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Richer countries like Canada must deliver proactive aid: head of UN rural food agency

Price of all essential and non-essential goods and services spiralling
Alvaro Lario, president of the International Fund of Agricultural Development, participates in the Global Citizen NOW conference in New York, Friday, April 28, 2023. The head of a UN agency working to shore up rural food systems says richer countries need to focus on delivering proactive aid to developing countries instead of shifting to humanitarian work after crises have happened. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Seth Wenig

The head of a UN agency working to shore up rural food systems says richer countries need to boost proactive aid to developing states, as Ottawa increasingly shifts its focus to humanitarian support for crises that have already happened.

“We continue going from food crisis to food crisis,” Alvaro Lario, head of the International Fund of Agricultural Development, said during a recent visit to Ottawa.

“If we don’t invest now, very likely we will go through the same issues in the next shock, whether it’s because of a climate shock, an income shock or a pandemic.”

IFAD is a financial institution focused on rural farmers around the world, while the better-known Food and Agriculture Organization co-ordinates technical knowledge and research.

The agency goes through a replenishment exercise every three years, making this the first time IFAD is seeking funds after the COVID-19 pandemic jostled global economies and supply chains. It comes after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led to soaring food crises in many Asian and African countries that rely on imported grain from that region.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Bangladesh said last year that because of the war, “the price of all the essential and non-essential goods and services has been spiralling, and mounting pressure (has) pinched every class of people” in the country.

Egypt, the world’s biggest importer of wheat, had its annual urban consumer inflation rate hit 32.7 per cent in March, and internal Canadian briefing notes show the country has asked Ottawa for help securing grain.

Meanwhile, countries like Haiti and Lebanon have had food inflation exacerbate rising malnutrition that stems from years-long, domestic political crises. The World Food Programme says conflict and climate change have put Somalia on the brink of famine while Yemen faces “unprecedented” levels of hunger.

According to the FAO, smallholder farmers produce roughly a third of the world’s food, but Lario said many such farmers in Africa and Asia are going hungry themselves.

At the G7 leaders’ summit last month in Japan, the world’s richest economies pledged to work with IFAD to ensure small farmers take a central role in resolving food crises, noting this requires looking at energy and water access as well as projects that employ rural people.

To that end, Lario said he’s urging Ottawa to consider “tackling the root causes of some of the food-crisis issues, rather than only trying to put a Band-Aid” on regions facing conflicts over resources and forced migration.

“With the population growth we have, the trajectory is clear. So, unless you put some type of solution, in the form of much bigger investments and a much higher speed, we will end up in a much worse situation.”

In this spring’s budget, the Trudeau government cut back its development assistance by 15 per cent, a $1.3 billion drop from the previous year.

The Liberals argue that’s only fair since Ottawa increased aid to respond to the war in Ukraine and COVID-19, and they stress the budget still provides a slight increase in funding over their most recent pre-pandemic budget in 2019.

At the time, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said in an interview that Ottawa expected to top up its budgeted amount for proactive development aid with more-reactive spending as humanitarian disasters become more frequent.

“We will still look at those challenges and be there for the developing world where it’s needed,” Sajjan said at the time.

Lario did not directly criticize the Canadian government, noting it is among IFAD’s top donors. But he said rich countries need to get their priorities straight if they want to stop “massively” increasing their spending on reactive humanitarian aid.

“It’s more of a maintenance of the situation, rather than really tackling the underlying causes,” he said.

Lario said there appears to be a food crisis every 10 years, as multiple regions go through droughts or conflict stymies access to regions that other countries rely on for agriculture. The world tends to respond through short-term funding aiming to stop immediate hunger, which doesn’t always work and doesn’t address the factors driving the problem.

For example, 2008 saw the cumulation of rising fuel costs that tripled the cost of rice, the diversion of crops for biofuel and rising demand in Asia for resource-intensive foods such as meat. Lario noted that the world responded with seed subsidies that boosted productivity, but a lack of adequate distribution and storage led to rotten food in various countries.

Three years later, as the Arab Spring toppled governments across that region, a study by the New England Complex Systems Institute noted that food prices had correlated with political instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Lario argued a focus on solutions that employ locals and lessen a reliance on imported food could create lasting change and more stability.

During an African Development Bank summit focused on food security, multiple governments from the continent said they perceived such initiatives as key to their national security.

“They’re starting to realize that when a shock comes, the entire country is destabilized. And they also cannot feed their own population,” he said.

“Prevention in many cases can be a much better investment than just humanitarian assistance afterward.”

—Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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