IMF alert on starvation and civil unrest

“Children will be suffering from malnutrition” … a UN peacekeeper with locals in Port-au-Prince,
where hunger-provoked protests and looting have left six dead. Photo: AP

THE poorest countries face starvation and civil unrest if global food prices keep rising, says the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Hundreds of thousands of people would starve, he said in Washington. “Children will be suffering from malnutrition, with consequences for all their lives.”

He predicted that rising food prices would push up the cost of imports for poor countries, leading to trade imbalances that might also affect developed nations.

“It is not only a humanitarian question,” he said.

Global food prices have risen sharply in recent months, driven by rising demand, poor weather and an increase in the area of land used to grow crops for biofuels.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says 37 countries face food crisis. The president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, urged members on Sunday to provide $US500 million ($540 million) by May 1 to help alleviate the problem.

There have been serious disturbances in more than a dozen developing countries, including Haiti, where a Nigerian peacekeeper serving with the United Nations police force was dragged from his car and shot dead as he was taking food to his colleagues on Saturday.

Violence had flared in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, following the dismissal of the prime minister, Jacques Edouard Alexis, earlier in the day and the announcement of a plan to slash the price of rice. A week of hunger-provoked protests and looting has left six people dead, and aid workers say volatile protests are likely to continue because of sustained high food prices. Haiti imports almost all its food, and global food prices have risen 40 per cent since the middle of last year.

Mamadou Mbaye, who heads the UN World Food Program’s office in Haiti, said fixing Haiti’s systemic problems, such as unemployment and dependence on imported food, could not be accomplished immediately, meaning unrest could continue.

“Some measures will generate results in the long term … but whether people will be willing to wait for that is another issue.”

In the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, 20,000 workers rioted over high food prices and low wages on Saturday. There have also been protests in neighbouring India.

Some experts, including Mr Zoellick and the British Government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, have identified the growth of biofuels as one of the main causes of higher food prices.

The UN says 232 kilograms of corn is needed to fill a 50-litre car tank with ethanol – enough to feed a child for a year. Last week the UN predicted massacres unless the biofuel policy was halted.

Jacques Diouf, of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, said: “The world food situation is very serious: we have seen riots in Egypt, Cameroon, Haiti and Burkina Faso. There is a risk that this unrest will spread in countries where 50 per cent to 60 per cent of income goes to food. The reality is that people are dying already. Naturally people won’t be sitting dying of starvation, they will react.”

Several big agricultural nations, such as the US, have used subsidised crops such as soya bean, sugar cane and corn for ethanol production, reducing the amount of crops available for food.

European Union agriculture ministers were to meet in Luxembourg yesterday. France’s Agriculture Minister, Michel Barnier, said he would call for a “European initiative on food security”.

Alex Spillius in Washington
April 15, 2008

Source: The Sidney Morning Herald

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