How can 180 people eating lunch and shopping in Rome help these children?

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In 1974, the United Nations held a World Food Conference at which Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, vowed to eradicate world hunger within a decade. It did not happen, of course.

This week, the international community is meeting again for an even grander occasion, a four-day World Food Summit hosted by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation on behalf of some 180 national delegations. Despite the fanfare, its aim is markedly more modest than its predecessor's: this time, the pledge to is reduce world hunger by half over the next 20 years. But even that goal looks like a distant mirage.

Coming at a time of austerity among the rich industrialised countries, including big cutbacks in contributions to UN agencies, the sum- mit has failed to extract a single commitment of cash, trading reform or agricultural policy shifts from any of the major donor countries.

Enthusiasm for the summit, already shaky in the wake of recent bashes on environment in Rio, population in Cairo, women in Peking and habitat in Istanbul, has become virtually non-existent. "Hunger is a noble issue, but the fact is the world is sick of mega-conferences and forking out money for causes that don't seem to be going anywhere," said one humanitarian aid official who knows the UN system well.

The "summit" tag has become something of an embarrassment, too, since almost none of the world's most powerful leaders is turning up. With the exception of Italy, which is hosting the event, the rest of the industrialised world is sending agriculture or overseas aid ministers. Britain will be represented by Baroness Chalker.

That will leave about 100 Third World leaders milling around Rome with little hope of obtaining anything except for a few bagfuls of fashion purchases and some slap-up Italian meals on the side. The FAO's director- general, Jacques Diouf, has spent most of the past two years flying around the world persuading as many leaders as possible to attend, and has even secured international funding to cover their travel and hotel expenses. But for what?

"The whole thing will be a waste of time and money dedicated to the greater glory of Jacques Diouf," the humanitarian aid official complained, echoing sentiments shared by many non-governmental organisations and individuals within the UN It is perhaps no accident that the FAO has just suffered the first budget cut in real terms in its 50-year history and is now struggling to justify the sorts of expenditure that oncemade it a byword for bureaucratic, self-serving money-wasting within the UN system.

Skimming the draft declaration, one comes across a plethora of phrases like the following: "If all parties at local, national, regional and international levels make determined and sustained efforts, then the overall goal of food for all, at all times, will be achieved." No clear idea is given of what these efforts should be, nor the type of body which could pursue them.

"You have to realise," said an FAO delegate who helped negotiate the declaration on behalf of the most important donor countries, "that this is not a blueprint for action, merely a symbol for the kind of action that individual governments could take." A rather arcane aspiration for an major international meeting, surely? "I don't think so," the world- weary diplomat responded. "What are words anyway except for symbols?"

The toothlessness of the document has less to do with the negotiators, though, than the structure imposed upon them. Jim Greenfield, director of the FAO's commodities and trade division, pointed to what he called a "real movement in perceptions" about the damaging effect of market price fluctuations on the hungry of the Third World, something which is at least acknowledged for the first time in the summit declaration. But of course the summit does not suggest ways to combat such fluctuations - that is the job of the World Trade Organisation, whose work this summit has agreed to leave well alone.

What little world governments all agree to, unfortunately, tends to be a blend of the interests of First World economies and Third World elites, at the expense of the true interest group - the billion or so people who are actually hungry. Thus the talk, just as in 1974, is of increasing production, developing hi-tech agricultural methods to increase yields and encouraging more trade in foodstuffs - "music to the ears of the big northern farming conglomerates, without enough emphasis on the small-scale production in the south", according to Christine Whitehead, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam.

The summit declaration says that primary responsibility for food security rests with individual governments, operating within a "market- oriented world trade system" - a vision that many see as disastrous. "In failing to address the inequity in the current balance of global food security," said Save The Children's food security adviser, John Seaman, "the summit is at risk of sentencing generations of the world's poor to a future where they will never have an opportunity for sustainable development because they are constantly engaged in a fight for survival."