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UN Private Sector Forum Seeks Long-term Response to Global Food Crisis, Endemic Poverty

World Business Leaders Hope to Generate New Commitments for Food Sustainability

(New York, 24 September 2008/UN DPI) - In a high-level afternoon programme opened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, animated by former United States President Bill Clinton and activist musician Bob Geldof, and closed by World Bank President Robert Zoellick, the first ever United Nations Private Sector Forum brought business, civic and Government leaders together to work with the world body on a long-term response to the global food crisis and endemic poverty.

The Forum also launched the “Business Call to Action”, aimed at engaging private enterprise in achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, as well as the “Framework for Business Engagement with the United Nations”, developed to more effectively mobilize private sector efforts in that regard.  Finally, the Forum included a series of round tables which analysed the various challenges of sustainable development.

“The talent and reach in this room is enormous,” the Secretary-General said as he outlined the strategies and challenges involved in meeting the Millennium Development Goals.  “If you use it to help people who are suffering, we will all live in a more prosperous and stable world.”  To do that, “we need to bring in knowledge, resources and innovation in a way that links sustainability with opportunities for growth”, he said, calling for stepped up investment in agriculture and citing such examples as the company EcoProfit, which was helping to produce compost for organic farming.

Mr. Ban outlined United Nations efforts in creating partnerships to end hunger, including the Comprehensive Framework for Action on the food crisis. The Global Compact, the United Nations initiative for responsible globalization that co-sponsored today’s event, had brought together 5,000 businesses from more than 130 countries.  He proposed a world summit, to be held in 2010, on progress in meeting the Millennium Goals.

Following the Secretary-General’s remarks, Kemal Derviş, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), another co-sponsor of the Forum, introduced a number of private sector leaders to speak on innovative practices that had led to hunger alleviation: Marcel Bruiins, Secretary-General of the International Seed Federation, founded in the Netherlands; A.Q.I. Chowdhury, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Finlay International Limited, an agricultural company in Bangladesh; Nirmala Gihan Wickremeratne, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Hayleys PLC of Sri Lanka, which is concerned with water management; and Chad Holliday, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the DuPont Corporation and past President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.  They described initiatives ranging from efforts to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties and improved rice, to agricultural enterprises that created decent work, and strategies to use water efficiently and boost productivity.

Mr. Derviş also introduced Leonel Fernández, President of the Dominican Republic, who described the extensive Global Compact network that had been built in his country.  Converting economic growth into social benefits for all citizens and assisting neighbouring Haiti, however, remained great challenges, he noted.

Launching the Business Call to Action, which was conceived by the Government of the United Kingdom at the United Nations in 2007, Mr. Derviş noted that the world spent $1.3 trillion on arms and more than $1 trillion on importing oil.  A plan to spend $700 billion to prop up investment banks was now under consideration.  In that context, the amount of investment it would take to increase sustainable development around the world was not daunting.

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, said the best way for the Business Call to Action to bring about results was to bring together the partnerships represented by the participants present.  “We know exactly what has to be done,” he said, adding, however, that increased will, effort and investment were needed.  Successes in Africa should encourage such efforts, he maintained, referring to the establishment of enterprises in Rwandan villages by Ericsson and other firms.

Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development of the United Kingdom, urged participants to sign on.  “Working together, the contribution we can make will be significant, indeed historic.”  The mechanisms created by the Government of the United Kingdom would help track commitments and compile best practices.

Introducing the seven round tables into which participants were then divided, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that, even though some food commodity prices were falling, there was absolutely no sign that the food crisis was over.  A large portion of the world was still hungry, while small farmers and developing countries in general needed investment to become more productive.

The round tables discussed the following topics:  water access and management; agricultural inputs and infrastructure; financial mechanisms and risk management instruments; nutrition; energy and biofuels; the role of technological innovations; and job creation for low-income populations.  Conducted in a closed session, their results will be shared during the sixty-third General Assembly’s high-level meeting on the Millennium Development Goals tomorrow, 25 September, according to the Global Compact Office.

In his presentation, Mr. Clinton said that, during his entire presidency, all discussions about food had been related to subsidies paid to growers and the provision of food relief.  There had been almost no discussion about increasing people’s ability to grow, store and market their own food.  Recently, the World Bank President had admitted that the institution had followed a mistaken strategy by failing to invest in small producers, and it now had to make up for the consequent severe organizational and investment shortfalls plaguing smallholder agriculture.

Mr. Clinton said he was so excited about a change in the World Bank’s strategy that he had immediately called Mr. Zoellick and pledged his support.  However, out of necessity, the world would have to turn much more to local agriculture for its needs.  In developing countries, though, outside investment and know-how were needed to overcome problems of growing, storing and distributing food in addition to credit difficulties.  There had been decades of “system neglect”, which Governments could not overcome on their own.  Private-sector investment was crucial.

Describing a project of the Clinton Foundation to grow and market Rwandan coffee in a more profitable way, he said that the Millennium Village project provided models for efficient small agriculture, which, however, must be comprehensively put in place in African countries.  Hopefully the Forum could encourage them to adapt the models to their needs, working with international organizations and the private sector.

Mr. Geldof said it was disgraceful that, in an affluent world, hunger was still increasingly affecting people by the tens of millions each year. The initiative to halve extreme poverty by 2015, launched in 2000 was, therefore, one of the greatest efforts begun in modern times.  The huge subsidies paid to agriculture in the developed world should be dispersed among developing countries.  A logical approach to the business of Africa was needed.  There was nothing “exotic” separating the continent economically from the rest of the world.  “Why aren’t you there?” he asked the business leaders present.

Closing the Forum, Mr. Zoellick said there was no doubt that there would be a financial rescue for the current economic crisis, but there must also be a human rescue for the food crisis.  Inclusive and sustainable globalization must be created, with a focus on reducing the vulnerability of those at the bottom.  International institutions must also be bolstered, since resources were only available for short-term objectives at the moment.  To build agricultural production over the medium and long term, particularly in Africa, immediate attention must be paid to property rights, seed quality, irrigation systems to overcome vulnerability to drought, and a host of marketing problems.  The World Bank intended to increase its investment in those areas by about $4 million to $6 million per year.

With the right policies and the right private-sector engagement in Africa, a real difference could be made, he said.  One of the big issues following the financial crisis would be developing a non-monolithic “flexible network system” of finance, of which the private sector would be an important part, and which would adapt itself to various areas in different ways.  It was an opportunity to make all areas of the globe economically viable, incorporating climate change concerns into the effort.

In addition to the Global Compact Office and UNDP, other organizers of the Forum were the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Department for Economic and Social Affairs and the United Nations Office for Partnerships.  Additional support was provided by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Labour Organization. Georg Kell, Executive Director of the Global Compact, moderated today’s programme.

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Matthias Stausberg
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UN Global Compact
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stausberg@un.org