Food supplies and support for agriculture are too important to be left to market forces alone, and governments must play a dominant role, speakers said at UNCTAD's second public symposium.
"You start with food as the highest priority."
Mr. Mouhamady Cissokho
Réseau des Organisations Paysannes et de Producteurs de l'Afrique de l'Ouest, Senegal
The food shortages of 2008 and continued high prices for agricultural staples were cited repeatedly as the most vital development concern as an UNCTAD symposium for civil society continued into its second day.
Speakers at the event, titled "Responding to Global Crises: New Development Paths", said investment in agriculture, especially to help Africa's smallholder farmers, takes the highest priority, and that governments must play a major role in supplying food at reasonable prices to their populations.
"We must support agriculture and create jobs in agriculture for young people," said Mouhamady Cissokho, President of the Réseau des Organisations Paysannes et de Producteurs de l'Afrique de l'Ouest (ROPPA) (Network of West African Peasants and Producers Organizations), at a morning session on the topic of "Alternative Development Strategies."
Mr. Cissokho, of Senegal, said repeatedly that Africa has the land and the labour to feed itself, but that "farmers are poor, and governments don't pay attention to poor people."
"Today the African continent is spending US$ 20 billion to import food," he went on. "This is an insult to the African farmer. This is a problem of political choice and recklessness on the part of leaders."
Similarly, Biraj Patnaik, Principal Adviser of the Office of Commissioners to the Supreme Court (right-to-food cases) of India, said India has several of the world's 10 richest people, has "the second fastest-growing economy in the world, and also has the world's largest number of hungry people. It is unacceptable." He went on to outline steps taken by the Indian government to implement a legally recognized right to food. "More than 2,000 organizations are now part of a right-to-food campaign in the country," he said.
Others addressing the meeting said that "alternative development" perhaps doesn't describe what is needed to ease food concerns. They said what is needed is effective democracy, in which the vital concerns of the public result in government action.
The Monday afternoon session of the symposium, on "Rethinking Global Economic Governance", heard several speakers call for national and international steps to prevent financial speculators from distorting food prices. Because food and commodity prices have turned into vehicles for financial speculation, these participants said, prices no longer reflect real conditions of supply and demand.
And a speaker at the Tuesday morning session cautioned that calls for government action on food security "can mean there is a gap between intent and reality. Having a right to food doesn't mean there's food on the table." He and others stressed that democracies, if in place, still have to represent the primary concerns of their populations, and that often the funding for political parties -- and such problems as inefficiency and corruption -- play a dominant role and do not reflect people's actual needs.
"If it is necessary to depend on the courts to have access to food," said a representative of the Consortium for Trade and Development (India), "that indicates changes must be made and governments, if necessary, must be more involved in providing food security."