Hunger Envoy Report: Discussion

I welcome Mr. Kevin Farrell, Ireland's special envoy for hunger. Mr. Farrell was appointed to the position in January 2009. Prior to that date, he was a member of the Government's hunger task force. He has worked with the United Nations World Food Programme in a senior capacity in several countries, including Zimbabwe.

Colleagues will recall that at the time of the publication of the hunger task force report, members of the task force appeared before the joint committee. On that occasion, the chair of the hunger task force, Mr. Joe Walsh, stated that he hoped the task force report would serve as a wake-up call to the Government, international donor community and developing world about the need to tackle hunger and malnutrition, including through greater investment in agriculture and horticulture.

The hunger task force report has brought domestic and international focus back to the key issues of hunger and nutrition, which is a welcome development. The joint committee unanimously supported the recommendations of the report and is keen to hear from Mr. Farrell what evidence is available to show the report has had a meaningful effect in galvanising the international community to tackle hunger and food insecurity, in particular given the triple challenges posed by the international financial crisis, global population growth and loss of arable land as a result of climate change.

Before we begin, I must inform the witness that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I now invite Mr. Farrell to address the joint committee.

Mr. Kevin Farrell

I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to report back to the joint committee. A short perusal of the contents of the report will provide members with an understanding of the background. It essentially reports on how Ireland is doing against the recommendations of the earlier hunger task force report.

I propose to address some of the major findings I have made in recent years. I apologise to those who might have been at the meeting yesterday, as I will be trotting over a little bit of old ground essentially to set the overall context. Briefly, in terms of overall progress globally in tackling malnutrition, the picture is not very encouraging. While I acknowledge it has only been a short time since the report was produced, globally there has not been much progress. We still are very much off track in respect of the first millennium development goal of halving poverty and hunger by 2015. Nevertheless, it is important to focus on some of the positives and even the global context. There has been some progress. All commentators would point to an improvement in the investment that is now being made in agriculture. That is not simply being made by donors but in many developing countries, progress is being made to crank up their own budgets for agriculture. Although the figures for nutrition do not suggest much improvement - and I will revert to this subject later - we certainly can take some courage from the much increased focus that now is being placed globally on the issue of nutrition and responses to it.

This afternoon I will talk about what Ireland has done. The first point is that in my assessment we have responded strongly and positively to the recommendations of the hunger task force. That document contained quite a number of recommendations and we can look at progress on virtually all of them. Excellent work is being done in the field and I have had a chance to visit some of the programmes. I have been highly impressed with some of the work being done out there. Likewise, I have been greatly impressed when talking to colleagues here, in Irish Aid and among the NGOs, by how much of a commitment there now is to the hunger agenda. This certainly has been very striking in the couple of years since I have taken on this role. We now are beginning to see some definite progress and some definite achievements in respect of the quite difficult subject of influencing others. This is the subject of advocacy to which the hunger task force report refers and I will return to it in a minute.

Briefly, in respect of agriculture, members will recall that the hunger task force report stresses three broad themes of support for agriculture with reference to smallholder agriculture, particularly in Africa, and with a particular focus on women farmers. The usual estimate is that women comprise 80% of the producers in Africa in smallholder agriculture. Consequently, the emphasis is on smallholder agriculture and on women. As for the nutrition dimension, the hunger task force recommended a strong focus on nutrition and in particular on what is a particularly difficult nut to crack, namely, the issue of chronic malnutrition, which is the big one. We probably all are more familiar with the acute malnutrition that one can see from the visual images that sometimes cross television screens or appear in newspapers. However, I refer to malnutrition that sometimes is unseen. In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, up to 50% of the children born there are stunted. This figure is staggering by any standard and it is that part of the malnutrition problem on which we have been particularly anxious to focus.

On reflection, when looking back on recent years, it is in the area of advocacy that Ireland has made its most significant contribution. We have done some great work in agriculture. We also have done some great work, and are doing even more, in respect of nutrition but it is in the area of advocacy that we are having a real impact. I was in New York last September to attend the launch of the 1,000 Days initiative, that is, the 1,000 Days nutrition programme that was co-hosted by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, and the Secretary of State, Ms Clinton. In itself, it was a huge event that brought together the Secretary General, many highly influential people in the area of food security and nutrition, a number of political leaders and important figures from the NGO world and so on. While the meeting itself was a hugely significant event, the important point is that Ireland now is working closely with a major player, namely, the United States, which is actively and enthusiastically working with us on this initiative. Apart from the meeting, I refer to the progress that has been made even in the brief time since September. For example, the Secretary General's special representative, Dr. David Nabarro, visited Dublin yesterday. He came here to discuss how to take this initiative to the next stage with a representative from the office of the Secretary of State of the United States and with Ireland. Some work is being done in mapping out how this process can be taken forward to induce a number of countries with particular problems in tackling chronic malnutrition to plan definite actions on this hugely important initiative.

I am unsure whether I have mentioned the 1,000 Days initiative. I refer to the recognition that we need to make an impact during the first 1,000 days of a child's life, namely, from conception to two years of age, as otherwise, in many cases, we never will. We must tackle and address malnutrition at that early stage of childhood development covered by this critical 1,000 days, which sometimes is referred to as the period from minus nine to 24 months. The initiative taken in September to work with the United States, the United Nations and other partners was to prioritise this issue in particular. This is a concrete and tangible outcome of the hunger task force and all the work being done by people in Ireland. It is making a difference and it will make an even greater difference in the months and years ahead.

I could go on but I wished to flag that issue. Incidentally, I do not speak only of the work being done by the Irish bilateral programme. I certainly have seen, recognise and applaud the excellent work done by a range of non-governmental organisations, many of which are funded or partially-funded under the programme. They have stepped up to the mark and are very much focused on trying to tackle some of the hugely critical problems of agricultural under-development and of nutrition. It is making a difference and in the programmes I have witnessed in the four countries of Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania and Lesotho, we are making a difference and are saving lives. It is vitally important that we continue. We have the focus and the emphasis right. I am not suggesting that we radically change any of the major themes or priorities that were identified by the hunger task force. In my report I simply make some suggestions as to how we can strengthen some of this work in all three of the areas.

The message I would like to leave with the committee is that Ireland has responded positively. That response is being recognised internationally by other donors. I mentioned the US. It is also being recognised in EU deliberations. It is certainly being recognised among our multilateral UN agency partners. It behoves us to continue and strengthen that work and to make it even more effective. My message is that we have started very well and I sincerely hope that Ireland continues to keep this priority because it is vitally important.

I invite members to put their questions. I call Deputy Pat Breen.

I compliment Mr. Farrell on his report and apologise for my failure to attend the launch yesterday. I had a commitment to attend a meeting in my constituency.

There was a famous supermarket slogan, "Every little helps". That slogan could be applied to what Ireland has done over the last number of years. I compliment Irish Aid and the NGOs for the work they do in developing countries.

I am very interested in the area of agriculture. During the summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Mozambique to see some agricultural projects that are assisted by Irish Aid. I was very impressed by what I saw. I visited a nursery, sponsored by Irish Aid, where nutritious seeds, plants, fruit and nuts are grown. These plants or seeds are given to farmers to grow in their own small plots. It gives an excellent opportunity and a great start to people who have been malnourished for many years. I saw another very interesting project. It was a large farm where, with the aid of South Africa, local people are educated in horticulture. They are given a plot of ground to grow cashew nuts, peppers and other crops. Each local farmer trains other local people and the circle widens. Each person then has his own small farm and is able to feed himself and his family. This is an excellent Irish Aid project.

We sometimes think Africa is a very bleak continent with little fertile ground, but in many African countries there is fertile ground. It is important that work is done to help farmers help themselves.

Mr. Farrell did not mention climate change. Could he comment on it and its effect on Africa in particular? Other human rights areas need to be examined. People are being displaced from their lands. This is an issue in many countries, particularly Colombia.

We have started well. As Mr. Farrell said, we can be very proud of Ireland's contribution. We are the leaders in this field and the work we do in these countries is recognised all over the world. I compliment Mr. Farrell on his work as Ireland's special envoy for hunger. We have done good work. There is a huge population out there to be targeted and every action we take is important. I compliment Mr. Farrell and thank him for his report. I hope we keep up our work in this area, particularly regarding nutrition and agriculture, while not forgetting HIV and AIDS.

In his report, Mr. Farrell stresses the very positive and encouraging role of the Irish Government and civil society in implementing the recommendations of the task force. He mentions a number of pieces of work and he talks, particularly, of the commitment to spend 20% of overseas development aid on hunger reduction activities by 2012. He calls for spending on hunger to be ring-fenced or maintained at current levels. He suggests the three broad themes that are set out in the hunger task force report: focus on agricultural production, particularly women farmers; under-nutrition; and political leadership. These should be maintained as the guiding principles of Ireland's effort to combat hunger. Mr. Farrell encourages further action to support communities in adapting to climate change, which poses a great risk to food security. He also encourages Ireland to continue to prioritise support for agricultural research, which is something we welcome, and greater linkages between agricultural programmes and nutrition and he advocates an even greater focus on addressing chronic undernutrition. He deals with some of these headings particularly.

I congratulate the special envoy, Mr. Farrell. I attended yesterday's launch of his report and I congratulate him on its content. As was said yesterday and has been said today, congratulations are due to the Government for the leadership it showed in this area by appointing the special task force. There is much in the report. The Chairman has referred to the three areas to be prioritised. It is good that hunger has been prioritised and is now taking centre stage.

Mr. Farrell calls for the ring-fencing of funding at current levels. I am not sure if that will happen. The 20% figure could be achieved, whatever that amount might be. We can also continue in our recent endeavours. Mr. Farrell mentioned that he has been on field visits and has seen the benefits of the investment in agriculture. I hope we can continue to pioneer that and reap the benefits of it.

Many people who read this report will ask why there are still 10,000 child deaths every day. Is something not seriously wrong if, on the one hand, we have difficulties in managing food mountains while, on the other, we hear of 10,000 children dying per day? Something is not right there. I intend to study Mr. Farrell's report in detail. I am sure I will communicate with the relevant people. Mr. Farrell seems to have gained a great deal of information and knowledge on how to address these issues. He has a global focus. It seems that benefits are being reaped from the seeds he has sown, if the committee will pardon the pun. That is what literally seems to be happening.

Mr. Farrell spoke about the difficulties caused by chronic undernutrition. Can he give the committee some advice on what can be done domestically or globally to address undernutrition? Can anything be done with regard to food labelling, for example? Could some of the multinational corporations do anything to improve labelling?

I am conscious that Mr. Farrell, like this committee, has a particular job to do. We need to be conscious of what is happening domestically, however, particularly as families come under pressure. Does Mr. Farrell have any expertise with regard to encouraging people to take certain steps to ensure they consume the appropriate nutrition on a daily basis? Is a significant cost associated with having a proper dietary intake? Can it be achieved regardless of its cost?

I note that on page 19 of his report, Mr. Farrell calls for "robust evidence-based analysis of the problems" and "identification and clear understanding of the strategies". In the next paragraph, he says there is a need for "a thorough monitoring system so that the real impact, especially at household or family level, can be better understood". The phrase "real impact" is underlined in the document. The report also refers to "small scale ‘oases' of excellence" that are "not scaled up". The tenor of Mr. Farrell's argument seems to be that not enough is being done, or that what is being done is not making an appreciable difference. Although Mr. Farrell said some progress is being made, it is hard to accept that when one hears that undernourishment is increasing and that 10,000 children are dying each day as a result. I appreciate the point that was made about the 1,000-day programme.

I have attended several meetings of this committee since I became a member of it in recent times. It is depressing to come here on Wednesday afternoons to hear about human rights abuses, poverty and hunger throughout the world. We have received many reports. It seems to me that people know what the right thing to do is, but they are not doing it. We are aware of the waste and corruption that happens in certain countries. Does the political will exist to identify the stronger programmatic interventions that were mentioned by Mr. Farrell? It is all very well to say Ireland is great, but does the political will exist in other countries in the developed and developing worlds to tackle these issues in a real way, rather than merely producing another report to add to those we have already received?

We know where the problems are, but we would like to see more examples of tangible things that are making a difference. I was struck by the expression "oases of excellence" because I am aware that a significant difference is being made on a smaller scale. The work that is being done on the micro level does not seem to be translating to the macro level, however. If Ireland's response is to be recognised internationally, we should give a commitment to ring-fence our overseas aid money. No matter how bad the situation is in this country, we are not facing the hunger and poverty faced by countries in the Third World. I hope we will never face it again.

I join others in thanking Mr. Farrell for his attendance. I had the pleasure of attending the launch of his report yesterday. It was rewarding because I gained information. This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate Irish Aid and the various non-governmental organisations on the work they are doing in this area. Deputy O'Sullivan has expressed the depression into which many people can fall when they consider issues of this nature. It is like trying to climb a hill only to find one has been standing still.

We have heard many facts. In the last two years, the number of people who are undernourished has increased from 862 million to over 925 million. We need to engage with the public and the media on the importance of dealing with the problem of climate change. Whether people like to believe it or not, climate change is contributing to this ongoing problem to a great degree. I was disheartened last night when the results of the elections in the United States started to come through. We seem to be going backwards. People are starting to think only of themselves. When I was in Washington with Deputy McManus prior to the Copenhagen conference, it was obvious to us that a political majority did not exist in either the US Congress or the US Senate to deal with the issue of climate change and to pass the appropriate legislation.

When I spoke in the Dáil this morning about last week's meeting of the European Council, I referred to the need for the EU to take a leading role at the upcoming Cancún conference, in terms of its commitment to achieving a 20% reduction in emissions. We have been told the target may be extended to 30% if there is sufficient co-operation among other developed and developing countries. It is as plain as the nose on my face that it will not happen. The United States will not agree to it because the necessary legislation cannot be passed. The President of the US is powerless. The shift in power within the US Congress makes it doubly certain that such a deal with not be reached.

We need to decide what we will do. Should we stand back and accept that we cannot reach agreement until other countries do something about it? As I said this morning, I strongly recommend that Ireland should take a leading role at European level in encouraging our partners to proceed without such countries. If we do not do that, while bringing other countries with us where possible, this problem will get worse and worse. We will have to wait a long time for the US to get its act together. In the meantime, 10,000 children or more will continue to die of starvation each day. As a small country that has played a leading role in the past, Ireland should be vocal in taking a lead on issues of this nature at the various forums where it is possible to be vocal.

It has been useful to get an up-to-date report from Mr. Farrell. I am glad we have had an opportunity to discuss this issue, which is above party politics. The most important thing is to guarantee that this programme will continue, regardless of who is in government after the next election. We need to reach all-party agreement to maintain the targets that have been set for the elimination of hunger and improvements in nutrition. It is important that people like Mr. Farrell, who are dealing with issues when people's lives are at stake, can have the comfort of knowing this programme will continue regardless of which party is in power. I can only speak for my own party. I hope we can give an assurance today that it will be the case. I hope we can commit ourselves to that.

I would like to ask Mr. Farrell about a horrifying report on Ethiopia that I read recently. I cannot recall the title of the report, a copy of which I have in my office. It was compiled by Human Rights Watch, which is a respected body. As Mr. Farrell has been to Ethiopia, perhaps he can fill us in. I do not want to be sceptical about reports. I like to hear from people who have visited places like Ethiopia. It was depressing to read the claim in the report that the Ethiopian Administration is using aid moneys to promote its own political cause. It was suggested that the whole situation is rigged.

I am bothered by the idea that the authorities in individual areas do not get aid unless they are in agreement with the requests of the regime. If we think the euro we are sending to these countries are not getting through to those who need aid, we should do something about it quickly. I do not like to make statements I cannot stand over. I was horrified when I read the report in question. Does Mr. Farrell have any information in support of what I have said? Can he confirm or deny it? A great deal of money is involved in these projects. As I have said, we are talking about people's lives. People's political views do not matter in this context. A child who is dying of hunger does not know anything about party politics. I would like to think the money is going where we want it to go. I ask Mr. Farrell to address that aspect of the matter in his response.

I apologise to Mr. Farrell for missing virtually his entire presentation. I had to vote on a significant matter in the Seanad.

I applaud the three previous speakers, particularly Deputies O'Sullivan and Barrett, and strongly support their views. Deputy Barrett went right to the point. As a result of what he said, some of what I was going to say is, unfortunately, redundant. However, it can bear a certain degree of emphasis.

I will begin by talking about the hunger task force and the hunger unit. When the hunger task force was established, I took part in a debate on the matter in the Seanad. I have welcomed the establishment of the hunger unit, as the concrete establishment of a group of that nature is needed to get things done. The word "hunger" can be vague because it is a situational term that can mean different things to different people. If one normally eats at 6 p.m., one might feel hungry at 5 p.m. That is a very different quality of hunger from the desperate hunger we are discussing in this context. It is difficult to quantify hunger. If the matter is to be considered scientifically, perhaps we could more accurately be guided by the terms "malnutrition" and "undernutrition". I appreciate that the term "hunger" strikes a specific chord from a political point of view, particularly in the light of this country's memory of the Famine of the 1840s which was known in Irish as "An t-Ocras Mór" which may be translated as "The Great Hunger", the title of a famous poem by the late Patrick Kavanagh. The people have continued to take a specific interest in the matter.

Deputy Barrett was right to point to the situation in America and I was pleased to hear him say what he had to say about last night's results. I suggest we should be pleased that some of the decent people managed to hang on. The manner in which issues of this nature have been driven off the agenda is not confined to America. Our political complexion may be different from that of the United States, although it is possible that we are also in the run-up to an election, but these issues have been overshadowed here by the prevalence of concern with our immediate economic situation, which is pretty grim.

I would like to comment on an astonishing thing that has been mentioned. I accept we like to present things positively. Mr. Farrell has said he has been encouraged by certain developments. He has also mentioned that we have taken a global leadership role in the fight against hunger. In that regard, he referred to the commitment to spend 20% of the overseas development aid budget to tackle hunger. It is a Sisyphean task, however, in the light of the substantial increase in the number who are literally starving to death. He has mentioned that the number of hungry people has increased from 862 million to 925 million in the last two years. He also referred to the deaths of 10,000 children from starvation each day. No one ever adverts to the practical and simple reason this is happening. I remind this distinguished committee that the population of the world is approximately 6.9 billion, will exceed 7 billion in the next few months and reach 9 billion by 2050. Why should anyone be astonished that it is impossible to feed such a large number of people? We simply cannot catch up until we address population issues.

Every year I attend the launch of the UN global population report which addresses significant problems such as female genital mutilation, the involvement of the civilian populations in areas of conflict and education. It is astonishing that the implications of the mathematical figure I have mentioned - the global population figure - have not been highlighted on any of the occasions on which I have attended the launch of the report. The reason this aspect of the matter is not discussed is that most of the major religious leaders are interested in continuing to play the numbers game, which is a real pity. I have spoken out on this issue every year, but it has not been reported once. I have spoken about it in the Seanad, but it has not been reported. Perhaps we are unwilling to face the issue. However, it must be faced if we want to avoid the catastrophe that is hunger and famine. If we do not take action, we will hit a barrier in terms of resources such as water, food and fossil fuels and it will be more likely that plant, animal and fish species will become extinct. All of this is happening, but we are simply not regarding it. Climate change is part of this element of the matter. I wonder if Mr. Farrell would like to comment on what I have said. It must make his work much more difficult. To put it simply, at a time when we cannot feed the existing number of people in the world, the number of mouths to feed is increasing all the time. It would be helpful if we could provide for a moratorium on that increase, but I do not know how that could be done.

I support strongly what Deputy Barrett has said about the situation in Ethiopia, an issue I raised before the meeting. I understand we will have a meeting to discuss it and I am glad the Deputy raised the issue. There is not the slightest doubt that food is used in Ethiopia as a political weapon. People are denied access to food on the basis of their party affiliation. Human Rights Watch is a very good and reputable organisation. Its report includes independent testimony from international people who have been to the country. I do not think the things that are happening are capable of what the US Administration used to call "plausible deniability" in President Bush's time. We need to ask questions about how our aid is administered. Is it administered in the best way? I do not think many of the Irish people who give money to GOAL, Trócaire, Concern and Afri, etc., would be willing to put their pennies, pounds or euro directly into the pockets of these parties; therefore, why should Irish agencies do it? I will not open up that issue too much. However, I would welcome a comment because I understand we will have a meeting with the organisation which compiled the report. I have asked that its author, Mr. Rawlence, be given an opportunity to speak at this forum and the Chairman has indicated that this may happen.

There are a number of worrying situations. Mr. Farrell has a very difficult task. However, Ireland can play a political role at European and global levels if it follows the suggestions we have all made at this meeting. We want to support the work Mr. Farrell is doing. More practically, we would like to see aid distributed to those who need it. Aid should not be abused. The use of food as a political weapon is and should be a crime against humanity.

Mr. Farrell cannot really make political comments. We have visited Ethiopia on a number of occasions and as far as we are concerned, the administration of aid by Irish Aid and directly by the ambassador was absolutely faultless. That was evident when we visited the hospitals and the other places built. The ambassador kept a month-by-month check to ensure what was supposed to be done was actually happening. There have been allegations of corruption to the effect that the money went somewhere else. All I can say is it was absolutely thorough. We met many people on the ground and women played a big part. It had a big influence on us subsequently. The Irish water management experiment was fantastic. It is a world example and some 6,000 people were benefiting from it. I do not know whether they supported Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party or the Independents.

Surely that is a political point that would be quite beyond the wishes of the Chairman.

The point is that there was nothing like that there. We met people from GOAL and other groups on the ground there. They were doing fantastic work. They had great reports although there were problems and there will continue to be problems. Members might remember that there were problems after the previous election. We had some influence on helping to get things back to order afterwards. The committee has been there and has seen quite a lot. I saw the report that you were talking about. I find it strange. We will invite them to come and put their case at this forum. I assure you we will state what we saw. Irish Aid will tell you what it saw, or what it does day in, day out. I cannot understand why we keep knocking the work that Irish Aid is doing. You are indirectly knocking it, not directly-----

I am sorry, Chairman-----

I know you do not-----

No, I am sorry, but I will not allow that to pass.

Let me finish.

No, I will not because you appear to suggest that I am knocking something.

You cannot talk over-----

I have not knocked anything.

I defy you to show me any situation where I have criticised Irish Aid. I have not done so.

As I was saying, I know you are not knocking it. I know you strongly support the work. You know the work we have been doing. You have been involved in some of that work.

You clearly said I was knocking it.

People are knocking it. People are knocking it.

That is the point. That is what I meant. You cannot just keep doing that. There is excellent work being done.

You just said "you" again.

I will stand over-----

You should say "he is".

Maybe I should refer to "people". Anyway, we will listen to what is said, we will see and we will follow through.

Good. That is all I ask.

I am quite happy. There is nothing perfect there and there is nothing perfect in other countries, but it comes back-----

It is perfectly legitimate if we receive a report from a reputable body-----

Yes, we want to hear its point of view

-----to ask for clarification. It is perfectly reasonable. Nobody is knocking anything. I am not in a position to say something is wrong-----

That was already agreed at the beginning of the meeting

Do not misunderstand what Senator Norris and I were saying. I was speaking personally when I asked for clarification on what is in this report.

I assume everybody is acting in good faith. I accept what the Chairman has said. I have not been to Ethiopia. I would like to be assured. That is all.

We need the facts.

This is something that keeps coming up again and again. I know you are fairly recently appointed to this committee.

That has nothing to do with it.

This issue is raised again and again. I know there are people who are concerned about it. I am not talking about members raising it here. We got a letter about it. We got allegations. We are inviting the person to come along to a meeting to explain his side of the issue. I just want to set out what we have been through, what we have seen, the people we have been with and the schools we have visited. The work that has been done by Irish Aid, particularly on hunger and education, has been almost miraculous. It has been done happily with everybody, without interference. It has led to those same programmes being extended over the whole country. At first, it was argued that the Ethiopian Government received a higher level of support in the area we were in. Irish Aid and UCC were involved in the pilot study, which was extended to all parts of the country. I cannot say what might have been going on otherwise. I have read some of the report, which seems to be based on asking people whether the political party in question was supported in the region they were in. Comments like that were made. We will hear the report-----

Perhaps we can leave this discussion for when it is actually before the committee.


The Chairman referred to the recent appointment of Deputy Barrett to the joint committee. That does not mean he is a person of restricted knowledge in this respect. I am absolutely delighted that he is a member of the committee. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan was also recently appointed to this committee. It is absolutely wonderful that such people are members of the committee. I speak as the longest serving member of this committee. I was one of the founders of the committee. I am the only person to have been a member of the committee without a break since it was founded. I welcome the addition of Deputies Barrett and O'Sullivan. They may be new members, but they have vital and important experience to add to the committee. I am delighted they are here to take part in our meetings.

I ask the Senator to keep what I said in context. Deputy Barrett asked what the situation had been and what had happened. I mentioned that the committee visited Ethiopia and saw certain things.

The Chairman has already told us that.

It was only in that context that I mentioned it. I did not mean anything else by it. I ask Mr. Farrell to reply to the various questions asked.

Mr. Kevin Farrell

I thank the Chairman and the members for their questions and positive comments. I echo the remarks about Government leadership. It has been excellent, as I said yesterday. I am not sure if I am meant to mention individuals, but the leadership of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, has been second to none. It has made a huge difference.

Members are probably aware that responsibility for the overseas aid effort is divided among various bodies. Irish Aid is the major player in the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Finance are also playing significant roles in various aspects of the effort. I recognise the excellent work they do.

I might not be able to pull together all the comments made and questions that were asked. I apologise in advance if I do not address all of them. I am happy to take supplementary questions if required.

Agriculture has been prioritised by the hunger task force. I strongly recommend that its priority status be maintained. It is recognised that investment in agriculture, particularly smallholder agriculture, is one of the most effective investments we can make as we try to alleviate poverty. I have seen figures to suggest that the return on investment in agriculture can be four times as great as the return on general development investment. I am not sure how that figure was arrived at. Everyone recognises that agriculture is one of the key areas.

I was asked about various programmes. I have not been to Mozambique since I took up this role. I have been to Malawi, which borders Mozambique. There are probably some connections and similarities between the excellent work being done in both countries. I understand some of the Mozambiquean programmes that have been alluded to are similar to some of those being implemented and worked on in Malawi.

Some excellent work is being done by the CIP potato research centre, which is based in Lima but has a strong representation in Malawi. We are working closely with the centre to develop varieties of potato and sweet potato. There is an overlap with programmes in Mozambique. Although I am not familiar with the detail, I understand that some tremendous work is being done. I have seen the work being done in Malawi.

A number of people have expressed frustration at the disturbing figures in respect of the level of malnutrition and the numbers of malnourished people in the world. Between 2008 and the present day the figure has increased. On a slightly more positive side the figure for last year was more than a billion, therefore the figures fluctuate. There are some disturbing issues out there to which members have alluded and some have raised the topic of climate change. That is one of the somewhat new elements that have arisen and people are much more conscious of it now than they had been two or three years ago. I can only reflect some of the concerns expressed by members as one of the critical factors we are confronting. As to how it can be dealt with, I have seen some of the work done. In Ethiopia there has been a long history of work by Ireland and others in tackling problems of conservation and degradation. If members have visited the Ethiopian highlands they will be aware of the soil degradation that is such a feature of the country. I worked with the UN in Ethiopia during the famines in the mid-1980s so I was familiar with Ethiopia then.

It was most interesting for me to go back and see the work done. I can only echo what the Chairman said about the impressiveness of the work Ireland is supporting. We witnessed a number of dramatic programmes where conservation work is being supported by Ireland, where whole hillsides and catchments are being reclaimed by some fairly basic work in terracing and building soil bundsand stone bunds. It is excellent work. As one who was familiar with Ethiopia 20 or so years ago I was very encouraged by the work that Ireland is supporting in the Ethiopian highlands. We can be proud of that work. I will not minimise the scale of the problem in Ethiopia, Africa and well beyond. One of the more disturbing aspects, of which I am conscious, is the level of malnutrition and under nutrition. The biggest single area in terms of the numbers of under-nourished people, and especially children, is south Asia, the figures for which are staggering.

I agree with members' expressions of concern on the issue of population. That population is a major problem cannot be minimised. We can and do contribute in a number of small ways but they are significant for the communities we are helping in terms of supporting the mother and child sector, also the health and education work that is being supported by Ireland. I have not been particularly focused on either health or education as such but I can see the connections between the work we are doing in health, particularly for mothers and children, and the work we are doing in education, particularly in promoting it for girls. We are already contributing in several areas in the countries where we are working. We are also working to support the UN fund for population activities. Significant funding is going into UNFPA, an organisation with which I am familiar, having worked alongside it in a number of countries with the United Nations World Food Programme. I commend the work it does in working with governments to develop population priorities and programmes. That a steep hill has to be climbed is a small effort relative to the scale of need and yet we must continue to plug for support for efforts that are beginning to have an impact. We are already supporting a number of population-related programmes. While they may not be the direct population programmes they are making an impact.

Our work in agriculture and in nutrition programmes is of fundamental importance, for example, fortification of cereals or the introduction of micro-nutrients into some of the foods being consumed. I allude in my report to the links we make in several countries, such as in Tanzania, between our agricultural programmes and our nutrition programmes. We recognise and are getting governments to recognise that it is not simply about producing food, but making sure the food is available and accessible and is having as strong a nutritional impact as possible. I allude to the fact that many African countries tend to be monocrop economies based on agriculture; Tanzania was a good example. The thinking in much of Sub-Saharan Africa is on the production of maize, one single crop. More and more governments, with encouragement from Irish Aid and other donors, are beginning to realise the importance of connecting agriculture to encourage the diversification of crops so that people are not dependent on one cereal crop but are diversifying to produce vegetables and other crops which can complement the cereals that are being produced. A great deal of work is being done in this area; in terms of the half empty glass - it is massive. The scale of problem is huge but from what I have seen in recent years from reviewing the Irish Aid programme we can be very proud.

I spent many years working with the UN in food, food assistance and food security. The programmes I have seen implemented in those three or four countries are as good as anything I have seen in 25 or 30 years.

We are all very proud of the work done by Irish organisations but do I take it from what Mr. Farrell has said that he is not in a position categorically to refute the claims that have been widespread, and not just limited to Human Rights Watch, that food is and has been used as a political weapon in Ethiopia?

Mr. Kevin Farrell


Is it correct that Mr. Farrell is not in a position to categorically refute that?

Mr. Kevin Farrell

In respect of Ethiopia, I am not familiar with that report. I was familiar with the situation in Ethiopia and recently re-familiarised myself with it. I have not seen the report on food and food aid. I was very much involved in the programme in the 1980s and I believe reports have been issued in the interim - between the 1980s and now - which make the same points. Our friend Mr. Bob Geldof was criticised not so long ago because of his support at the time he was involved for programmes to which subsequent reports have pointed suggesting that much of the aid was going to the Tigrean Liberation Front, which subsequently became the Ethiopian Government. I am not familiar with the allegation mentioned by Senator Norris.

Then you are not in a position categorically to refute it. We were hoping to establish some facts.

Senator Norris should speak through the Chair.

I beg the Chairman's pardon.

The Senator has received a response. We will have a meeting here and discuss the issue at that meeting.

Mr. Kevin Farrell

Some well recognised responses are being made on the issue of tackling chronic malnutrition. It is a tough issue. In some cases we are talking about a huge proportion of children in particular, but also mothers, who suffer from chronic malnutrition. Chronic malnutrition is the result of many things, one of which is the lack of food. However, it is also a reflection of the general level of poverty, poor sanitation, poor health facilities and poor education. It is a factor of all of those. A number of strong programmes are being worked on and developed in several countries. I already mentioned food fortification and the inclusion of micro nutrients in some foods. Yesterday, the Minister announced a significant pledge to Malawi in the area of food fortification. The promotion of breast feeding is another area where considerable work is being done. There is no doubt it is an uphill battle, but efforts are being made in some areas. Many of the countries in which we work, such as Malawi and Tanzania, have very much taken on board the message we have been promoting about the importance of including and positioning nutrition as centrally as possible and implementing some of the programmes I have mentioned. This is where we see real progress.

Yesterday, I alluded to the fact that of all investments in poverty alleviation, investment in nutrition is recognised as the most effective and productive in terms of return. This has been recognised by a group called the Copenhagen Consensus . We are getting to that and it is as a result of the Copenhagen Consensus finding and similar findings that we are re-prioritising nutrition.

Members picked up on the phrase the "oases of excellence". By that I mean that one of the areas to which we should all, not just Ireland, pay more attention is the area of impact assessment, so that we know what impact a programme is having. We should do this with a view to a programme being extended and rolled out to other countries and areas. In other words, we should identify success stories and develop them to spread their impact. We often see relatively small programmes, but it is important that we find out and assess their impact so that we can replicate them in other areas. I could go on talking about that, but members have heard the essential message.

On the question of political will, I believe political will has increased. However, it is not always evident and sometimes there is a step back following a step or two forward. The current US Administration, in particular the Secretary of State, Ms Clinton, is very committed to this area. I have seen and heard her speaking on the issue on several occasions and have been very impressed with her commitment. That commitment is now being expressed in a reorientation of the United States' food security programme. The US is particularly focused on that and I would like to think our hunger task force report had a bearing on that. I am quite sure it had, as the Secretary of State Mrs. Clinton has cited it on numerous occasions. Whatever may happen two years from now, we have a strong ear and a strong supporter in her and she is somebody who recognises the hard work and support being given by Ireland. She welcomes that. Much work has been done in recent weeks, since that meeting, to prioritise the issue. If we can get a major donor, like the US, on board on this, that will be a huge achievement for a relatively small country like Ireland.

More importantly, political will is increasing in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa with which I am more familiar. However, it is not universal. There are rogue governments that probably will never prioritise this, not until something happens to force them to do so. I mentioned Malawi and Tanzania as some of the countries in which we are working and I have also visited Lesotho. When I visited Tanzania with colleagues from Irish Aid in February this year, we raised the subject of nutrition and the linking of agriculture with nutrition. We found that this was not something that had registered there and that nutrition was not seen as important. They were proud that they were doing wonderful work in producing so many thousand tonnes of maize, but our question was whether it was having an effect on the nutrition of the population. I would like to think that may have been one of the triggers that prompted a marked change in direction. Now, Tanzania, which is a country we should watch in the coming months, has become very convinced of the importance of the nutrition dimension and it is one of the countries with which we will work closely to promote this and other messages.

Political will varies. Sometimes it exists, but at other times it does not. However, enough people and countries now recognise the importance of nutrition. Those at the highest level in Malawi, presidential level, are now very conscious of the importance of nutrition. They have done some great work in increasing agricultural production - incidentally with significant help from Ireland in terms of the fertilizer component - but Malawi still has some serious malnutrition problems. Some representatives from Malawi have come to Dublin for discussions on that. They certainly recognise the importance of nutrition as a response. The political will is there. It is a slow process but it is working.

I have probably jumped back and forth a little. I think we referred to Ethiopia.

Mr. Farrell has spent a great deal of time with us. Obviously, the work he has done to date has been tremendous and everybody here appreciates that. We wish him well with his future work and would like to keep in contact with him. I assure him that we will watch and pursue these issues very closely. As Deputy Barrett said, there is all-party agreement and we will emphasise that again in regard to the commitment to 0.7%. The latest figure we have is 0.54%. GDP has come down, although it rose very rapidly previously.

I thank Mr. Farrell for his presentation. We agree that hunger is a scandal. It is almost unbelievable that despite all the work going on, the figure in regard to poverty has risen to more than 900 million from the time the hunger task force published its report approximately two years. Failure to fight that is a scandal. Ireland has set a good example and will continue to do so.

We can see from the report that very important groundwork has been done in bringing a focus and clear direction to how best to tackle hunger and undernutrition. We must persevere in this regard. As members are aware, Ireland's aid budget is set at a percentage of our gross national product. That means that as our economy has declined over the past two years, so has our aid budget. This makes it all the more imperative to ensure our focus is crystal clear and our commitment to the poorest people in the world is steadfast. I repeat what Deputy Barrett said that we are unanimously committed to that. We have made a difference and can continue to do so.

We should now develop a graduate and technical personnel programme to assist in targeted countries with applied research and development and training in areas such as irrigation, seed selection, plant husbandry, farmers' co-operatives and crop diversification, in particular for small-holders who are predominantly women farmers. Various members of the committee have had the opportunity to see them work on the ground and I hope other members will have that same opportunity.

This is something I will raise directly with the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power. We have placed an emphasis on agriculture from the start. As Deputy Breen said, we recognised agriculture as key because it was key to us many years ago. Undernutrition was an issue here in the 1950s and early 1960s. I am thrilled to see how tough and strong children are these days and the big lampposts of fellows who can be fielded on football teams. We could always find some in the past but nowadays, they are almost all like that. It is great to see that and it goes back to what Mr. Farrell said about the 45% of people stunted from malnutrition. Again, I congratulate Mr. Farrell on highlighting that aspect so clearly. I thank him for his report which sets out clearly how best to continue to maximise our impact in the fight against hunger and undernutrition.

In regard to the situation in Ethiopia, I am sorry if I get worked up about it. We are at that stage when we are trying to get money for next year. This will happen in the next couple of weeks. We all agree that we want the money for this sector but some people, not members, say it is not being administered very well. Consequently, that has a negative impact and it gets big headlines in the newspapers. It is not right because we have seen the work on the ground, as has Mr. Farrell, and as he goes on, he will see more of it.

Malawi, which Mr. Farrell mentioned, is one of the poorest countries in the world. We have visited it and have seen the affect on agriculture and horticulture, which has been fantastic, as has been the conservation of water. Deputy Barrett has been Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security for some time and is very familiar with that and the devastation which can happen. We have seen it from this side because of the problems in crop reduction and not knowing when one can sow seeds or plant plants, which upsets everything. I congratulate Mr. Farrell on the work he is doing.

Mr. Kevin Farrell

I thank the committee for its time.

We will continue in private session.

The joint committee went into private session at 5.07 p.m. and adjourned at 5.12 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Wednesday 24 November 2010.