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Small steps ahead in food security

ROME -- U.S. officials say that the recent World Food Summit in Rome will help advance President Obama's global food security initiative even though country delegates did not guarantee their parts of the $22 billion they promised Obama at interna...

ROME -- U.S. officials say that the recent World Food Summit in Rome will help advance President Obama's global food security initiative even though country delegates did not guarantee their parts of the $22 billion they promised Obama at international meetings earlier in the year.

Oxfam and other development groups criticized the summit for not firming up commitments to goals established at the G8 and G20 meetings earlier this year, but U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Ertharin Cousin told Agweek, "From our position, the summit was a success."

Cousin said previous food summits have ended with a "declaration of laudatory goals" while this one ended a "work document" that details what both donor countries and developing countries have to do to reduce world hunger and increase agricultural output by 2050. She added that the developing countries that write plans for increasing agricultural output and reducing food insecurity and follow through on them are the ones that will get the assistance. U.S. Agency for International Development Acting Administrator Alonzo Fulgham, who headed the U.S. delegation to the summit, emphasized at a news conference that the United States will live up to the $3.5 billion pledge it has made as part of the $22 billion initiative.

Reforms adopted

After the summit, countries that are members of the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization met in a legislative conference and adopted reforms that the United States had been seeking for six years. In return, the United States supported a budget increase of about 7 percent. Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who chaired the conference, called the reforms "a big win for the United States."

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Merrigan, who was the first American to chair the conference in 20 years and the first woman to chair it, said in an interview that the reforms included reducing layers of bureaucracy, introducing new technology and the creation of an office of inspector general. The United States is responsible for 22 percent of the FAO budget, and the U.S. contribution was $114 million in assessed dues this year.

Many countries have been critical of the agency's management under Director General Jacques Diouf, a Senegalese. Merrigan said Diouf told her he will step down when his term is up at the end of 2011. The FAO analyzes world agricultural trends, conducts policy analyses and structures projects for many of the countries expected to be aided under the Obama initiative.

Josette Sheeran, an American who is the executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, which distributes food aid, said in an interview she thinks the high world food prices last year were a "wake-up call" that will keep officials around the world more focused on agricultural development than they have been in the past 20 years. Sheeran, a Bush administration political appointee in the State Department before she joined the United Nations, praised the Obama administration for donating $200 million toward a special $1 billion relief effort in the Horn of Africa. Sheeran said she has "never seen a secretary of State so behind" food and agriculture issues as Secretery of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

School food programs

In Washington, the World Bank released a report on the importance of school feeding programs in developing countries. According to the new report, "Rethinking School Feeding: Social Safety Nets, Child Development, and the Education Sector," school feeding programs in poor countries boost school attendance, help children to learn more effectively, and spur better performance in class, especially when these programs are twinned with other measures such as de-worming (against soil-transmitted intestinal worms) and micronutrient-fortified snacks and biscuits, or vitamin supplements. In many countries, school feeding programs are a key incentive to get children, especially girls and the poorest and most vulnerable children, into school, along with abolition of school fees and conditional cash transfer programs. The report says that providing school meals to children in qualifying families can be the equivalent of adding an extra 10 percent to average household incomes.

When former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., was the U.S. ambassador to the Rome food agencies during the Clinton administration, he encouraged the development of school feeding programs. The U.S. international school feeding program, which purchases U.S. farm products and sends them to developing countries, is named for him and former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan. McGovern and Dole cooperated on the development of the U.S. food stamp program and on the international school feeding program.

The World Bank report on international school feeding may be found at http://tinyurl.com/yhhxmfk .

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