- The Washington Times - Monday, May 5, 2008

Visiting a primary school under construction in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, I told the children how I grew up: no walls, just bare dirt to sit on. I told them how I knew hunger as a boy — barely enough to eat, my own grandparents and other elderly people scavenging for food and infants barely getting enough to grow.

I remember these images, traveling in Africa, and think about that continent’s wealth of resources and the strength and courage of its people, so visible to me in the cities I visited. If my country could emerge from trauma to become an economic power, I know that Africa can as well. The only thing required is that we help.

There was, recently, a glimmer of hope in the world food crisis. Expecting a bumper harvest, Ukraine relaxed restrictions on exports. Overnight, global wheat prices fell by 10 percent. By contrast, traders in Bangkok quote rice prices around $1,000 a ton, up from $460 two months ago. The expectation is that they will rise still higher.

Such is the volatility of today’s markets. We do not know how far food prices might go, nor how far they could eventually fall. But one thing is certain: We have gone from an era of plentitude to one of scarcity. Experts agree that food prices are not likely to return to the levels the world has grown accustomed to anytime soon.

Consumers are grumbling even in the wealthy nations of Europe and the United States. But imagine the situation of those living on less than $1 a day — the “bottom billion,” poorest of the world’s poor. Most live in Africa, and many might typically spend two-thirds of their income on food.

In Liberia recently, I heard how people have stopped purchasing imported rice by the bag. Instead, they increasingly buy it by the cup — because that’s all they can afford. It is worth remembering that Liberia’s descent into chaos began in 1979 with food riots. In Ivory Coast, political leaders told me how they worry that the crisis could undermine efforts to build real democracy — at a time, after a decade’s effort, when they are so close to success.

In Burkina Faso, the president told me how desperately the nation needs help. Half his people live on $1 a day or less, the vast majority of them small farmers. The foreign minister spoke especially forcefully. The crisis in food, he said, is a greater threat by far than terrorism. “It makes people doubt their dignity as men,” he said. And he added: “The issues of hunger and survival and how to live have become burning issues for the international community.”

It might be tempting to let the markets work their magic. If prices go up, the thinking goes, supply will, too. But we live in the real world, not the world of economic theory. In Kenya’s Rift Valley, the breadbasket of East Africa, farmers are planting only a third of what they did last year. Why is that, when you would think higher prices would prompt them to plant more? Because they cannot afford fertilizer, which is also skyrocketing in price. We see the same in Mali, Laos and Ethiopia. This is a prescription for disaster.

In Bern, Switzerland, I brought together the chief executives of the U.N. agencies and leading multilateral aid and development organizations. There we agreed on an urgent plan of action. The first imperative is to feed the hungry. The World Food Program helps 73 million people. But to do so it requires an additional $755 million merely to cover its rising costs. Some $475 million of has been pledged. But promises don’t fill stomachs, and the agency has only $18 million in cash on hand.

We cannot afford to stay locked in crisis. To ensure food for tomorrow, we must act today to give small farmers the support they need to better their next harvest. That is why the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for $1.7 billion to support an emergency initiative to provide low-income countries with seeds, fertilizer and other agricultural inputs required to boost production. The International Fund for Agricultural Development will make $200 million available to poor farmers in the most affected countries. The World Bank is considering the establishment of a global crisis-response facility for this purpose.

To coordinate this work, I will set up and chair a U.N. Task Force on the Global Food Crisis. I will leave no stone unturned to focus political will at the July meeting of the G8 nations in Japan and the high-level FAO conference on food security in Rome in early June.

We can deal with this crisis. We have the resources. We know what to do. We should consider this not only a problem but an opportunity. It is a huge chance to address the root problems of many of the world’s poorest people, 70 percent of whom live as small farmers. If we help them — if we offer aid and the right mix of sound local and international policies — the solution will come.

Traveling though West Africa, I found good reason for optimism. In Burkina Faso, I saw a government working to import drought-resistant seeds and better manage scarce water supplies, helped by nations like Brazil. In Ivory Coast, we saw a women’s cooperative running a chicken farm set up with U.N. funds. The project generated income — and food — for villagers in ways that can easily be replicated. Elsewhere, I saw yet another women’s group slowly expanding their local agricultural production with U.N. World Food Program help. Soon they will replace WFP rice with their own home-grown produce, sufficient to cover the needs of their school feeding program.

These are home-grown, grass-roots solutions for grass-roots problems — precisely the kind of solutions that Africa needs.

The only thing required is that we help. We can begin by taking the hard steps to deal decisively with the crisis in food.

Ban Ki-moon is secretary-general of the United Nations.