Praise for Ireland's approach to hunger

Wed, Sep 22, 2010, 01:00

YOU COULD almost see the pride radiating from the Irish officials and development workers assembled in the conference room at the Intercontinental Hotel. There was Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin, sitting beside the US secretary of state and the secretary general of the United Nations, along with Tom Arnold, the chief executive of Concern, with a row of US and Irish flags hanging behind them.

“This is a great day,” David Governy of the International Food Policy Research Institute beamed. “To have the Minister at the top table with Hillary Clinton, because of the focus on nutrition . . .”

Yesterday’s event was titled 1,000 Days: Change a Life, Change the Future, and it stressed nutrition from conception through the first two years of a child’s life.

Mr Arnold repeated his dream that Ireland will become to fighting hunger what Norway is to conflict resolution. “Today’s meeting is a great example of giving life to this idea,” he said.

Mr Martin reminded the audience that Ireland was right, before anyone else. Among the three crucial steps advocated in the Irish government’s seminal Hunger Task Force Report, published exactly two years ago, was targeting maternal and infant undernutrition, the main theme of yesterday’s meeting.

Mrs Clinton praised the Irish “passion for fighting hunger”, saying that “the Irish know what hunger means from their history. They have become world leaders in the fight.” The state department deployed some 200 civil servants to organise yesterday’s event. The “hunger unit” of the Department of Foreign Affairs sent four people – a fair representation of the relative balance of power. But there was genuine appreciation for the Irish contribution.

Micheál Martin was “a friend and a leader”, Mrs Clinton said. “It is always a pleasure to work with the Irish, because they make it fun. We have a huge fun deficit in the world.” If there was an incongruous element, it was the opulence of the setting – the crystal chandeliers and marble floors, brocade curtains and sprays of orchids – for a meeting to improve the fate of nearly one billion hungry people. As Brian Hanratty, the chief executive of Ireland’s oldest aid group, Gorta, pointed out to me, the annual per capita income in Malawi is $280 (€210); about half the cost of a night in a hotel in Manhattan.

Despite progress on other Millennium Development Goals, UN members have fallen far behind on goal number one. “They promised to halve the number of hungry people from 850 million in 2000 to 425 million by 2015,” Denis Lucey of Gorta said.

“But last year, it was one billion, and this year it will be 925 million. We’re going in the wrong direction.” The problem, Mr Lucey says, is that “we tend to lurch from one (food) crisis to another. Solving hunger doesn’t work like that.”

Justin Kilcullen, director of Trócaire, called yesterday’s meeting “a breakthrough”. But 35 years in development aid have taught him a certain scepticism. “The rhetoric at these conferences is always fantastic. What happens over the next five years is the test.”

Trócaire enthusiastically supports the proposed Financial Transaction Tax, an idea that surfaced some 15 years ago, at the suggestion of the Canadian Nobel economist James Toibin. If adopted, the 0.05 per cent fee could raise $400 billion annually for the world’s poor – three times the present total in global assistance. Ireland has not yet committed to the plan, but the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also here for the MDG Summit and UN General Assembly, says he will promote it when he presides over the G8 next year.

Over-population was the elephant in the room. In 1996, the UN held a conference in Cairo to address the problem, but it has since become a taboo subject. “Pakistan has 170 million people, and they can’t cope with disasters. Ethiopia has 70 million, Haiti 10 million in an area the size of Munster,” an Irish official told me. “We have to run, just to stand still.”

But Justin Kilcullen of Trócaire says drastic measures such as forced sterilisation and severe pressure to limit the number of children work only through coercion. “Economic growth is the sustainable solution [to over-population],” he says. “People have children as a guarantee they will be looked after in old age. Until fear of the future is taken away from parents, they will continue to have children.”