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Fury as West snubs hunger summit

Thebo Mbeki
Mbeki has accused world leaders of being indifferent to millions of people facing hunger and starvation  

ROME, Italy -- South African President Thabo Mbeki has accused world leaders of undermining the fight to save millions of starving people by failing to attend a United Nations World Food Summit.

Mbeki said on Wednesday the fact only two major Western powers had sent top delegations to the four-day summit in Rome showed the developed world's priorities were "fundamentally wrong."

"The entire leadership of Western Europe and North America was here in Rome two weeks ago to discuss NATO. They all came without exception -- but they don't come now," he told Reuters news agency.

"I suppose that's because they don't think the problem of 800 million people going hungry in the world is important. I think that shows insufficient concern about human life."

His comments are the latest in a string of attacks against world powers made by delegates attending the conference.

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About 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water  
55% of the 12 million child deaths annually are malnutrition-related  
20% of people in the developing world are chrobically undernourished  
815 million people suffer hunger and malnourishment  
Is there the political will to slash world hunger?

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U.S. and EU agricultural policies were heavily criticised by developing nations at the meeting on Tuesday. (Full story)

Uganda's President, Yoweri Museveni, said: "The main causes of food shortages in the world are really three: wars, protectionism in agricultural products in Europe, the USA, China, India and Japan, and protectionism in value-added products on the part of the same countries."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier called on rich states to drop protection of their agriculture to allow poor countries to compete in world food markets

The U.N.-organised conference was called to urge governments to honour a 1996 pledge to halve world hunger to 400 million to 840 million by 2015.

But despite being a third of the way into the timetable, the number of hungry has only dropped by 25 million.

The absence of several major nations has threatened to limit the summit's ability to call for billions of extra dollars to be pumped into farm and development aid.

The FAO is seeking an additional $24 billion a year in agricultural and rural investment in order to hit its 1996 goal, .

While dozens of developing world leaders have poured into Rome for the June 10-13 event, most wealthy nations only sent agriculture ministers.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi were the only two leaders from developed nations who have attended the meeting.

Millions of people in developing nations face starvation  

Clare Short, Britain's International Development Secretary, has attacked the gathering, saying it was a waste of time and also accusing the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of being old-fashioned and in need of improvement.

Short said in a BBC on interview on Tuesday that if the U.N. body improved food management in developing nations the hunger problem would ease, arguing many hungry people lived in countries that had enough food to feed all their population.

But with nearly 13 million people threatened with famine in Southern Africa alone, Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as head of Africa's economic powerhouse three years ago, defended the summit and said those who criticised from afar were part of the problem.

"I think it would have succeeded better if the leadership of the developed world had attended. But you can't say it is a waste of time. Those who stay away and then say it was a failure, I think they are wrong.

"It is surely fundamentally wrong that the whole leadership of the developed world doesn't think that this matter of hunger in the world is sufficiently important," he said.

As well as attending the Food Summit, Mbeki and 14 other African heads of state are also looking to flesh out final details of an African initiative to revitalise the continent, which for so long has been held back by war, famine and disease.

The plan, dubbed the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), is to be presented to leaders of the Group of Eight most-industrialised nations at a summit in Canada later this month, when Mbeki expects to get a positive response.

The United States has come under fire from all sides at the Food Summit for its new, heavily subsidised farm bill, which even its neighbour and largest trading partner, Canada, said was creating distortions in world agricultural trade and prices.

At present, overseas development assistance from wealthier countries totals about $68 billion, of which only $11 billion is earmarked for agriculture, against about $15 billion spent on farming in 1988.


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