Hunger is a slow, quiet killer. It does not make loud explosions. It does not crumble tall buildings. It kills mostly children, whose voices are small and weak.
No wonder it took a back seat to terrorism at the G-8 annual meeting held June 1-3 in Evian, France.
The political leaders did discuss important trade and global economy issues, but as in last year’s summit, the U.S. ensured that its security agenda was the central focus. President Jacques Chirac, the summit’s host, invited the leaders of twelve developing countries (Algeria, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, and South Africa) to participate in a “broadened dialogue” at the G-8 meeting. Predictably, however, the rich and famous stole the spotlights. The press concentrated on picking up the French barbs and Texan snubs that characterized the three-day meeting, reporting more on who chatted with whom in the post-Iraq political sphere than on substantive issues.
Lula da Silva, Brazil’s working class president, raised the issue of world hunger. On the first day of the summit, Lula proposed a plan to create an international hunger fund “capable of feeding whoever is hungry.” Lula mentioned two possibilities for financing the fund: a tax on international arms sales and the reinvestment of part of indebted nations’ interest payments. The first, he noted, “would have advantages from economic and ethical points of view” while the second would help to reverse the net outflow of capital caused by servicing the huge foreign debt of developing countries.
In his speech to the G-8, Lula noted that hunger–intolerable in and of itself–is inextricably related to security. “I am convinced that there will not be economic development without social sustainability and that, without both, we will live in a world that is less secure each day. It is in the space of social inequality that resentment, crime, and, especially, drug trafficking and terrorism, prosper.”
As the representative of Latin America, along with Vicente Fox of Mexico, Lula reflected what is perhaps the single most urgent problem on the continent. In Brazil, 46 million people survive on less than a dollar a day and malnutrition is widespread. In Central America, the UN World Food Program calculates that 690,000 people require urgent food aid as a result of the twin afflictions of drought and low international coffee prices. In Haiti, food insecurity is so prevalent that a UN representative warned of “the risk of losing an entire generation to hunger.”
The Brazilian president called for “structural solutions” in which wealthy nations fully participate. Both he and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stressed the need to reduce developed country subsidies, especially in agriculture. Subsidies have been a sore point for poor countries, where they are viewed as a major source of inequity in international trade. Another major demand was to provide medicines to patients in developing countries, where curable or controllable diseases kill millions of people who could be saved through access to existing drugs.
Too bad nobody was listening. Lula’s speech, and developing-country issues in general, remained way off the radar of press and politicians alike. The U.S. press largely ignored the speech, choosing instead to gossip about Gallic gall and President Bush’s decision to leave early.
The final G-8 statement emphasized “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” and “the spread of international terrorism.” Counterterrorism activity was spelled out at length. Meanwhile, the part of the statement regarding trade reiterated the need to “strengthen existing WTO rules and disciplines, as well as developing further multilateral rules so as to provide fairer, less distorted conditions for world trade.” But there were no specific commitments to subsidy reduction or other reforms by the G-8 industrialized countries. Nor was there any progress on facilitating access to essential medicines.
Hunger? In the time it took to read this, 630 people died of hunger in the world–seven every two seconds. Three-fourths of them never reached their fifth birthday. One hopes there were no were no deaths from terrorist attacks in the same three minutes. But if there were, they would have at least gained world attention.
Some deaths, particularly killings of Americans abroad, receive primetime attention. Then there are the millions who go out, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” It seems the G-8 has decided, once again, to ignore their whimper.
LAURA CARLSEN directs the Americas Program< of the Interhemispheric Resource Center. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.