World Bank head: Act now on food prices

The president of the World Bank on Sunday urged immediate action to deal with mounting food prices that have caused hunger and deadly violence in several countries.

Robert Zoellick said the international community has "to put our money where our mouth is" and act now to help hungry people. "It is as stark as that."

He called on governments to rapidly carry out commitments to provide the U.N. World Food Program with $500 million in emergency aid it needs by May 1.

He said the bank is granting an additional $10 million to Haiti for feeding programs, "and I understand others are looking to help."

"It is critical that governments confirm their commitments as soon as possible and others begin to commit," Zoellick said. Prices have only risen further since the WFP issued that appeal, so it is urgent that governments step up, he said.

After a meeting of the bank's policy-setting committee, Zoellick said that the fall of the government in Haiti over the weekend after a wave of deadly rioting and looting over food prices underscores the importance of quick international action. A U.N. police officer was killed Saturday in Haiti's capital.

Zoellick said that international finance meetings are "often about talk," but he noted a "greater sense of intensity and focus" among ministers; now, he said, they have to "translate it into greater action."

Zoellick said the bank was responding to needs in a number of other countries with conditional cash transfer programs, providing food in workplaces and seeds for planting in the new season.

He said a rough analysis the bank estimates that a doubling of food prices over the last three years could potentially push people in low income countries deeper into poverty.

"This is not just a question of short term needs, as important as they are," Zoellick said." This is about ensuring that future generations don't pay a price too."

Zoellick spoke as the bank and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, wound up two days of meetings that dealt with the financial crises roiling global markets and rising food and energy prices.

The head of the IMF also sounded the alarm on food prices, warning that if they remain high there will be dire consequences for people in many developing countries, especially in Africa.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn said progress in recent years on development can be destroyed by rising food prices, which can lead to starvation and shake the stability of governments, even if they have nothing to do with the increase in food cost. "We are facing a huge problem," he said.

Strauss-Kahn had said Saturday that the problem could also create trade imbalances that would impact major advanced economies, "so it is not only a humanitarian question."

He said if the price spike continues, "Thousands, hundreds of thousands of people will be starving. Children will be suffering from malnutrition, with consequences for all their lives."

Mexican Finance Secretary Agustin Carstens, who heads the bank's policy-setting Development Committee, said officials "need to redouble our efforts" to help the poorest people. He said there had been "a very welcome increase in money" from governments, but all donors need to "reach into their pockets" to help.

An open world economy is crucial to global prosperity, he said, urging a successful conclusion to world trade talks.

Zoellick said the Development Committee endorsed his call for a "New Deal for Global Food Policy" that would aim to boost agricultural productivity in poor nations, improve access to food through schools or work places and help small farmers.

He said earlier this month the bank would nearly double the money it lends for agriculture in Africa from $450 million to $800 million.

Zoellick said he had received positive feedback from his proposal to have sovereign wealth funds — huge pools of capital controlled by governments — invest one percent of their resources in Africa. He said this could draw $30 billion to African growth.

He said the bank was following up the proposal in discussions with countries that have sovereign wealth funds, mainly in Asia and the Middle East, through the International Finance Corporation, the bank's private sector arm.

"Hunger, malnutrition and food policy have formed a recurrent theme at this weekend's meetings, and I believe that we have made progress," Zoellick said. "But it will be important to continue to retain the focus on this as we leave Washington."

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