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US to launch US$15 billion food initiative at G8

WORLD leaders met today with African nations before an expected announcement of a new food security proposal that represents a fundamental shift in the way the West tackles world hunger, taking wisdom from the old proverb about teaching a man to fish.

President Barack Obama is expected today to announce an up to US$15 billion agriculture investment initiative, delegates attending the Group of Eight summit in Italy said. The initiative includes some US$3 billion from Washington.

The strategy seeks to enable poor farmers to produce more of their own food by improving productivity, shifting the focus from delivering aid. It takes a new approach on an issue - food security - that has emerged as an increasing threat to political stability.

The money is expected to be distributed over three years, and not all of it is new funding, as several countries are already well behind in aid pledges to Africa made four years ago.

"The figure of US$15 billion has been quoted and we expect President Obama to make this announcement ... and to call on other G8 countries and emerging economies to support this initiative," said Kana Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, who is participating in G8 talks in Italy today.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is hosting the three-day talks in L'Aquila, said the group was looking to pledge between US$10 billion and US$15 billion to be destined to concrete projects.

White House national security aide Denis McDonough said he could not confirm reports that the G8 food security package would total US$15 billion, of which the US would provide US$3 billion.

"These numbers are bouncing around. It may end up being something similar to that," he told reporters. "It is the kind of investment that the president promised or committed to at the G-20 in London in April, when he pledged to double (US) food security funding."

In Ghana, where Obama travels to after Italy, the president "will be talking about a new way of looking at food security," McDonough said.

Nwanze said the initiative would use existing institutions rather than creating a new framework. U.N. food agencies as well as the World Bank and the Africa Development Bank would likely be involved, he said.

There are 500 million small-holder farmers in the world, and they produce 80 percent of the food that feeds the world's population, according to IFAD.

Just like the old saying "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life," the strategy aims at enabling the farmers to make productive use of their land rather than giving them food.

Increase the small farmers' productivity would have long-term impact on world hunger, regional trade and eventually help curb immigration toward Europe and other rich nations, delegates and experts said.

"You're setting the foundation for transformation of communities," said Nwanze. "It is the foundation for food security."

Food security, or ensuring adequate access food, has jumped to the fore of the political agenda recently. High prices last year led to food riots in some countries, including some violent ones.

The prices have receded from mid-2008 highs, but they remain high. And a recent estimate by the Food and Agriculture Organization, a U.N. agency based in Rome, said the number of hungry people this year was a record 1 billion.

"We know that the best way to tackle poverty is through growth of the agricultural sector," said Oliver Buston, the European director of the anti-poverty group ONE. But he expressed worry that the amount of money to be pledged was simply not enough.

"It's important that they focused on agriculture, it's important that they're looking seriously at ways to make this effort more effective, but you've got to put you money where your mouth is and this isn't additional resources" aside from a few countries, he said.

For example, for Africa alone, Buston said, an additional US$25 billion are needed over the next three years.

One area where significant progress can be expected in the initiative is how to make food aid more effective, said Buston, for example by cutting bureaucracy and targeting the money better.

ONE, the group of Bob Geldof, called on Berlusconi, as the talks' chair, to make a significant pledge.

Italy has been under intense criticism going into the G8 summit for having maintained only 3 percent of its aid pledges of US$3.5 billion to Africa made at a 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. The G8 at that time promised to increase aid to sub-Saharan Africa by USUS$25 billion a year by 2010.

Berlusconi has acknowledged Italy's failure to respect its Gleneagles aid pledges, but has said it only was a delay and that he had no other choice but to cut aid because of Italy's mounting debts and the global financial crisis. He said Thursday that Italy would provide US$160 million over the coming weeks.


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