February 12, 2011 / 4:48 PM / 8 years ago

INTERVIEW-Arab protests show hunger threat to world-economist

* Hunger seen leading to growing world instability

* Rich world must keep promises on food security

By Mark John

DAKAR, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Uprisings across the Arab world are just a foretaste of the instability facing other poor states unless a global food crisis is tackled, leading development economist Jeffrey Sachs said on Saturday.

Popular anger at rising food prices has been an explosive ingredient in the mix of grievances that triggered the fall of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and is now putting the heat on authorities in Algeria and Jordan.

Sachs, a long-time adviser of governments and world agencies on the fight against poverty, said the root causes applied right across an already unstable belt of states stretching from Iraq through the Sahara to the shores of West Africa.

“This isn’t just about the Muslim Brotherhood and it isn’t just about politics,” Sachs said in an interview of what he called an overly narrow concern among some in the West on the current mood benefiting the influential Islamist group.

“This is about hunger, about poverty, about food production about a change of world economy. ... This is one large swathe of 10,000 miles of potential instability,” said Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in the United States.

Global food prices tracked by the U.N. Food and Agriculture hit their highest level on record in January, as growing demand combined with erratic weather conditions to drive key staples such as wheat to 2-1/2-year highs.

Sachs, whose 2005 bestseller “The End of Poverty” argued it was feasible to eradicate extreme poverty by 2025, said the possible emergence this year of China as a food importer would only make matters worse for poor African states already heavily reliant on food imports because of weak farming sectors.

“They cannot afford to live on imports of grains at world prices, and those prices are going to remain high and unstable,” he said, warning of social strife possibly sparking political instability in an already restive part of the world.

RHETORIC VS PRACTICE

Sachs said such conditions created a breeding ground for insecurity, pointing to recent attacks and kidnappings blamed on al Qaeda allies in Niger and Mauritania as a sign the group’s influence was spreading west along the Sahel semi-arid belt.

He urged African governments to take the rug from under those groups by ensuring basic food needs of their populations were met, a goal Sachs said would also require rich countries keeping promises to tackle world food shortages.

Citing Group of Eight (G8) commitments made at a 2009 summit in Italy to channel around $3 billion a year into moves such as boosting productivity among Africa’s smallholder farmers, Sachs said not even a tenth of that had so far materialised.

“The rich countries have recognised this reality in rhetoric but they haven’t followed through in practice,” he said, calling on U.S. President Barack Obama and other players including China to put their weight behind a new push to tackle hunger.

Sachs said doubling Africa’s current annual grain output of one million tonnes would even turn the continent into a net food exporter, and suggested such an ambitious target was achievable within five years with international backing for relatively cheap schemes to ease access to water, seeds and fertilisers.

“Anything less than this approach is going to be scrambling with mass food aid in the midst of instability,” he warned.

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