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World Bank to step in on world food crisis

Image: An Indian shopkeeper waits for customers in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata
An Indian shopkeeper waits for customers in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Over a billion Asians may sink back into extreme poverty without extra aid to counter soaring food prices, the region's development bank warned. Jayanta Shaw / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The World Bank is stepping up efforts to help overcome the global food crisis by providing an extra $1.2 billion in grants and loans.

To deal with immediate and long-term food problems, the bank said Thursday that it will increase its overall support for agriculture and food aid to $6 billion next year, up from $4 billion in 2008.

Robert Zoellick, president of the 185-nation lending organization, said that as the international community heads into a major U.N. summit in Rome next week to address the global food problem, "there is a need for a clear action plan" because "higher food prices are driving people and countries into danger."

He said that aid should be provided to handle immediate humanitarian needs such as seeing that pregnant women receive proper nutrition and children at school are fed. He said longer-term help should go to small farmers to include seed and fertilizer for the next planting season so they can increase their harvests.

"These initiatives will help address the immediate danger of hunger and malnutrition for the 2 billion people struggling to survive in the face of rising food prices and contribute to a longer-term solution that must involve many countries and institutions," Zoellick said.

Global food riots
High oil prices, changing diets, urbanization, expanding populations, flawed trade policies, extreme weather, growth in biofuel production and speculation have sent food prices soaring worldwide. This has touched off food riots from Africa to Asia and raised fears that uncounted millions will suffer malnutrition.

A joint agricultural report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, released Thursday, said world food prices will decline from current peaks in coming years but will remain "substantially above" average levels from the past decade.

The world's poorest nations are most vulnerable, particularly the urban poor in food-importing countries, and will require increased humanitarian aid to stave off hunger and undernourishment, the report said.

Zoellick said the bank's $1.2 billion in new money, called a "rapid reaction facility," includes $200 million aimed at vulnerable people in the world's poorest countries.

"The idea is to immediately respond to the human needs of the present crisis by scaling up what we do" instead of taking four to six months to approve a project, he said.

Unlike the HIV/AIDS crisis, which required scientific research to prepare treatment programs, "people know what has to be done to coordinate and deliver a response" to deal with food shortages and high prices, Zoellick said.

Grants to neediest nations first
He said the bank's board was approving grants Thursday to Djibouti, $5 million; Haiti, $10 million; and Liberia, $10 million. In the next week he said grant support would be provided to Togo, Yemen and Tajikistan.

The bank said these countries are being given high priority based on rapid needs assessments undertaken in the field with the U.N. World Food Program, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Zoellick also said that rapid needs assessments have been completed in more than 25 countries, with another 15 under way.

He asked the governments of developed countries not to impose export restrictions or tariffs on food that could be funneled to relief agencies or countries facing severe food shortages.

Zoellick said taxes and bans were "exacerbating the problem."

Such controls make it harder for such organizations as the World Food Program to distribute emergency food aid.

Internationally, overall food prices have risen 83 percent in three years, according to the bank. Part of the increase is the result of adverse weather in major grain-producing regions, with spillover effects on crops and livestock competing for the same land.