When the Group of Eight, G8, leaders of the world's wealthiest countries open their annual meeting Monday in Japan, the twin issues of food and fuel costs will be front and center on the agenda.
On Wednesday, World Bank Group President Robert Zoellick called on the G8 leaders as well as the major oil producers to act now to deal with surging food and energy prices, warning that the world is "entering a danger zone."
Zoellick said the crisis is so widespread that the World Bank has already provided funding for 12 countries from a $200 million grant fund, which is part of an overall $1.2 billion rapid financing facility to offer prompt assistance. But he said the bank currently has almost $400 million of additional new requests from 31 countries.
"These calls for help outstrip our available grant resources. The rapid financing facility includes, however, a multi-donor trust fund that is up and running, ready to be of immediate help. Donors should use this as a vehicle to provide help fast. "
Zoellick's call is contained in a letter to the head of the upcoming G8 summit in Japan, in which the Bank, the UN World Food Programme, and the International Monetary Fund estimate that about $10 billion is needed to meet short term needs of people hit hardest by the crisis.
"What we are witnessing is not a natural disaster - a silent tsunami or a perfect storm. It is a man-made catastrophe, and as such must be fixed by people," Zoellick said.
The World Bank chief recalled that the G8 made a commitment at the UK's Gleneagles Summit in 2005 to boost overall development aid, to Africa in particular, by 2010. He said such aid is needed now, more than ever, as Africa accounts for two-thirds of the countries under the greatest stress due to the food and fuel crisis.
The number of hungry people increased by about 50 million in 2007 as a result of high food prices, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said today, addressing a conference at the European Parliament in Brussels.
"Poor countries are feeling the serious impact of soaring food and energy prices," said the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO. "We urgently need new and stronger partnerships to address the growing food security problems in poor countries." Dr. Diouf said "No single institution or country will be able to resolve this crisis," he said. "Donor countries, international institutions, governments of developing countries, civil society and the private sector have an important role to play in the global fight against hunger."
World agriculture will also have to address major challenges, like water control and climate change, Diouf said, emphasizing that the world does have untapped resources to utilize.
More than 1.2 billion people today live in river basins with absolute water scarcity and the trend of increasing water shortages is worrisome, he said, but sub-Saharan Africa is using only four percent of its renewable water resources.
The world is losing five -10 million hectares of agricultural land every year due to severe degradation, but in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia there is a great potential for expanding land under cultivation.
In their separate pleas for help for the hungry, both Diouf in Brussels and Zoellick in Washington said that now is the time to act.
"The present situation is a result of the international community's neglect of agriculture in developing countries for a long time," Diouf said.
In his letter, Zoellick urged the G8 to consider two new measures to "improve the world's ability to cope with an on-going food crisis."
The first is a UN assessment on guaranteeing a portion of funding for the World Food Programme.
The second is to study the merits of an internationally coordinated "virtual" humanitarian strategic reserve system for food emergencies.
"The international community is facing an unprecedented test in this new era of globalization," he said. The question is whether we can act swiftly to help those most in need."