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Summit Leaders Split On Helping World's Hungry

By Richard L. WentworthSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 1996



ROME

As the first-ever World Food Summit closed Sunday, the Rwandan refugee crisis provided delegates with a case study of the needs of the world's hungry.

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Catherine Bertini, executive director of the UN's World Food Program, called on world leaders to act immediately to aid the more than 1 million refugees in eastern Zaire. She predicted that within a month more than 100,000 children could be at risk for severe malnutrition or death.

Hundreds of thousands of the refugees were later reported to be returning home, a development Ms. Bertini called "wonderful."

The Nov. 13-17 summit, which was sponsored by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, brought together delegates from 187 nations to discuss the elimination of world hunger.

According to the Rome declaration, more than 800 million people worldwide "do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs." Participating nations pledged to work to cut this number in half by 2015.

Many delegates, however, expressed reservations about individual points of the 43-page declaration. In a written reservation, the US said the right to adequate food was "a goal or aspiration" and not an international obligation on governments.

Also, the Vatican, Argentina, and several Muslim states opposed the adoption of language from a 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo on population control.

During the summit, three points emerged as vital in the fight against world hunger: eliminating poverty, giving due attention to the role of women in developing societies, and bringing rising population levels under control.

"Poverty is a major cause of food insecurity, and sustainable progress in poverty eradication is critical to improve access to food," the Rome declaration observes.

One of the objectives that the Rome declaration sets out is to ensure gender equality and empowerment of women."I think this is the most important part of the plan," Bertini says. "Women do most of the work in the world." About 75 percent of the food in developing countries is produced by women, Nafis Sadik, executive director of the UN Population Fund, says. She stresses the importance of women in developing countries being able to own property and have access to credit and birth control.

"Development depends on women," adds James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank.

Family planning must play a role in achieving a balance between available food and people's needs, says Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute. From 1950 to 1996, the world population has more than doubled from 2.5 billion to 5.8 billion, and 90 million people are being added each year.

Although the crisis in eastern Zaire appears to be easing, addressing such food emergencies will remain an international priority, Bertini says. But, she adds, only by resolving the various long-term issues raised at the World Food Summit can the world's hungry be fed.

The Zaire crisis shows how food emergencies must remain an international priority, an FAO official said.