Once again, Montreal played host to the Millennium Summit, which took place in the city April 15-16, 2009. Attending the third edition of this international summit were key players in the field of social advocacy representing governments, civil society, academia, and the world’s leading humanitarian organizations.

Seven years before its target year of 2015, the 2008 Millennium Goals Annual Report highlights some major successes. However, the results for this year have been much less impressive, since the targets for the Summit’s first objective – reducing extreme poverty and hunger in the world – may not be reached unless efforts are greatly intensified. Today, more than 1.4 billion people are living in extreme poverty, and 1 billion do not have access to clean drinking water.

At the Summit, various meetings focusing on the food crisis and the role of civil society in achieving the Millennium Development Goals were organized among representatives of major organizations with a view to sharing practices and developing concrete solutions.

Pressenza met with Mr. Henk-Jan Brinkman, the Senior advisor for Economic Policy, United Nations World Food Programme, based in New York. Previously, he was the head of Economic Analysis and Food Security Policy and Markets in the Office of the Executive Director of the World Food Programme in Rome, Italy.

Pressenza: In your presentation at the Experts Forum, Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions, you talked about the continuing food crisis in the world, and how intensified measures for its solution need to be taken. Could you comment more on the urgency of this situation and explain why the media, the governments and the people of the wealthy countries are not talking about it?

Henk-Jan Brinkman: This is because the global financial crisis has taking over the media. And in a way, that has made the situation even worse because it is creating a double hit for the poor across the world in general. The food crisis caused food prices to increase and, as I explained in the Forum, prices are still high, especially compared to last year, and so it’s more difficult for poor people to buy food. Now with the global economic and financial crisis, poor people will likely have an even lower income, they could lose their jobs, or receive even less money for the commodities they sell. Export volumes have been declining rapidly – the World Trade Organization is talking about the collapse of world trade. Remittances are declining very rapidly – people in developing countries who receive money from families living in the US or in Europe are now receiving less money. This is a major problem for countries, for example in Central America, that rely on those remittances for 10%, 15% or even 20% of their GDP. It is a very significant factor that will certainly perpetuate the food crisis and may even worsen it for many people across the world.

Pressenza: At the Forum you talked about the need to feed hungry people now, and that the financial needs of the UN World Food Programme is 6 billion dollars. Is this money available?

Henk-Jan Brinkman: We hope we can get those funds very soon. We are funded 100% by voluntary contributions. So we don’t have membership fees or other secure contributions – we need to raise every single penny. And we are very short of what we need. So far we have only raised about 15% of those $6-billion. The most important thing now is for people to have access to food, because if they don’t have the right nutritious food during this very critical time – especially for young children, pregnant women or breast-feeding women – they could suffer unfavorables consequences for the rest of their lives, in terms of their health, in terms of their education and also in terms of productivity.

Pressenza: You also said that the needs of the UN World Food Programme to respond to the present situation are less than 0.1% of the money that has been spent on fiscal stimulus and financial bailout packages in the developed world.

Henk-Jan Brinkman: Yes, that’s right, less then a tenth of a percent of the trillions of dollars that have been spent by developed countries on fiscal stimulus packages and bailouts of financial institutions. So really it’s a very small amount of money, and that money is available. That is why we have been calling for a ’human package’, a human stimulus fiscal package, in order to really focus on the human beings who are suffering the most, and who in fact have the least to do with the cause of this crisis. But nonetheless, now they are paying the consequences. It’s important that we don’t lose sight of them.

Pressenza: Did you have a good response with your proposal for a human fiscal stimulus package?

Henk-Jan Brinkman: No. We were able to get only 15% of the funding we need in order to operate. Until the richest countries realize that there is an urgent need to provide food for the billions of people suffering from hunger, the consequence of all this is unfortunately more death.

Pressenza: You also spoke about the causes of the food crisis today – rising food prices, climate change, etc. But you did not talk about the wars and conflicts that affect the food crisis. Could you comment on this issue?

Henk-Jan Brinkman: Conflict and particularly violent conflict is an important factor of hunger in certain parts of the world. But usually these are confined and limited cases. There is a very clear role in Darfur for example, where people have been forced to move to refugee camps, and there it is very difficult for them to farm and grow their own food. So there is definitely a significant group of people worldwide that are hungry because of violence conflict. But still, it is a fairly small group of people in a fairly limited situation. For example, we have seen the end of civil wars in West Africa, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and there they are really trying to pickup the pieces and rebuild. But nonetheless, there is still a big problem of malnutrition and hunger. We are trying with various programs, like Food for Work, to rebuild the assets and infrastructure that were destroyed. By doing that we make sure that these countries will have a viable future and will be able to grow their own food.

Pressenza: According to the organizers of the World March for Peace and Nonviolence, we could end world hunger with 10% of what is spent on arms.

Henk-Jan Brinkman: This is probably true, and I would think the figure is even less then 10%, because arms expenditures are enormous and in certain terms this money could eradicate poverty and hunger. For example, we calculate that it would take $3 billion to give a meal to all hungry children in schools. That is very little compared to global arms expenditures or the fiscal stimulus packages and financial bailouts of financial institutions. In fact, at the Forum I argued that food assistance should be included as part of the fiscal stimulus. Food assistance is often ignored, but would actually provide real economic growth. Nutrition is so very critical – if you don’t eat properly you cannot work, your health is affected, you are more susceptible to disease, your ability to learn is affected. So hunger and malnutrition affects in a very real way the growth potential of a country. And that is why nutrition needs to be part of a fiscal human stimulus package.