15 MAY 2008

Our Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was the first high-level official around the world to raise serious alarm about the food crisis. Even before going to Accra late April, he was warning at every relevant meeting on the need to take immediate action to avert forthcoming problems. In that he was guided -- in addition to his own political sense -- by the principles of U.N. Charter. After all, the twin objectives of the Organization -- peace and economic and social development -- are inevitably interrelated. His most demonstrative action was to establish a Task Force and to call for an urgent "summit" in Rome next June to deal with an increasingly serious emergency.

High food prices are by now not only a negative economic indicator but a very serious humanitarian and political concern. Specialized international agencies like the International Monetary Fund have recognized that rising prices of short-term commodities from rice to oil will most likely go higher. That will hit directly the majority of the world's population, the poor who spend almost all their income on food and basic livelihood. A growing risk of more trade restrictions and scarcity of staple supplies raises the spectre of widespread starvation. That, in turn, will cause popular unrest all over the globe.

Waiting for the market to correct itself may not be an adequate response. Ongoing negotiations over the "Doha round" may prove tragically irrelevant unless a clear outcome is announced soon. Farmers everywhere are losing their capacity -- or their desire -- to produce. The usually reliable World Food Programme, hit by over a 50% decrease in its operational budget is unable to meet even its own targets, let along increasing urgent demands.

Mr. Ban has raised the right questions at the right time. It may be time for members of the U.N. system to help in providing the responses. A concerted focused effort, possibly guided but not necessarily run by an otherwise very busy Secretary General, should be able to utilize the capacity and talent available in places like the World Bank, IMF, UNDP, UNICEF, FAO, WFP, and other members of the U.N. system, particularly the Secretariat's own Department of Economic and Social Development. Regular "co-ordination" gatherings in a Long Island retreat or in Turin seem ridiculously bureaucratic if no emergency meetings are now called to face a tragic series of potential problems It is not business as usual. Time is of the essence. The Secretary General did his best by flagging the issues clearly and forcefully. It is the duty of member states and all that Galaxy of office, funds, programmes and agencies to step up to the plate. The challenge is huge. But so is the opportunity to play a relevant role in Human Development and regain however partially the standing of the U.N. in the eyes of an increasingly weary world.

The emergency Task Force headed by Under-Secretary Holmes is a preliminary first step to explore a practical feasible plan. A proposed gathering in Rome next month of senior U.N. officials and world leaders should be well prepared to ensure effective attendance and productive results. Forming another working group or establishing one or more layers of staff would be ridiculously counter-productive. The response to the Secretary General's alarm bells should rise to the level of the impending food crisis. Otherwise a lackluster response with mainly photo opportunities and exploring more "jobs for the boys" would merely echo to the poor of the world the words once attributed to Marie Antoinette: "Let them eat cake"!