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Critics: U.N. food summit wasteful, ineffective

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, blamed for plunging his people into starvation, uses  his platform as the  opening speaker at the U.N. anti-hunger summit to decry his foes.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, foreground right, listens to his ear piece as his wife Grace is seen in the background, during a plenary session at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization FAO headquarters during a World Summit on Food Security, in Rome, on Tuesday.Alessandra Tarantino / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, blamed for plunging his people into starvation, used his platform as Tuesday's opening speaker at the U.N. anti-hunger summit to decry what he called his neocolonialist foes.

Another longtime African strongman, Moammar Gadhafi, held another nightly soiree at a villa in the Italian capital in the company of hundreds of young ladies selected by a "hostess" agency.

Tunisia's first lady and her bodyguards blocked traffic on roads leading to Via Condotti, a glamorous street of designer boutiques near the Spanish Steps. Rome daily Il Messaggero ran a photo of Leila Zine in front of luxury jewelry store Bulgari.

The images bolstered criticism that the summit called by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is long on rhetoric and extravagance and short on solutions for the world's 1 billion hungry.

The meeting was branded a failure within a couple of hours of its start after the 192 participating countries unanimously rebuffed the United Nations' appeal for commitments of billions of dollars in yearly aid to develop agriculture in poor nations.

‘A clear disconnect’
None of the leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations attended except for Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

"There is a clear disconnect between what governments are saying, at least the rich governments, and what in fact they are doing," said Flavio Valente, an activist participating in a forum of NGOs held in parallel with the summit.

The G-8 meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, essentially set the agenda for this latest summit by endorsing a strategy shift in fighting hunger: helping farmers in poor country to produce enough food to feed their own people, moving away from decades-long reliance on handouts.

While the G-8 leaders in July approved $20 billion in agricultural development aid in a three-year package, the countries at this U.N. summit rejected FAO's call to commit themselves to earmark 17 percent of their foreign aid budgets for agricultural development, which U.N. officials estimated would cost $44 billion yearly.

Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. agencies in Rome, said the summit wanted to establish the principle that donors should listen to the needs of each country and not decide aid policies on their own.

FAO director-general Jacques Diouf expressed "regret" and frustration that the summit rejected his call to members to fund the new shift in agricultural development policy.

About an hour after the decision, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech to the summit condemning opulence and waste in a world where the numbers of hungry have multiplied despite international efforts to combat chronic hunger.

Mugabe lashes out at West
Some of the assembly-room chairs were empty when Mugabe opened Tuesday's proceedings by lashing out at the West and defending land reforms blamed for plunging his people into starvation. He described the policy, which led to thousands of white-owned commercial farms being violently seized in 2000, as a quest for "equity and justice."

He blamed the subsequent meltdown of Zimbabwe's economy on "hostile interventions" by "neocolonialist enemies" that have imposed sanctions on his regime.

Western countries have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on Mugabe and his top aides. The ban does not apply to United Nations summits and Mugabe has attended several Food and Agriculture Organization meetings in the last years.

While last year's FAO summit on soaring food prices rang out with denunciations of Mugabe's showing up at forums aimed at slashing hunger, the Zimbabwe president's speech on Tuesday was widely greeted with silence.

Italian news reports said Mugabe arrived on a private plane with a delegation of more than 60 people — most of them on the sanctions list and taking advantage of the U.N. summit to visit Europe.

Mugabe "has gallivanted around the world attending U.N. conferences and of course enjoying the food there when a lot of his people here are scratching the bottom of the barrel," said John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. "It is a sanctions-busting maneuver. It's a shopping trip, taking advantage of the U.N. to actually get into Europe."