Poverty's handmaiden
By Olusegun Obasanjo
Obasanjo, President of Nigeria, wrote this piece for The Guardian (London) on Thursday, June 23.

THERE is a pain in the belly of Africa that just will not go away. It
is gnawing at our development goals and undermining our economies. It
is blighting the lives of the young and shortening the life-span of
the old; yet somehow it is getting forgotten. What is this scourge? A
rampant virus with no cure? An insect that pricks our skin and
poisons our blood? If it were so dramatic and captivating, it might
gather more attention. In fact, it is much more prosaic. It is hunger
that is the scourge of Africa. It is advancing rather than receding,
and consuming more lives today than ever before.

  A hungry person is an angry and dangerous person. It is in all our
interests to take away the cause of this anger. There is a saying in
my country: when you take hunger out of poverty, poverty is halved.
That is why it is crucial we give top priority to ridding ourselves
of this blight on development.

  In this year, when so much energy has been focused on the campaign
to Make Poverty History and the Commission for Africa, we should
remember that hunger and malnutrition continue to kill more people
than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Food is the stuff
of life. Without it, free trade, debt relief and poverty alleviation
will mean little to the millions of African farmers who till the soil
and herd their goats far from the benevolent gaze of the developed
world. We should not forget that the first of the UN Millennium
Development Goals is that there be a firm commitment by governments
to "eradicate the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme
poverty and hunger in which hundreds of millions of people continue
to live".

  The grim reality we face today is that while global poverty dropped
by 20 per cent during the 1990s, the number of hungry people rose.
Efforts to alleviate poverty have been most successful among
populations that have some access to social services and the market
economy. By contrast, the global hungry are part of a growing
underclass that has no access. In the latter half of the decade,
almost 5 million more people became hungry every year. Today, the
total number around the world who know what it is like to go to bed
hungry stands at a staggering 852 million.

  While there is evidence of slow progress towards making poverty
history, the underclass is growing and the world is losing ground in
its bid to halve the proportion of those who suffer from hunger by
2015. In a country like Nigeria, carefully mapped out policies have
promoted food production, strengthened the agriculture sector,
increased food exports and income, and created employment for
hundreds of thousands of people.

As chairman of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, I have
called for collaboration with the World Food Programme to strengthen
agriculture and research and share best practice to increase output
drastically. In addition, savings from debt and debt servicing can go
into these sectors that directly and immediately benefit the people.

  The WFP has put a price on what it would cost to eradicate hunger
among the 300 million children from Africa and beyond who live with
the grinding and debilitating symptoms of hunger - $5bn, if carefully
targeted at improving nutrition for the neediest 100 million
children, could have a seismic impact.

  The plan foresees a partnership between rich and poor nations.
Increasing the food supply and reducing hunger is a target across
Africa, so developing nations would be encouraged to play their part,
contributing food to the value of $2bn to meet the needs of women and
children, especially through school feeding programmes. For its part,
the developed world would be expected to provide the balance of $3bn.
When I think of Africa today, it reminds me of Oliver Twist. Like
him, Africa is struggling to extract itself with dignity from poverty
and neglect. It is unacceptable that Africa might be forced once
again to go to the top table at Gleneagles and say: "Please, sir, I
want some more."

  It does not have to be that way. In partnership, we have the
opportunity to conquer these challenges to development in Africa and
beyond. We cannot forget that hunger is the voracious handmaiden of
poverty. If we do not destroy the one, we will never consign the
other to the dustbin of history.