons why we have such mass global hunger. I commend him and his team on producing this report for discussion and for its recommendations. On reading the document, I reflected on the position of Ireland some 160 years ago. It suffered at first hand from the devastating effects of crop failure. Ireland is familiar with starvation and hunger and many of our ancestors could speak with authority on the subject. However, for some parts of the world I question what has changed since then.
Today, as the Minister of State outlined, almost 860 million people do not have access to enough food. Food prices are escalating. Some 10 million children under five years of age die every year. Malnutrition is the underlying factor in half of these deaths. Access to safe and nutritious food is a fundamental right for everyone. Most women and children suffer from anemia, due to iron deficiency. This is a major cause of maternal death. The Government is convinced of the need for a high profile, concerted and effective international effort to eradicate mass global hunger. We committed in September 2005 to reach the target of 0.7% of the gross national income for overseas development aid by 2012 and, within that commitment, an increased effort to tackle the root causes of hunger.
The task force on hunger identified what can be done to reach that target. We have to look at the contribution Ireland can make and thus achieve the first millennium development goal of halving poverty and hunger by 2015. That was a main focus of the report and a commitment in preparing this report on how to rid the world of hunger. It sets out a programme to eliminate hunger and highlights three critical areas.
First, increase the productivity of small farm holdings, mainly women farmers, in Africa who account for up to 80% of food production in developing countries. We have to encourage agricultural diversification among small scale farmers. Second, we must target the prevention of maternal and infant malnutrition by supporting programmes that encourage exclusive breast feeding for the first six months. We must support programmes that ensure maternal nutrition. We must also support programmes of preventative measures against HIV-AIDS and other diseases. We must support programmes that provide school feeding — breakfast and lunch meals. Such programmes have proven to be critical to providing nourishment for children at school, allowing them to learn better as well as increasing attendance rates, also focusing on female children and encouraging them to stay on in school. Progress in agriculture should link with nutrition. That should be part of future policy.
Third, a critical area that should be prioritised at national and international level is the reduction of hunger and malnutrition. That will not be achieved overnight. The commitment on hunger eradication must be a joint effort. The aim is to reach the development goals by 2015 by reducing by half the proportion of people suffering from hunger. A welcome recommendation in the report is that there should be a special envoy for hunger to ensure that targets are met in the context of Ireland’s commitment to reach the 0.7% of GNI target by 2012 and that at international level the United Nations Secretary General should establish a high level task force comprising of heads of all the relevant agencies and institutions to deal with emergency food assistance, nutrition intervention, agriculture development of small hold farmers to boost agricultural production, school feeding and feeding at work. Those are examples of what can be achieved.
We must also promote international mechanisms to ensure governments honour their commitments and priorities in the reduction of hunger and malnutrition. Another recommendation in the report worth considering is that the United Nations should have a commissioner who, along with a team, would audit the actions of individual countries in addressing global hunger and with the authority to hold governments to account where their actions are inadequate.
We should also support new initiatives by international financial institutions to direct funds towards agricultural food assistance and nutrition. Strengthening small scale farmers and assisting them in diversification is important also. The provision of rural infrastructure should be encouraged. For example, there are very poor roads in many underdeveloped countries which block access to markets at local and national level. The provision of infrastructure, therefore, is another important area.
Risks in agriculture must also consider climate change. Risk in water stress, water harvesting and water management systems will be increasingly important both for food production and household use. Access to clean household water is vital for proper nutrition and health.
Hunger is not an insurmountable challenge. While governments can give leadership, the global hunger problem requires a response from all in Irish society — Government, non-governmental organisations, missionary organisations, higher education and research institutions, the private sector, and the citizens of Ireland who are always ready to respond with compassion to food crises in the developing world.
I welcome the report because it will encourage and inspire our Government, other governments and multi-national companies to give a global commitment to making the elimination of world hunger a reality. I commend the report. I hope it will be acted upon. We must achieve our millennium development goals and stick to our plan of 0.7% of GNI to target the eradication of hunger not only in the developing world but throughout the world.
Senator David Norris: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I sat next to him at a meeting last week at which the Society of St. Vincent de Paul launched its report on poverty in Ireland. It made the point that on hunger in this country that the proportion of income spent on food is much higher among the poorer. If that is true in a wealthy country like Ireland, how devastatingly more true must it be in the more disadvantaged parts of the world? As the Minister of State said in his contribution, we in Ireland are in a particular position to appreciate that, and the point was made in the report that all of us have been touched by the ancestral memory of the famine. One of the striking images in Dublin is the famine memorial near the Custom House. In my own family, even though there were fairly substantial people on my mother’s side — in 1845 they had very considerable land holdings in County Laois — after the famine they were reduced to a few hundred acres. An entire generation was wiped out because they refused to take rents and they caught famine fever. I know, therefore, from the memory in my own family, how devastating the impact of the famine was and we need to bear that memory in mind imaginatively when we confront the situation in the world.
I share Senator Ormonde’s concern that something should be done about this problem and I echo her words. I do not believe it will be done. Even in this House there is not the passionate concern. There is not a crowded chamber with people giving vent to utter horror at the scale of what is going on. We have not woken up yet to the complete scale of the matter. We are not alone in that. That is universal.
The report points out that governments consistently give grandiose commitments in front of the television cameras and then fail to live up to them. That is a scandal. There should be a form of index rating. Every time a government gives a commitment in these areas that they will help fellow human beings in their most dire suffering, we should monitor them and they should be exposed for not doing it and held up to the court of world opinion.
There are ways in which this problem could be dealt with. Very large sums of money might be needed but we only have to look at the squandering of money on armaments. That could be a source of revenue to deal with part of this problem.
I welcome the one brief mention of population in the report but it is not enough. Very few people do; it is the elephant in the room. It is the aspect that underlies so many of our problems, be it resources, the use of fossil fuel, water, international conflict, overcrowding and the increase in world commodity prices. The population of this small planet has doubled since I did my leaving certificate. Some 860 million people are at the most critical level of poverty. The number of people at that level has increased by more than 860 million during my lifetime. If that increase had not taken place, perhaps we would be in a better position to confront this problem. Nothing can be done until the underlying problem of this planet’s gross overpopulation, the extent of which is continuing to increase, is directly confronted. We cannot cope with this exponential increase. I do not mean to be Scrooge-like about it. I do not want people to die so that the planet’s surplus population can decrease. However, we must reflect on the impact of overpopulation on human resources, animal life, the extinction of species and global warming. We need to examine the population explosion in the context of any examination of world hunger.
The problem to which I refer is found not just in some of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, but also in countries such as Sudan. It is obscene that the Government of Sudan, which is racked by famine from time to time, is selling its best arable lands to Arab investors so that the considerable crop yield of such lands can be exported. Does that echo in this Chamber? I refer to 1847, when food was exported from this country in the face of the starving people. The Government of Sudan is doing the same thing to its population this minute, as we speak. People said “never again” after the Famine, but the events about which we say “never again” tend to happen repeatedly. We are refusing to learn lessons. We have not heard a peep from our so-called spiritual leaders, some of whom, particularly in the Vatican, have suggested we should breed more people. I do not understand such an attitude. They suggest that there are plenty of resources which, if managed correctly, could feed an amount of people 18 times the current population of the world. While such a model might apply in theory, we would have a totally depleted quality of life if we had to stand shoulder to shoulder in wretched and miserably overcrowded conditions.
Other Senators have spoken about genetically modified food. I am on the same wavelength as Prince Charles of the neighbouring island in this regard. When he was in India recently, he quite rightly spoke out against Monsanto’s production of genetically modified crops in that country by quoting Mahatma Gandhi’s line about commerce without morality. He mentioned that there has been a rash of suicides among Indian farmers who were disappointed by the yields arising from genetically modified crops. We are always told that such crops are much better, but that is not true in the case of Monsanto’s genetically modified form of cotton, known as bollgard. I presume the bollgard crop was developed to repel the boll weevil. We are aware that such crops tend to invade and contaminate neighbouring fields.
The human motivation behind Monsanto’s behaviour is ruthless and naked greed. Some people believe that greed is fine. Margaret Thatcher and others told us that “greed is good”. It was good for a limited period, but we need to look at the mess it has got us into now. The financial systems of the western world cannot cope with the aftermath of unbridled greed.
Is it appropriate for a multinational corporation to colonise the choices of individual farmers in countries such as India? I was glad to hear Prince Charles saying something I have been saying for a long time. The comments I have made to defend myself against some of the scientists in Trinity College, for example, have been unpopular. I will continue to say such things because I believe they are true. Even if the scientific merits of genetically modified crops were proven beyond doubt, it would be politically and commercially valuable for Ireland, as an island, to retain its GM-free status as a significant marketing ploy. I was interested to hear Prince Charles suggest that it would be wise and prudent, as a precautionary principle in case some disaster occurs as a result of genetic modification, to ensure some part of the world is kept free of genetically modified crops.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence to suggest it is more efficient to generate foodstuffs from crops that are properly managed with respect for the environment. I refer to organic crops, in particular. Professor Bob Watson, who led the world’s biggest agricultural study of this area, showed that organic farming techniques in Brazil increased yields by 250%. The study came to the conclusion that this kind of environmentally friendly farming represented a much better solution than the production of genetically modified crops.
I welcome the report of the Hunger Task Force. It is a good report. It is important to mention that Ban Ki-moon has indicated that a further 100 million people have been affected by these problems since the start of the food crisis. The United Nations millennium development goals now comprise something of a catalogue of shame. The first goal is to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day. This involves reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, the prevalence of underweight children under the age of five and the percentage of the world’s population below the minimum level of dietary energy consumption. These aims are quite modest because they would leave hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people in the world, women and children included, in the unenviable categories I mentioned. Although the report mentions that there has been a slight percentage decrease in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, if one examines the figures one will appreciate that there has been an actual arithmetical increase in the number of human beings suffering from poverty in such areas. Even though our aims in this regard are quite modest, as I have suggested, we have not achieved them.
Another absolute catalogue of shame is outlined on page 5 of this report. We have all made promises, but have we lived up to them? No. Just five developed countries have reached the target of 0.7% of gross national income. We are moving towards it but we have not got there. I hope we do. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs which has been pushing for it. My colleagues on all sides of the committee, including those on the Government side who represent Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, have joined me in that regard. Why have we not got there yet? The UN’s hunger target under the millennium development goals is unlikely to be met in sub-Saharan Africa or south Asia. The more ambitious target set by the World Food Summit will not be met. The official development assistance commitments agreed at the G8 summit at Gleneagles are unlikely to be met. Just five African states have met the target that was set at that summit, which is appalling. It is catastrophic. We need to take the strongest possible measures.
As Senator Ormonde said, 2 billion people in developing countries suffer from anaemia. The former Senator, Mary Henry, who has visited such areas, told us all that the simplest medical intervention could prevent anaemia at a minimal cost. We have not done that, however. There is an impact on education. Children cannot concentrate if they have hunger in their bellies. They are sometimes too weak to get to school. That is what we are facing. If one examines the graphs in the report — I appreciate that they cannot be reproduced in the Official Report — one will see that there has been a staggering Alpine leap in the graph depicting world commodity prices. Other graphs relate to global grain consumption and the question of population, which no one will tackle. The wealthy countries are resorting to bio-fuels. We thought that was the answer, but that attempt to atone for our greed for fuel resources has had an impact on the food crisis.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am pleased to have an opportunity to discuss the report of the Hunger Task Force. Other Members have spoken eloquently before me, so it is difficult to find the right words to describe the sense of hopelessness out there. Even in the 21st century, we see examples of chronic hunger and chronic food insecurity in parts of the world, specifically sub-Saharan Africa. This task force report is a welcome indicator of the fact that the international community is determined to try to tackle this seemingly intractable problem in a coherent, planned and systematic way.
It is important to look at the statistics behind the report which addresses global hunger. Around 860 million people in the world are undernourished and almost 30% of children under five are underweight. There is a huge challenge and luckily, Ireland has taken a positive global leadership role. None the less, our progress towards achieving the targets we have set ourselves under the millennium development goals are no cause for celebration. It is to be hoped that the approaching budget will not see a significant reversal of the steady progress we have made towards meeting our targets for 2015.
Ireland already provides a high level of support for agricultural development and research and attempts to respond to food crises in many parts of the world through the Irish Aid programme. The hunger task force will make a further contribution by helping to prioritise the work of Irish Aid. The hunger task force was called for in 2006 as part of a White Paper on Irish Aid, and it was established in 2007 to look at the particular contribution that Ireland could make in tackling the root causes of food insecurity, especially in Africa. The composition of the task force is made up of both national and international experts in the area of hunger and food security.
The report sets out a number of recommendations which include increasing agricultural productivity, especially among the women who make up 80% of African farmers, preventing maternal and infant malnutrition, as well as prioritising the fight against hunger at a national and international level. The remarks made by the Taoiseach at the meeting of the UN on 25 September were very telling. He said it is unthinkable and unacceptable that in this century, as we pride ourselves on huge technological advances and the development on an interlinked global community, hunger is still the waking reality for a least 860 million people, and that number continues to rise. The report makes it clear that Ireland and Irish Aid needs to do a lot more. It certainly will not be achieved overnight, but the report sends a clear and ambitious roadmap for our future engagement with hunger reduction.
The report recommends that at a national level, Ireland needs to declare eradication of hunger as a cornerstone of its development aid programme and as key component of its foreign policy. We need to put this at the heart of our foreign policy and to use our position within the EU to ensure the eradication of hunger should also form a part of the common foreign and security policy of the EU. The report also recommends that Ireland take a strong leadership and advocacy role internationally to ensure the hunger target of the millennium development goals is reached and, if possible, exceeded. I think we will set an example. The decisions we make on the forthcoming budget next week will send an important signal to EU member states and others as to how serious we are about this leadership inadequacy role. There has been a serious economic downturn and the budget will be difficult, but it is to be hoped that we show our resolve in maintaining the progress we have made to date in working towards achieving our own targets.
Other recommendations include working towards an indicative target of 20% of our budget development aid to actions to alleviate and eradicate hunger. This target is to be achieved on a phased basis by 2012 in the context of Ireland’s commitment to reach the target of 0.7% of gross national income by that date. Senators have mentioned the recommendation to appoint a special envoy for hunger to ensure the overall recommendations of the report are implemented. The special envoy would engage with the Government and with relevant non-governmental organisations in Ireland and could represent Ireland in important international fora.
There are several recommendations at an international level, and Ireland should be using its influence to promote them. The first recommendation is to support reform of the international architecture to tackle world hunger and promote coherence across the UN agencies and the entire international system. When we look at different international agencies, their objectives and the work they do often seem to be contradictory, including within the UN. Therefore, we need to see greater coherence.
The report also recommends promoting robust international mechanisms to ensure governments in developing and developed countries honour their commitments and prioritise the reduction of hunger and malnutrition in their national development strategies and assistance programmes. One possible suggestion put forward by some members of the task force would be for the Secretary General of the United Nations to appoint a UN commissioner for hunger, and establish under that commissioner an audit body that would report on individual countries’ actions in addressing global hunger, with the authority to hold governments to account where their actions are inadequate.
Unless we want to remain at the level of rhetoric and aspiration, we need to put mechanisms such as this in place. An office such as the UN commissioner for hunger would focus energy and attention on the issues at hand. We also need the audit body because despite the best intentions of individual countries, many other issues distract them from the targets they have set. The idea that this body would hold governments to account is something that would deliver results.
The report also recommends the possible establishment of a global fund designed to deal with smalholder agriculture and long-term nutrition, which would operate in a manner consistent with existing structures. Global funds have been mentioned in other contexts, and the Tobin tax has been proposed on currency speculation in the international financial markets. I think it is especially relevant at a time when we are seeing the consequences of reckless behaviour within those markets. It has been suggested that the proceeds from the Tobin tax could be used to establish a global fund which could be used to fund the kind of projects mentioned in the report.
The Green Party welcomes the publication of the report and its recommendations. We hope the Government will live up to the ambition and aspirations set out in the report and that when we discuss this next year, we will be able to say that Ireland is playing its part in tackling the serious challenge of global hunger.
Senator Alex White: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome the publication of this excellent report. It contains not just an account of the problem but, as Senator de Búrca has pointed out, also contains quite a few compelling and clear pointers as to what might be done by countries, including Ireland, to attack this problem. Other Senators have referred to different aspects of the report and have quoted from it. Each of us has noted an item that appears more striking than others. I noted in particular the reference in the report to hunger being a failure of governance. If anything this is an understatement. The distinguished authors of the report state, “This amounts to a governance failure at many levels.” Perhaps the most devastating statement in the entire report is a self-evident statement but which bears repeating. “Despite numerous commitments, there appears to be a willingness amongst both the international community and national governments, to live with the current extent of global hunger.” It is unfortunate but this appears to be true. As my colleagues, Senator Norris and others, have indicated, whereas practical steps have been taken and many more can be taken, this is not a problem that we can say, with hand on heart, has in any sense been genuinely or substantively tackled by the international community with any kind of clear results in recent years, despite a considerable amount of good intentions at international level.
The Minister of State used the term, “war on hunger”. I agree with his use of such a phrase. However, it may seem a strange view but in the context of the war on terror, the notion of an international war on something has been devalued in many ways because of the manner in which that rhetoric has been used in the past six or seven years by some world leaders. The idea of a war on terror has been reduced to a rhetorical notion. When the Minister of State refers to a war on hunger I know he does not intend that to be a rhetorical statement but one that has real meaning. His reference to the question of political will is well taken because it is a question of political will. We can outline and describe the problem and give examples and recall the historical significance of hunger and famine in our own country. I do not mean to devalue the contributions but it is more difficult to ensure that the fundamental problem is dealt with.
I congratulate the authors of this report and I congratulate the Government for publishing it. We have had in recent days a good deal of political debate and argument about a certain other matter, described by a Minister as “the current position” regarding the banking and economic crisis. There will be political disagreement on that issue but there will never be political disagreement with the Government on the part of my party in so far as the Government is dealing with this issue. There will not be one moment of disagreement nor a moment of opposition from my party.
The report sets out a number actions which the Government should take. The Minister of State in his contribution concentrated on the three main areas of priority for the Government. The report also includes a section entitled, “What should Ireland do?” and this is more detailed than the three priorities listed by the Minister of State. Senator de Búrca referred in her contribution to the eradication of hunger being a cornerstone of the Government’s development aid programme. The report recommends taking a strong leadership and advocacy role in international matters and working towards an indicative target of 20% of overseas development aid in order to alleviate hunger. The fourth priority is to appoint a special envoy for hunger to ensure that these recommendations are implemented. I ask the Minister of State to state whether it would be the Government’s intention to take up that recommendation because it is not clear from his contribution whether the Government intends to appoint a special envoy for hunger. This would seem to be a practical proposal and it would ensure the implementation of many of the fine objectives and principles set out in the report.
However, as the Minister of State said, the implementation of this report requires political will. He also said that whereas money and resources are very important, they are not everything. The level of our commitment is not simply characterised by the amount of money or resources committed. I am in agreement with him on this point but we should not depart too much from the fundamental reality of the need to transfer resources in a prudent way and in a manner which ensures that people receive the value of those resources and can invest in and improve their own situations and livelihoods.
There is a fundamental imbalance of resources in the modern world. If we agree with this argument, we must take action to redress that imbalance but this is when it becomes more difficult, as has been seen in the past fortnight when the international banking system has been under threat. Even in this country we have been given a fair glimpse of where power and resources lie. We will have an opportunity to discuss that issue at a later occasion.
The relationship between governments and private enterprise and between Government and the banks is an imbalanced one. International banks and financial institutions, including some of those operating in Ireland, are far more powerful, have far more resources at their disposal and have far more influence over these issues we are discussing, than sovereign governments, including the Irish Government. This does not need to be the case because governments can step forward and assert their sovereignty and their central and important role in dealing with this question. This means that governments will fall out with big private institutions such as banks. They will need to disagree with them publicly and demand that they change their practices and help to change this imbalance.
People who own wealth do not voluntarily give it up. It will require concerted action by governments and international organisations, whether the United Nations or the European Union or governments working in co-operation in multilateral arrangements, to ensure that changes occur. Earlier this year, a report was published by Christian Aid, entitled Death and Taxes: the True Toll of Tax Dodging. In a most compelling and engaging way, the report points out that the money and resources do exist to address hunger in our modern world, if only those who owe taxes would pay up. In Christian Aid’s own words the report “seeks to expose the scandal of a global taxation system that allows the world’s richest to duck their responsibilities while condemning the poorest to stunted development, and even premature death”. Christian Aid’s report refers to “the world’s transnational corporations wielding their enormous power to avoid [literally] the attentions of the tax man”. Moneys are moved around the world, in particular stripping resources from developing countries in ways that sovereign governments cannot even identify.
We are talking about tax havens and the inordinate power of international capital to avoid proper scrutiny and taxation. We need to address such matters domestically and internationally. The debate on taxation should be politicised. The following point may not be particularly well received by my colleagues, but I want to encourage people to think about it. This country’s rate of corporation tax is 12.5%. We have all argued for that, we support it and agree it should continue. Over the summer a number of very large corporations based in the United Kingdom moved their operations here. At least two or three such companies moved staff to occupy a few floors in a building in Dublin so they now pay corporation tax in this jurisdiction rather than in the UK. We should query what impact that move has on the resources available globally to address poverty and malnutrition. If there is a higher rate of corporation tax in one country, that money is clearly not being levied at that level and is not available to, for example, the British Government to deploy on the issues we are debating. We levy less corporation tax in this country so the overall amount of money available potentially is reduced. When we talk about our own interests and keeping taxes low, it is never the end of the story. Ultimately, all financial and economic decisions made in this country are political. In addition, far more of them than we think impact on what we are doing, or not doing, to eradicate hunger and poverty.
Senator Larry Butler: It is difficult to imagine a mother and her children starving but we, more than most, can understand it as we had a famine. I welcome the impressive report produced by the committee under the chairmanship of the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Mr. Joe Walsh. He was an outstanding Minister and knows how agriculture can be of enormous support to those suffering from starvation. We can agree to provide a percentage of gross national product to people in the Third World who are less well off than ourselves. The most important contribution we can make, however, is to send people abroad to demonstrate how agricultural production can feed those who so badly need it. That is the key to the problem. We have done so before. We sent our missionaries overseas and our brothers, sisters and priests have done an outstanding job in various parts of the world. Our non-governmental organisations are doing significant work there now. We must continue this. We are the sixth highest contributor to the Third World, which is a great achievement. Most importantly, however, we must continue to send our men and women to physically work in the Third World, including nurses, doctors, teachers and others. If we teach a man to fish, he will be able to feed himself for life. That is vital.
Money must be spent properly so that we get value for it. We must insist that governments in developing countries in which our aid workers are involved should display a certain commitment to agriculture. This seems to be a major problem as we can see in countries where starvation is occurring.
The projects we undertake in future will underpin the proposals in the report we are considering. Senator Norris said we do not take this seriously enough, which we do not. We talk about it in this house but what do we do afterwards? Is it finished then? We must educate people and tell them what is happening. Approximately 1 billion people suffer from starvation while we belly-ache about banks and other matters on Joe Duffy’s “Liveline” radio programme every other day. We should be thinking how to alleviate hunger in this world of ours. We must think also of our own people in the forthcoming budget. We must govern and deliver for our people, but when the world is starving, we must not forget to do our best to look after those who are suffering.
Senator John Hanafin: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I share the sentiments expressed by Senator Butler. It is easy to make a speech and then forget about it, but he has rightly reminded us not to do so. I am conscious of our own history, which was brought back to us recently in the television programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” In that programme, Mr. Eddie Hobbs spoke about the situation in Cork during the Famine. At the time, the bridges in Cork were blocked off to stop people from the countryside entering the city to search for food. At the same time, the holds of ships leaving Cork harbour were laden with food. The situation is similar in many African countries today.
Ireland is a rich agricultural country. We export 90% of our beef products. We are a major food exporter. The situation in many African countries is similar and that is what makes it so upsetting, in a sense. Many of these countries produce cash crops to repay loans which were taken out for infrastructural projects with endemic corruption.
Senator John Hanafin: Moneys were filtered offshore and the people were left to pay the bill. Instead of producing food for themselves and their families, they must produce cash crops to repay the loans. This is another devastating travesty for those people.
The beauty of the Irish aid is that it comes so naturally. From the outset, we understand it. What has happened to us is written in our DNA. It started with our missionaries who went to all corners of the world, including the white man’s grave in west Africa where many died of malaria in the first few years, to bring the faith and to teach the people how to help and fend for themselves.
Even when our own economy took off in the 1960s, Gorta started, to be followed quickly by many others. One I especially like is Bóthar, which was started by the agricultural community, in particular T. J. Maher, with the support and assistance of the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly. This is a project that helps people using the holistic approach where they teach the family how to manage the animal it will receive, that the first-born off-spring is to be given to another family which in turn is trained in how to manage the animal and how to work to produce the best return. In a way it lifts the family because there is a high-yielding Irish animal in an African context that is assisting that family, and other families subsequently. That is a positive aspect.
The fact that in recent times we again have seen hunger in places such as Haiti, Vietnam, Egypt and Indonesia shows the fragile nature of the world economy. Due to the shift to bio-fuels, and 30% of the arable area in the US switching over to them, there was a large increase in the price of food commodities. In addition, when the stock market started to fall, there was speculation in commodities, including the price of oil. On the international stage, Ireland should object to brokers speculating on food commodities. It is a matter on which we could take a strong stance.
If there is one Minister who can make a difference to people’s life, it is the Minister of State with responsibility for Irish Aid. He has the responsibility for making a direct influence on people’s livelihood. It is ironic that poverty needs to be tackled, not just because it is poverty but because one pays either way. If, for instance, one does not look after people here in Ireland with social services, one will find that they will need health and other services more and there is a deterioration. It pays to look after people. In particular, I would suggest, now that the Doha round has collapsed, that Ireland has a role within the EU of having bilateral arrangements and treaties with Third World countries to ensure they get fair trade with an emphasis on their having sufficient food to look after their own needs.
Senator Hanafin touched on a point which I was going to raise at the end of my speech but with which I will begin, namely, that we need to look at the issue of fair trade being properly resourced and funded and that the countries being neglected and being treated unfairly should be prioritised. I concur with Senator Hanafin in that regard.
How true it is that in the 21st century, when we all live in a relatively affluent Irish society, we focus upon poverty in the world. It behoves the question to which the Minister of State referred in his speech when he spoke about giving a voice to the hungry. Who really will do that? Senator Norris referred to it in his remarks, as did other Senators. Are we really serious about it? Are we serious about eliminating world hunger and giving life to people who deserve better? In many ways the few are dictating to the many.
I support the publication of the report and I welcome the broad thrust of it. Deputy Peter Power is in an unenviable position, being the Minister of State responsible for overseas aid at a time when we in this country are facing massive budgetary cutbacks. I accept his bona fides and believe he will fight his corner. If Ireland is to be a serious player in giving a voice to the hungry, then we need to stand by our commitments and be a leader within Europe in that regard. This exemplary report will be lost if we do not meet our commitments.
There is a commitment by those of us on the political stage to alleviate world hunger, but is it evident among the big players? Are they really serious about it? We saw last week how the US House of Representatives was reluctant to vote for a bail-out bill for the banks at the first stage. Have they got the political will really to lead the challenge?
We can be that voice, given our experience of the Famine where the geopolitical legacy of the British Government still leaves a poor taste with many of us. The Famine was very much a consequence of bad political management. We also recall the Live Aid concerts of the 1980s pertaining to Africa.
If the elimination of global hunger is to be a political aspiration, it requires leadership and in many ways the call, “Show us the money”, still pertains. I agree with Senator de Búrca’s remarks on the mechanism involving use of a United Nations hunger office, which forms part of the report. It is time for organisations such as the UN to stand up and take on the political leaders of countries which are not interested or which pay lip-service, a consequence of which is that millions of people are dying because of a failure of governance. Can we all live with such consequences?
The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, spoke of it as a deep-seated challenge. While he is correct, I would ask whether the world community really prioritises the elimination of world hunger the way it should.
I recall attending a summer school in New York a number of years ago which was addressed by a young woman from Ghana. She was a young farmer. The Minister of State in his speech correctly referred to the fact that when we in Ireland think of a farmer, we think of a man. He is correct that this is usually not the case in Africa. At that conference for religious education teachers, the woman spoke about the fact that every morning she had to make a fundamental choice regarding her sons and her only daughter. Because of the hierarchy of the country, the sons won out and she had to make a choice against her daughter. We need to change mindsets. That woman left a lasting impression on me, and the Minister of State referred to this in his speech as well.
We are dealing here with people, not small stakeholders or producers. We need to have the political will to effect change. The report is excellent, especially if it is acted on and there is genuine commitment by the Government regarding Irish aid.
We live in an unequal world. That is the reality. As Senator White stated, we are required to redress the imbalance. None of us should countenance the fact that we condone or accept hunger as part of our world today, in any continent. A fundamental task of politicians is to change the way in which the wealth of the world is distributed. Senator Hanafin mentioned the fact that people with cash crops must work to repay loans. This can start in our own households where we can buy Fairtrade products. We must also educate the young people in our schools.
There are 862 million people exposed to malnutrition, hunger and death. We need to take a lead. The Minister of State used the words “war” and “hunger”, phraseology with which, unlike Senator White, I agree. I do not agree with war, but we need to take this issue by the lock and determine what we will do. We have a war on our hands.
There are many countries who are not living up to their expectations and commitments. There was an article in The Sunday Tribune on the issue of HIV and AIDS in countries across Africa. There is a complete failure of education and governance.
We are not dealing here with small-holders as units of production tackling under-nutrition but with human beings. It may not be the cool thing to talk about given these recessionary times and we may not have had Bob Geldof to push Live Aid and other such events, but at the time of the famine in Ethiopia, the BBC had footage broadcast every night into our homes which left an impression on people’s minds. On one level, we must scare people regarding world hunger. If we do not, we will not develop the mindset to deal with a time that may approach when we are not producing enough food for everybody. The issue of food security must be addressed.
I welcome the report. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has stated that hunger is degrading. It leads to social disintegration and, as we know, it leads to death. As political leaders, we have a responsibility to become proactive rather than passive.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Is mian liom fáilte a chur roimh na tuarascála seo. Is mian liom freisin tréaslú leis an Rialtas mar go bhfuil a leithéid againn agus seans againn na tuairimí atá nochtaithe ann a phlé agus ár dtuairimí féin a chur chun tosaigh. Tá an tuarascáil seo thar a bheith tábhachtach agus tá súil agam go mbeidh seans againn arís macnamh a dhéanamh uirthi.  B’fhéidir go mbeidh seans eile againn í a phlé go réasúnta, rialta. Ní cóir dúinn stop a chur leis an díospóireacht seo. Ba chóir leanúint ar aghaidh leis, mar ní thagann stop riamh leis an ocras ar fud na cruinne.
Hunger, like war, has commercial aspects. Commercial bodies often benefit from war and hunger, and in many ways are responsible for their existence. It is ironic that on a day when we are discussing this document a survey was published that showed one-third of all food purchased ends up in the dustbin each day. When I throw away waste food, I have a pang of conscience. I speak for every person in that regard. One difficulty is that we do not know how to change and respond to it but we should try to salvage some of the food or save money we would otherwise have spent and provide for those in the world who are actually hungry.
I have no doubt about the Government’s commitment to providing aid. The money it provides is exceptionally well spent. When the former Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, discussed this he referred to the controls in place to ensure that the money is properly spent. Much of the hunger is found in countries with some type of conflict, and often one cannot be sure that the money which is supplied will go to those for whom it is intended. There are cases where the money has gone back into the hands of despots and used for their own purposes. The Government has been cautious in this regard.
We must pay tribute to non-governmental organisations. They are at the coalface, and see the fire brigade action required on a daily basis. We all get letters in the post seeking subscriptions and contributions on a daily basis for a crisis which has arisen. The Irish people have been very generous in that regard.
It is frightening to consider the billions, if not trillions, spent on war by comparison with the amount spent on alleviating hunger in the world. It is amazing how money can be found by big powers at short notice. One example is the invasion of Iraq. There was no difficulty in finding the money at that time, and when Europe did not respond as quickly as America, which started the invasion, it had to endure insults because it wanted to hold back. It would be far better if diplomacy had been used in some of the places in the world with conflict, and the money saved donated to those who are hungry and dying of hunger.
Millions of people are dying of hunger; there could be thousands of people dying every second. We must have short-term alleviation. That is vital. Whatever difficulties we have with our economic downturn, I hope the aid we provide will not be diminished.
When the time comes history will judge mankind for all kinds of reasons. We will be judged because we stayed silent on an issue when we should have put our heads above the parapet. We will be judged on political expediency, because we felt we did not have the courage to stand up and say “Stop” on a given issue. Nowhere will the judgment of history be more severe than that we allowed a billion people to be hungry on a daily basis when there was so much wealth and food wasted in the world.
Ireland can act not only as a contributor but also as an honest broker. It was particularly interesting in recent days that the Irish Government could take such decisive pre-emptive action to deal with the financial situation. Everybody knows now how correct that was. Would it not be wonderful if, in addition to the contribution we are currently making to world aid, we were always prepared to stand in every forum in which this country is represented, in Europe and elsewhere, and make it the catch cry that hunger cannot be tolerated and that people must take a stand on the issue? Hopefully, the big powers at some stage will realise that the money spent on, for example, armaments and on propping up useless, superfluous political structures could be redirected once and for all.
It might be simplistic but I believe that if we had responded earlier to some of the difficulties that existed in the conflict flashpoints of the world, there would not have been the subsequent wars. What we now need is a reconditioning of our political approach to the difficulties when they arise. Big commercial bodies are capable of going into and exploiting the poorest countries on earth. There have been many such cases. If one can believe what one reads in the media, one oil company, which I will not name, has raped the economy of some of the most under-developed countries in the world. It has taken the wealth out of those countries to the point that the natives, when they confronted the company, were not just imprisoned but in some cases were executed for taking a stand. There must be more than lip service and a flow of verbal compassion. There must be a confrontation of the issue in all its forms.
A certain percentage of the money provided for aid must be used immediately to ensure the alleviation of hunger. I accept that other percentages must be allocated to enable people to develop crops, buy vehicles and do whatever else is necessary. However, a certain percentage must be allocated to alleviate hunger itself.
I welcome the report and I hope we will discuss it again. Some issues cannot be dealt with in a single day’s discussion or in a single report. It should be an ongoing discussion. We must find ways to measure our input. We should engage with non-governmental organisations. In addition, we should be prepared to have the courage, even if we rattle cages, to talk on the bigger issues of conflict, exploitation of humanity and those issues commercially driving the terrible primitive conditions in which people find themselves.
I compliment Mr. Joe Walsh and the rest of the committee. On reading their names I was pleased to consider that people of such calibre and expertise are prepared to give their time. It was an intensive task and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Again, I compliment and congratulate the Government for setting up the task force and for ensuring that the contribution that has been made will continue and increase in the future.
Senator Jim Walsh: I dtosach, cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach chun an ábhair an-thabhtach seo a phlé inniu. I have listened to the speakers on this topic and it is striking that, given our current economic difficulties, the opinion is that this issue should supersede the financial difficulties being encountered. The Minister of State said that we live in a world of plenty. While there might be less when the current turmoil is over, the world will still comparatively be a world of plenty. Perhaps there will be a refocus on where our priorities should lie socially and politically as a consequence of the upheavals in the market place at present. A new and more caring order might emerge from what will be a chastening experience for everybody.
It is appropriate that Ireland take note of the hunger that afflicts the 862 million people the Minister of State mentioned. That is an astounding figure; it is one in seven or one in eight of the world’s population. It is an extraordinary proportion, particularly when one considers the affluence of the western world. Senator Ó Murchú referred to the amount of food that is wasted. Go to a restaurant and look at the prices being paid and the amount of food left on plates at the end of an expensive meal. In many ways it must challenge us to consider redistribution. Many people speak about redistribution of wealth but redistribution of food must surely rank as a priority.
The Famine in this country was not due to a shortage of food but to the fact that the staple diet of the people failed and they did not have the resources to source alternative food. As a consequence, 1 million people died, approximately 2 million emigrated and our population was almost halved over that period. That has made us acutely aware of what an affliction famine and hunger are for a nation and society. An interesting story is told — I am sure there is an element of truth in it, as there is with many stories in these Houses — that when the statue of Queen Victoria was being removed from the grounds to be put in a breaker’s yard before eventually being sent to Australia, the late former Deputy Ber Cowen, waved £5 at the statue, saying: “Take this. You gave it to us at the time of the Famine.” That was a clear indication of how paltry was the response of people with resources and power to that challenge.
That is reflected again today in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, as is clear from this report. There are many alarming statistics in the report. I join my colleagues in complimenting the initiative in the White Paper to establish a hunger task force to focus on how best to tackle the issue. The report states that in 2005, 32% of children under five years of age were stunted, with particularly high rates in eastern Africa of up to 50% and in central Africa of up to 42%. However, India has the highest number of stunted children, at 61 million. A total of 10% of children globally, 55 million, are wasted. That is an enormous proportion of the young population. The highest rate is in central Asia, with 29 million. Of these, 19 million children are severely wasted. They often require emergency interventions, including therapeutic feeding.
Those statistics, when one considers the western world and the comforts of its people, constitute an appalling reflection on policies over a long period of time and demonstrates the need to change them. The Minister of State has been to China. One of the great success stories of China is the fact it was able to feed up to 1.3 billion people spread across a large country where there is a great degree of poverty, particularly during the communist era. It was a real achievement that it did not have a very severe famine. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the Chinese initiative of targeting the smallholder with a view to increasing agricultural productivity. This is underpinned in the report and constitutes a key component thereof.
I noted with interest Senator Butler’s statement, which is quite true, that if one gives a man a fish, one feeds him for a day, but if one teaches him to fish, he will be fed for life. Sustainability is a factor but, as other Senators stated, there are immediate issues to be addressed in addition to more medium-term and long-term issues.
It is only right that Ireland be in the vanguard of those countries that are placing tremendous priority on the issue of hunger. This is because of our history and because many good agencies and NGOs have been established in Ireland whose raison d’être is to prioritise the fight against hunger. I refer to Trócaire, Bóthar, Gorta, Concern, GOAL and many others.
Senator Butler rightly identified and applauded the efforts of our missionaries over many decades. His experience is replicated throughout the country. Very elderly priests who are working in Kenya and other countries but who are natives of Wexford come home to the county in the summer. They have devoted their lives to giving selfless service to those in need. They should be an example to all of us and should demonstrate how we can make a contribution, even though we would not be taxed in the same way and although we would not in any way be making the same effort.
John F. Kennedy once said one man can make a difference and that every man should try. Two of our musicians, Bono and Bob Geldof, have been very much to the fore in recent decades in this regard and have made a very significant contribution, not only through their own initiatives but also in awakening the consciousness of Western Governments and influencing policies to try to ensure a coherent approach to tackling hunger.
The second priority, which is clearly identified in the report, is to promote effective action to counter maternal and infant undernutrition. This must be tackled because if the mother suffers from malnutrition, her children will be seriously stunted as a consequence.
The report makes reference to changes in governance and leadership priorities. This identifies the need to build real political commitment to reducing hunger. Europe, in many ways, may have greater social awareness than some of the other large economic blocs. This is not to say there is not an element of social awareness in those blocs — there obviously is — but that Europe has a tradition in this regard. Ireland, using its influence in the European Union, should lead the way. It would be pushing an open door to some extent. In going this route, there is an element of self-interest because, if we can get the African and Asian economies to run properly, it would be good for the global economy. This process is separate from our prioritising the task of assisting those who are disadvantaged and poor and who do not even have the resources to feed themselves. The latter problem comprises one of the main human rights
The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, has responsibility in this area and is interested in it. He will note that other bodies, such as local authorities, can have a role. A Fianna Fáil councillor in Louth, Peter Savage, drew my attention to an initiative of Louth County Council with regard to Malawi. It has been in operation for some years and the council has made a financial commitment to the project. I discovered Wexford County Council was engaged in such a project, possibly in Ghana. Only last year, it was extended to Pakistan because a missionary who came home drew attention to educational issues in that country. The local authority is giving some support. Using the local government system is useful because it creates awareness. Staff in Wexford County Council make a voluntary contribution in this regard.
In many ways, the report under discussion can be a very influential catalyst in accelerating efforts already being made. I hope a chord will be struck with the international community. While the resources are in place, it is only through concerted effort that we can hope to make progress on this issue.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Peter Power): I apologise for my brief absence, in which I missed the contributions of Senators Cummins and Ormonde. They may rest assured that I will examine their contributions in detail in due course. All the contributions to which I had the pleasure of listening were very insightful and, in some cases, thought-provoking, particularly in the case of Senator Alex White.
This debate is very timely and useful in informing the Government’s response to this important report. In a world that is relatively affluent and which appears to be consumed, 24 hours per day, by financial crises involving billions and trillions of dollars, euro and yen, we should note that, at the end of this debate, 862 million will be hungry.
If this debate achieved anything, it was the focus on this extremely powerful statistic, of which we must not lose sight. Senator Walsh mentioned that the statistic includes one in every seven people on the planet. Those affected are sometimes consigned to a life of physical retardation and, worse, severely retarded mental development, which consigns them to a life of pure misery. These are the facts and we must ask how we should deal with them.
I reflect the views of the House in expressing my appreciation for the work of all those experts who spent valuable time producing this report, not least our former colleague Joe Walsh. Senator Butler was correct that Mr. Walsh brought political experience to bear on the report in addition to his agricultural experience. From my contact with many on the hunger task force, I note he was very skilful in producing the very focused report. The issue is so multifaceted that the report could have been lost in a myriad of details and statistics. Mr. Walsh focused the minds of the team of experts and they produced a very concise and readable document. He stated at the launch that a report that did not make uncomfortable reading was not worth writing at all. It certainly does make uncomfortable reading for all the Governments to which it applies.
Senator Alex White made a very insightful contribution. He made a point on terminology and referred to the “war on hunger”. I do not know if the Senator was present when Senator Butler stated he agreed with this term because one could substitute the term “war” for “fight”. It is a fight and struggle in which we must engage. The Senator’s point that the currency is debased was well made. The irony is that much of the hunger is as a result of war and conflict throughout the world, a point that should not be lost on us.
Senator Alex White made the interesting point that the resources of the world are fundamental and that their transfer and the redressing of global imbalances between the northern and the southern hemispheres is key to this issue, which I accept, notwithstanding that we are making a real contribution in a non-monetary way through this report by promoting debate and giving leadership on the international stage. The irony is that Africa, to focus just on that continent, is blessed with enormous resources. However, it does not always have the capacity in which to realise those resources, or in some cases those resources are raped by the northern hemisphere. These are issues of which we ought not lose sight.
Senator Alex White also made the point that in some cases financial institutions wield more power than sovereign governments. While that might not be the case after events on world stock markets in the past week, his point is well made. It reminded me of a point made by Professor Jeffrey Sachs at the launch of the report when he noted that the total of all the bonuses paid on Wall Street in 2007 was more than all of the aid for Africa in 2007 from all sources. If that statistic does not hit home hard, I do not know what does. Perhaps in light of their losses this week, some people might reflect on that interesting statistic.
Senator Buttimer made a very interesting contribution which questioned whether we are serious about giving aid, which was a theme of many speakers. The Senator asked whether we intend to deliver and whether we are showing real leadership. I believe we are showing leadership by virtue of commissioning this report and by examining it to ascertain how it can inform our programme, which I assure the House it will. Also, by tabling it on the world stage in front of the Secretary General of the United Nations in a week of major turmoil when major issues were being discussed in New York, we were very much at the heart of events. The Taoiseach went to New York and launched this report to great acclaim in front of the UN Secretary General and major players on the international stage. If that is not leadership, I do not know what is.
I agree with the point made by Senators Hanafin and Walsh that we should use our influence in Europe. At a meeting of development Ministers in Europe last week, I was in a position to literally hand the report to every development Minister present and to ask them to read it and apply it in their own country development programmes. This formed the basis of much of our discussions in Bordeaux last week. Therefore, I believe we have shown leadership and that we are very much at the forefront of the international effort in terms of aid.
The point was made by several speakers, including Senator Walsh, that if it does anything, the report serves to refocus our minds. This country has a long and tragic history of food shortages. We need to refocus our programme in terms of tackling this issue. I assure the House that, as Minister of State, this is not lost on me and was not lost on me even before the publication of this report. We may need to re-prioritise among the different calls on our funding, be it for education, health or small or large projects. At the end of the day, none of these means much if people in sub-Saharan Africa in particular do not have enough food. The report focuses on hunger and the need to give people, especially women and children, adequate food and nutrition. If it achieves this and if it informs the way the Irish aid and development programme will operate in years to come, it has served a very useful purpose.
I conclude by noting that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who produced the report. We certainly will examine its conclusions very seriously. It has refocused our minds on the hunger which, unfortunately, is still all too prevalent on planet Earth today.
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