As candidates jostle to head the United Nations’ multibillion dollar food agency, experts called on Thursday for a strong leader to tackling rising hunger and climate change threats.
Levels of hunger have grown for the past three years, with one in nine people — or 821 million — worldwide without enough to eat, due to drought, floods, conflict and economic slowdowns, U.N. figures show.
“We don’t see improvement in terms of poverty and hunger. What we see is degradation and resources that would be lost for future generations. So there’s an emergency,” said Frederic Mousseau, a food policy expert at U.S.-based Oakland Institute.
“Agriculture and the way we produce our food and the way we consume our food has to have a major solution. That’s the key challenge for the new director.”
The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has a budget of $2.6 billion for 2018 and 2019, employs nearly 6,000 people and works in more than 130 countries with governments to reduce rural poverty and hunger.
The four contenders include a European Union-backed French agronomist, who could become the FAO’s first female head of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and an agriculture vice-minister from China, whose global influence is on the rise.
Georgia and India have also fielded candidates for the June vote by delegates from the FAO’s 194 member states.
“There is very much at stake in an election like this,” said Mousseau, adding that governments are under constant pressure “to expand the corporate-driven model of agriculture that is polluting and unsustainable”.
“We need someone strong enough at the FAO to stand against that and to be able to propose a different path which is about farmers and sustainability,” he added.
Rising populism and nationalism
The elections come at a time of rising populism and nationalism with major powers cutting aid budgets, including the United States — FAO’s largest funder.
The current director-general Jose Graziano da Silva, architect of Brazil’s landmark Zero Hunger program, has overseen a drive to push through ambitious internal reforms. His predecessor, Jacques Diouf, served an 18-year term amid donor criticism about inefficiencies.
Times have changed since FAO was founded in 1945, when hunger was the main concern, said Patrick Caron, chairman of the U.N. High-level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition.
“Food security is no longer only a question of food supply but also of nutrition,” he said, as limited progress is being made to tackle malnutrition, ranging from child stunting to adult obesity.
“Now is time for a new deal … We absolutely need a huge transformation of our food systems.”
France’s Catherine Geslain-Laneelle said her priorities would include boosting sustainable agricultural output to keep pace with population growth, building farmers’ resilience to climate change and creating jobs for young rural Africans.
The former head of the European Food Safety Authority also said she was keen to support women farmers.
“Although they are present everywhere in the food system, sometimes women have difficulties to access land, to water, to the forums where decisions are made,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Davit Kirvalidze, former agricultural minister in Georgia said his experience growing potatoes during the difficult period when Georgia emerged from Soviet rule gave him an insight into the needs of farmers, “especially in times of trouble.”
“Not only did I manage to feed my family but also eventually my community,” said Kirvalidze, who also sits on the board of Washington-based non-profit Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture and advises Georgia’s prime minister.
Representatives from the embassies of India and China did not respond to requests to interview their candidates. (VOA)
The United Nations said Monday that the five-year-old conflict in Yemen has taken a “devastating toll” on the country’s children, with thousands killed, maimed and recruited to fight since the war began.
“The impact of this conflict on children is horrific,” Virginia Gamba, U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, told a meeting of the Security Council. “All parties to the conflict have acted and reacted militarily to events resulting in the use and abuse of children in multiple ways.”
Since monitoring began in Yemen in April 2013 (before the conflict fully erupted) until the end of the 2018, Gamba said more than 7,500 children have been killed or maimed and more than 3,000 have been verified as recruited or used, and there have been more than 800 documented cases of denial of humanitarian access to children.
Gamba said children reportedly have been forcibly recruited from schools, orphanages and communities to fight on the front lines, man checkpoints, deliver supplies or gather intelligence.
Last year, over half of the children recruited were under the age of 15. During that period, the U.N. says more than 200 were killed or maimed while being used by the warring parties.
Gamba called out the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels for recruiting the majority of the children, followed by the Popular Resistance, Yemen Armed Forces and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
“The numbers I present to you today represent a mere fraction of violations committed against children in Yemen,” she told council members.
In addition to harm to child soldiers, Gamba said of the more than 7,500 children killed or maimed between 2013 and 2018, nearly half of the casualties were caused by Saudi-coalition airstrikes.
Another 40 percent of such casualties came in ground fighting, including shelling and mortars. Gamba said Houthi rebels were largely to blame, followed by Yemeni government forces, among others.
It is not the first time the U.N. has called out the Saudi-led coalition or the Houthis for harming Yemeni children. But while both sides say they avoid harming civilians, the toll continues to rise.
Redeployment of forces
The U.N. has been working to end the conflict. On Monday, special envoy Martin Griffiths offered a glimmer of hope that the parties might be ready to take a first step away from the battlefield.
He told council members that both the Saudi coalition-backed Yemeni government and the Houthis have accepted a detailed redeployment plan to begin moving their fighters away from the crucial Red Sea port city of Hodeida.
“We will now move with all speed toward resolving the final outstanding issues related to the operational plans for phase two, redeployments and also the issue of the status of local security forces,” Griffiths told the council in a video briefing from Amman, Jordan.
The parties committed to the plan at talks in Stockholm in December, but efforts to implement the agreement have failed. Griffiths expressed some confidence that they would go forward now.
“When — and I hope it is when and not if — these redeploys happen, they will be the first ones in this long conflict,” he said.
Griffiths acknowledged that the “the war in Yemen … shows no sign of abating,” and said there needs to be real progress on the military redeployments before the focus can shift back to the political track.
U.S. Acting U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen welcomed Houthi acceptance to phase one of the withdrawal plan and said Washington would be “watching closely to see if they make good on that agreement.”
Funds urgently needed
Meanwhile, U.N. humanitarian operations in Yemen are at risk of running out of money in the coming weeks.
In February, international donors pledged $2.6 billion for Yemen relief operations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — who are prosecuting the war against the Houthis — pledged an additional $1 billion.
But U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock said that nearly four months into 2019, the response plan has received only $267 million in actual funding.
“U.N. agencies are rapidly running out of money for essential relief activities,” he warned.
The country, which is facing a cholera epidemic, could see 60% of its diarrhea treatment centers close in the coming weeks if money is not received. U.N. food programs, which provide emergency food assistance to more than 9 million people every month, would also be impacted.
“Closing or scaling back such programs — at a time when we are struggling to prevent widespread famine and roll back cholera and other killer diseases — would be catastrophic,” Lowcock said.
He also warned that a potential environmental disaster is brewing off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast.
Lowcock said that an oil tanker used as a floating storage and offloading facility, and which is 8 kilometers off the coast at the Ras Isa terminal, is old and has not received any maintenance since 2015. It has about 1.1 million barrels of oil on board.
“Without maintenance, we fear that it will rupture or even explode, unleashing an environmental disaster in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes,” Lowcock said.
A Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing Houthi rebels in support of Yemen’s government in March 2015. Since then, the U.N. estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed, mostly due to coalition airstrike. (VOA)