The Urgency of Curbing Global Food Price Volatility

Last Friday, April 15 -- as part of the Spring Meetings of the World Bank and IMF in Washington, DC -- I was a panelist in a groundbreaking global conversation, the Open Forum. It was a unique opportunity for a small group of experts to engage not only with each other, but with 3,000 participants in a concurrent 24-hour chat, and people from 91 countries who had submitted comments and ideas online before the event. The topic was the food crisis -- crippling market volatility, the net effect of which has been a sustained increase in food prices, wreaking havoc on the world's poor.

This was no staid academic exercise. It was an valuable part of a larger conversation that grows more urgent by the day because each day, more lives hang in the balance. As World Bank President Robert Zoellick starkly put it, "we're one event away from a very serious crisis."

Some might argue that we're at that point already: according to the World Bank, since June 2010 another 44 million people have fallen into poverty because of the spike in food costs; every minute another 170 people join the ranks of the extremely poor -- those who spend on average 85 cents of their daily budget of $1.25 on food. The Open Forum provided an excellent opportunity to draw the world's attention to how terribly vulnerable the world's poor are.

It's high time for decisive action in rolling out the short-term and longer-term measures called for by the Forum's panel and online participants.

Right away, we must launch targeted nutrition interventions for the most vulnerable. In this context, the international Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN) Framework for Action and Roadmap can point the way. Research shows that proper nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child's life -- from conception to two years old -- is crucial in ensuring proper physical and physiological development.

In addition, more social protection schemes must be put in place in those countries and settings with the financial means and administrative capacity to do so. Putting cash in the hands of poor families can keep local food markets alive and avert serious food security crises. Such was Concern's experience last year in Niger, where we used mobile phones to distribute emergency cash after crops fell short in the wake of a prolonged drought.

Long term, there has to be significant investment in agriculture and the entire food value chain, from harvesting and processing farm products to sale in the marketplace. This means making sure that farmers have the seeds and tools to get ready for the next planting season; and to repair and build roads and bridges so that crops can be brought to market.

We also need to invest in agricultural research to find ways to boost crop yields -- more food has to be grown on the same amount of land. This will require scientific breakthroughs!

At the same time, we must do something to curb the wild fluctuation in food prices, an issue the G20 has agreed to take on in November. Perhaps there needs to be more regulation at the international level with regard to commodity speculation. A number of mechanisms will be considered. Nothing has been decided at this point, but at least we are taking a hard look at the harsh reality of food price volatility.

The G20 will also discuss the fact that many developing countries put a food export ban in place in the wake of the 2008 food price crisis. Such measures were taken to ensure that local populations would have access to food -- but it has turned that such protection had an adverse effect on the international market, reducing trading volumes and actually contributing to rising food prices. Food trading must be kept reasonably open, but specifics on how this can be best achieved need to be decided.

There is no simple solution to the food crisis. What's needed is a combination of carefully chosen and calibrated short and long term measures. What has become crystal clear, however, is the importance of the participation of civil society -- NGOs included -- in developing solutions and putting them into practice. These are not issues governments can or should handle on their own. In the run-up to the World Bank's spring meetings, Mr. Zoellick had said that "our message to our clients, whatever their political system, is that you cannot have successful development without good governance and without the participation of your citizens."

The World Bank president was speaking in the context of political developments in the Middle East and North Africa, but his words apply across the board. Already back in 2009, coming out of the meeting at L'Aquila, Italy, the G8 launched the Global Partnership for Agriculture and Food Security, which includes civil society in its governance arrangements and in designing its development programs.

Now is the time to give this fresh approach concrete shape. Civil society must have a real voice at the table because it represents the very practical needs of ordinary people, especially those of the very poorest members of a country's citizenry. It is for their sake -- and ultimately for the common good of all -- that all the stakeholders must genuinely work together.

We must act now, collectively and urgently. If the food riots of 2008 are any indication, failure to do so could have very dire consequences.