The poet John Donne wrote that “One man’s hunger is every man’s hunger — one man’s freedom from hunger is neither a free or secure freedom until all men are free from hunger.” In Washington D.C., 1963, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) convened the First World Food Congress (1WFC) to discuss the growing problem of hunger and malnutrition. The research that supported the congress amounted to the most accurate assessment of the economic and social condition of humanity ever compiled, and it revealed the scope and urgency of the problem for the first time.
In his opening remarks at the Congress, President John F. Kennedy echoed Donne and urged action:
So long as freedom from hunger is only half achieved — so long as two-thirds of the nations of the world have food deficits — no citizen, no nation can afford to feel satisfied or secure. We have the ability, we have the means, and we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the Earth. We need only the will.
In his remarks, Kennedy also noted that revolutionary changes were affecting the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Better technologies and resources offered hope, but growing population and ecological crisis compounded existing problems.
As it turned out, we had the will. Over the course of the First Development Decade (1960-1970), a humanitarian movement emerged; by the Second Development Decade (1970-1980) international development programs were undertaken by the governments and civil society in many countries, and international development assistance was a ubiquitous component of both international affairs and public awareness. However, before 1963 there was no movement, there was no organized, global response — governmental or otherwise. The World Food Congress would change that.
Why a Food Congress?
In 1963 conditions were highly favourable to an international humanitarian movement. FAO Director-General Binay Ranjan Sen recognized that FAO could piggy-back on the growing wave of popular support for development, and it could act as a catalyst for action. FAO had the opportunity to compose a coherent message and act as an organizational organ for efforts around the globe. FAO was uniquely situated to engage with a host of actors in developed and developing countries, and had the capacity to undertake research and education efforts. To take advantage of the opportunity, Sen conceived the Freedom From Hunger Campaign.
Launched in 1960, the Freedom From Hunger Campaign (FFHC) acted to support and encourage the fight against hunger and malnutrition. FFHC stood on three legs: research, information/education, and action. It was the first, and largest ever, global campaign to raise awareness of the problem of hunger and malnutrition and possible solutions to that problem. The campaign brought together governments, governmental agencies, NGOs, private industry, religious and community groups and millions of individuals in common cause. The World Food Congress was designed as the culmination of the campaign. However, Director-General Sen arrived at the congress with a plan for an expanded and renewed FFHC fully developed in his mind. Sen and FFHC organizers pitched the congress as the peak of the Campaign, but he/they correctly expected that FAO member states and other campaign participants would support a renewed mandate for FFHC and periodic food congresses to review progress and plan future efforts.
To support FFHC and the Food Congress, FAO and other UN Specialized Agencies were tasked with a massive research effort to gain an understanding of the state of global agricultural development and the economic and social condition of humanity. FAO undertook a series of Basic Studies, compilation of the Third World Food Survey and other research efforts, and the resulting body of knowledge represented the greatest scientific understanding of the condition of humanity ever compiled. In 1960, nobody knew how many people there were in the world, never mind how many of them were hungry. Information gathered for 1WFC was more complete, by far, than any earlier assessment. The picture was dire and the situation was urgent. The Congress was convened to review this information, publicize it, and based on what was learned from it, develop a plan for action.
Sen came to FAO from the Indian Civil Service (ICS) — the largest bureaucracy the world had ever known — and understood how an international organization like FAO could me moved to affect a global effort and transform itself in the process. Before Sen’s arrival, FAO was a technical organization dedicated, as FFHC International Coordinator Charles H. Weitz observed, to making fatter cows and better pigs. By initiating FFHC and the research and information efforts to support it, Sen forced FAO to cooperate more with other UN Agencies, governments and non-governmental organizations — and for FAO departments to cooperate more with each other. The combination of a renewed mandate, the collection and analysis of new information, and greater public engagement resulted in the transformation of FAO from a technical organization into a modern development agency.
The First World Food Congress (the second was at The Hague in 1970) remain unique. Participants received a personal invitation from the Director-General, and were asked to attend in their capacities as individuals and not as representatives of governments or organizations. As Weitz noted, the result was that “…you had a student from Canada at the table with the Prime Minister of India, you had heads of NGOs sitting with ministers and statesmen, African mothers with Swiss businessmen…it was remarkable.” Many of the attendees, though they were not representative of governments or organizations, were selected because of these affiliations; the expectation was that they would carry the ideas and spirit of the Congress with them when they returned home. They did. In addition, the participation of individuals from developing countries was crucial, and marked a break from a model where development was imposed by developed countries on developing countries. The process was now more cooperative and inclusive.
The Congresses were unprecedented, but their uniqueness is best understood when they are compared to the United Nations World Food Conferences. After the first UN-sponsored World Food Conference in 1974, the possibility for another congress was effectively eliminated. Sen’s successor, Adeke Boerma, was not as enthusiastic about the Congresses (though his actions at the Second World Food Congress indicated his interest in engaging public support — of youth in particular), and the interest and resources of UN member nations were focussed more on official events where participation and contribution could be quantified. Unlike the Food Congresses, at official UN conferences member states were constrained by national interests and foreign policy objectives; outside participation was limited to a handful of NGOs that had observer status only. By the time of the 1974 UN Food Conference, Charles Weitz was head of the FAO office in New York; he observed that at the conference, when NGOs took the floor to speak, that is when country delegates went to the bathroom. It would be years before NGOs enjoyed more official participation.
The results of the World Food Congress
The First World Food Congress was a success in several ways. Most importantly, it was a collection of firsts. There had never been a meeting of such a broad group of stakeholders, the information they reviewed was the most accurate ever, and it was there that FAO pioneered engagement with informal and unofficial participants. Like FFHC itself, the very existence of the Congress was a kind of success, and like FFHC, it was a forum where there was a very real, free exchange of information and ideas. The event was conducted in an environment where heads of state and policy makers of all kinds engaged directly with NGOs and other individuals with appropriate backgrounds. It became the platform for further action that Sen had hoped for.
The moment of the Congress marked the beginning of a new era of international development. More accurate data and the inclusion of a broad association of actors in the promotion of modern agricultural development characterized the humanitarian movement that began in the 1960s. FAO didn’t invent it, but as Sen had expected, the organization was an effective catalyst for it.
The achievements of the Congress were very much in line with the three supporting “legs” of FFHC (research, information/education and action). It informed and educated the participants (and the world) on the actual state of the problem, it debated new data, methodology and areas of concern, and it identified possible lines of action. Results can also be measured in very specific ways: the renewal of FFHC by FAO Council and ECOSOC; the resolution adopted by the First World Food Congress referring to periodic Food Congresses (below); and the establishment of FAO programs such as the Indicative World Plan for Agricultural Development (IWP) and the Industry Cooperative Program (ICP). The Congress inspired the initiation of dozens of new FFHC national committees, the transformation of many national committees into independent development NGOs, and new cooperation between FAO and other UN Specialized Agencies with each other and with NGOs and private industry. Outside of FAO, the event inspired countless groups and organizations to join the fight against hunger, and global awareness rose dramatically.
A Third World Food Congress?
There has not been a third world food congress, but in recent years advancements in technology and continued public support have continued and grown the humanitarian movement that had emerged in the First Development Decade. Most recently, the Global Goals for Sustainable Development are targeting governments and peoples alike, and are supported by continued research and information sharing. But in five decades there has not been a meeting like the Food Congress. Perhaps a Third World Food Congress could act as a new marker for our progress in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, and, with all of the publicity tools we have at our disposal, motivate renewed action and dedication to this cause.
By way of conclusion, I include below the full text of the declaration of the World Food Congress; the issues it highlights, and the action it calls for are as salient today as they were in 1963.
Declaration of the World Food Congress, 18 June, 1963
WE, THE PARTICIPANTS OF THE WORLD FOOD CONGRESS
ASSEMBLED at Washington under the Freedom from Hunger Campaign to take the measure of the problems of hunger and malnutrition, and to explore the means for their solution,
HAVING IN MIND that freedom from hunger is man’s fundamental right and that all human beings — without distinction of any kind — are entitled to its realization through national effort and international cooperation;
CONSCIOUS that today, in spite of twenty years of effort since the Hot Springs Conference which led to the foundation of FAO, the curse of hunger, malnutrition and poverty still afflicts more than half of mankind;
ALARMED by the extent to which the explosive growth of population, at a rate unmatched by adequate increases in productivity, is intensifying human needs and is giving still greater urgency to the attainment of freedom from hunger;
PROFOUNDLY AWARE that the recent attainment of political independence by many hundred millions of the world’s population gives a new urgency and a new dimension to the aspiration for higher levels of living, of which freedom from hunger is the first prerequisite;
CONVINCED THAT THE SCIENTIFIC and technological progress now make it possible to free the world from hunger, but that such freedom can only be accomplished if all the available human and natural resources of the world are mobilized to this end through balanced economic and social development;
THAT the persistence of hunger and malnutrition is unacceptable and morally and socially, is incompatible with the dignity of human beings and the equality of opportunity to which they are entitled, and is a threat to social and international peace;
THAT the elimination of hunger is a primary task of all men and women, who must recognize their duties as well as their rights as members of the human race, and must fight to achieve freedom from hunger in every corner of the earth; this obligation being also inherent in the pledge of the nations under the U.N. Charter to take joint and separate action, to achieve higher standards of living, full employment and conditions of economic and social progress and development as indispensable elements of peace;
THAT the responsibility to free the world from the scourge of hunger lies jointly
With the developing countries themselves who must take all measures within their power which are necessary to achieve this objective;
With the developed nations who must cooperate with the developing countries in their efforts, realizing that freedom from hunger cannot long be secure in any part of this interdependent world unless it is secure in all the world;
With the United Nations and the Specialized Agencies who must intensify and coordinate their efforts to assist the nations in this task;
With other international organizations and with nongovernmental organizations, e.g. religious, youth, women’s organizations and other voluntary groups, agricultural and labour organizations and associations of trade and industry, who must inform and stimulate the people so that they can play their part with understanding and vigor:
THAT the task of elimination of hunger from the face of the earth should be conceived in the framework of a world-wide development dedicated to the fullest and most effective use of all human and natural resources, to ensure a faster rate of economic and social growth, and
THAT to this effect speedy and decisive action be taken:
- By all governments of the developing countries
(b) For the adaptation of their institutions to the requirements of economic and social progress; and, more specifically, to secure the most effective administrative machinery, to give incentives to increased production through ensuring just and stable prices, and to reform, where required, unjust and obsolete structures and systems of land tenure and land use so that the land might become, for the man who works it, the basis of his economic betterment, the foundation of his increasing welfare, and the guarantee of his freedom and dignity;
- For the maximum utilization of the stock of scientific and technical knowledge and the promotion of short- and long-term adaptive research suited to the conditions and requirements of the developing countries;
- For the massive and purposive education of the rural populations, so that they will be capable of applying modern techniques and systems, and for universal education to expand opportunities for all.
That to assist national efforts, and allow speedier implantation of development programs within a world-wide framework, international cooperation be strengthened, in particular so that
- Present adverse and disturbing tendencies in the trade of the developing countries be reversed and that for that purpose adequate and comprehensive commodity agreements be devised, development plans be coordinated and other appropriate measures taken, and
- The volume and effectiveness of financial, material and technical assistance be increased, and
- There be a more equitable and rational sharing of world abundance, including an expanded and improved utilization of food surpluses for the purpose of economic and social development.
EXPRESS THE HOPE
THAT the current efforts for bringing about universal disarmament will succeed and that the vast sums now being spent on instruments of destruction will become increasingly available for the elimination of hunger and malnutrition and the promotion of human well-being.
THEREFORE PLEDGE OURSELVES AND HIGHLY RESOLVE
TO TAKE UP the challenge of eliminating hunger and malnutrition as a primary task of this generation, thus creating basic conditions for peace and progress for all mankind;
TO MOBILIZE every resource at our command to awaken world opinion and stimulate all appropriate action, public and private, national and international, for this overriding task, and to this end
GIVE our wholehearted support to the Freedom from Hunger Campaign until its final goal is achieved.