G-8 Nations Promise $20 Billion in Food Aid for Poor Countries

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 2009; A06

L'AQUILA, Italy, July 10 -- Wrapping up a three-day summit, leaders of the world's major economies pledged Friday to raise $20 billion to fund food and agricultural aid for the world's poorest countries over the next three years, and President Obama said that despite steps forward on economic, environmental and security issues, much work remains to be done.

"While our markets are improving and we appear to have averted global collapse, we know that too many people are still struggling," Obama said, speaking at a news conference after a three-day meeting of the Group of Eight highly industrialized nations.

The expanded commitment to food security -- up from a $15 billion pledge that Obama secured in the spring during a meeting with world leaders -- comes as the global recession and still-high commodity prices have pushed food costs 40 percent above historical levels and have left as many as 100 million people at risk of abject poverty, according to the White House.

White House aides said that during the discussions on hunger this week, Obama personalized the appeal for more aid, pointing out to other world leaders in the room that he still has relatives in Kenya who live in villages mired in poverty.

"You could have heard a pin drop," said a U.S. official who briefed reporters about the meeting.

Obama said after the summit that he had talked about his father's journey from Kenya to the United States in search of better educational opportunities. At that time, he said, the per-capita incomes in Kenya and South Korea were comparable. South Korea has since become highly industrialized and prosperous, he said; Kenya and many other developing nations still struggle.

"The question I asked at the meeting was, 'Why is that?' " Obama said. "The point I was making is: My father traveled to the United States a mere 50 years ago, and yet now I have family members who live in villages -- they themselves are not going hungry -- but live in villages where hunger is real. And so this is something that I understand in very personal terms."

Wealthy countries share a moral obligation to help those in extreme poverty, he said, but the recipients of aid have "an obligation to use the assistance that's available in a way that is transparent, accountable, and that builds on rule of law and other institutional reforms."

Obama said the next leg of his overseas trip, to Ghana, is intended in part to showcase an African country whose economy and government transparency have improved. During a one-day visit to Ghana's capital, Accra, on Saturday, he is expected to meet with President John Atta Mills, visit a hospital, outline his Africa policy in a speech before parliament and tour a coastal fort once used as a warehouse for African slaves destined for the Americas.

Obama called the agreement on food aid among the most significant achievements of the summit. He also singled out actions to combat nuclear proliferation and global warming, efforts to stabilize the global economy and a statement condemning Iran's crackdown on protesters disputing the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month.

"We remain seriously concerned about the appalling events surrounding the presidential election," Obama said. "And we're deeply troubled by the proliferation risks Iran's nuclear program poses to the world."

The Group of Eight leaders made modest progress toward an agreement to curb climate change by setting long-term targets for reducing carbon emissions while helping poorer nations cut outputs.

In addition, they agreed that it is too early to back away from economic stimulus actions taken by individual countries this year at the height of world financial crisis, actions that Obama said had prevented a global financial collapse.

"We agree that full recovery is still a ways off -- that it would be premature to begin winding down our stimulus plans," Obama said.

Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, applauded the G-8's commitment on food aid.

"In the past, food security was a mere bullet point at the G-8," he said. "This time, world leaders have endorsed a concrete and wide-ranging initiative. They have recognized that food security has two dimensions: food aid for critical situations and sustained investment in agriculture to break the poverty cycle."

Others have continued to criticize the international body, saying its format, established 30 years ago, is no longer effective because economic powers including China, India and Brazil are not part of its core.

In his remarks in L'Aquila, Obama agreed that the body should be open to change. "There is no doubt that we have to update and refresh and renew the international institutions that were set up in a different time and place," he said. "What, exactly, is the right format is a question that I think will be debated."

At the summit's conclusion, Obama went to Vatican City, where he, first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI.

Afterward, Obama gave the pope a letter from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and asked the pontiff to pray for him, White House national security aide Denis McDonough said. Kennedy, a Catholic, was diagnosed a year ago with terminal brain cancer.

Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren in Washington contributed to this report.

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