Tom Arnold: Sowing seeds of hope as famine fight goes global
LOOKING back on the extraordinary events of 2011, it's difficult to recall a more precarious time for the world's poorest people, but it's important also to acknowledge that great progress was made this year in galvanising international political will towards the elimination of global hunger.
In March, global food prices had reached their highest levels since records began, plunging those on the margins into unimaginable poverty.
This was the main topic for discussion of the Spring Meetings gathering at the World Bank and IMF in Washington DC, where I addressed more than 3,000 participants and representatives from 91 countries about the urgency of adopting global policies to prevent food security crises.
I urged that we launch immediate nutrition programmes, invest in sustainable agricultural practices, tackle the root causes of climate change and implement social protection schemes to prevent further suffering. At every opportunity throughout the year, it was important to address Ireland's responsibility as a nation with first-hand experience about the consequences of famine to take the lead on global hunger.
Our international reputation in that area is very much intact and widely, and rightly, lauded.
To that end, in June, along with US-based Bread for the World organisation, Concern gathered over 350 high-level government officials, leaders of civil society organisations, academia and members of the private sector in Washington DC to drive political commitment on mother and child nutrition.
Progress is being made on foot of recent, key findings.
We now know that nutrition interventions that focus on the first 1,000 days of a child's life from the beginning of life in the womb through to the age of two can reverse the global trend among the world's malnourished on problems such as stunting, poor cognitive development and the scandalous loss of life caused by hunger and the wider implications of poor health.
This evidence has underpinned Concern's political and policy initiatives in 2011, including Ireland's partnership with the US government, which accelerated at a rapid pace this year through the '1,000 Days' campaign.
One of our key initiatives was to influence global leaders to prioritise an integrated approach to nutrition across agriculture, education and health.
Key personalities including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, World Bank president Robert Zoellick, and other global opinion-formers such as Melinda Gates, co-chair of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, rallied behind our call and, at the aforementioned event in the US, personally insisted on political commitments from donors and governments to prioritise nutrition in development programming. In 2012, we will build further on these foundations.
In July, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson joined myself, Justin Kilcullen of Trocaire, and Jim Clarken of Oxfam in the Horn of Africa to draw attention to the effects of the worst drought in 60 years. There, a complex web of factors wrought havoc on the poor: food price volatility, weak governance, poor security and vulnerability to changes in weather patterns. I witnessed first-hand the chilling injustice of hunger in the 21st century and the stolen dignity of a resilient, independent and proud nation.
It left me more determined than ever to bring about the sort of global policy changes required to eliminate this highly preventable disaster.
In October, the 2011 Global Hunger Index report identified the three main causes of high and volatile food prices: the growing demand for biofuels, extreme weather and climate change. Again, we took every opportunity to call on global leaders to take action.
At the United Nations Climate Change conference in Durban, South Africa, 20 of the world's leading food security organisations issued an appeal for the prioritisation of agriculture in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.
The conference arrived on the heels of an announcement by the UN that the global population has now crossed the seven billion mark, a development that has vital implications for our work on the ground.
The world's population is set to reach nine billion by mid-century. For that growth to be sustained, a 70pc increase in agricultural production is required. Again, we have evidence about the types of programmes that must be implemented.
Productive, sustainable and resilient agriculture requires farmers to apply new and improved techniques. For this to occur, it is essential that the world's farmers, scientists, researchers, the private sector, development practitioners and food consumers work together.
This approach is the cornerstone of programmes like the Realigning Agriculture to Improve Nutrition (RAIN) project, an operational research programme in Zambia, to which the Kerry Group has committed support for the next five years.
There were some other highlights in 2011 that were a source of great pride to me: Ireland's designation as the venue of an international famine conference hosted by Strokestown Park in Roscommon; Concern's hosting of the international NetHope summit, in that organisation's 10th anniversary year, bringing to Kildare information and communications technology experts from 33 leading humanitarian organisations.
There were also our shared overseas efforts with Trocaire through our emergency response in the Horn of Africa; the Irish public's overwhelming response to our emergency appeal there, particularly in the context of a protracted financial crisis; the announcement by U2 that the digital proceeds from an 'Achtung Baby' covers album would be donated to our work in the region.
Looking back on 2011, it is easy to lose sight of the gains we made relative to the scale of the problems we faced, but Concern's success in moving the international community towards consolidated political commitment is something of which we can all be very proud.
Tom Arnold is CEO of aid agency Concern Worldwide