Sheikh Hasina

Speech at the World Food Summit - Nov. 13, 1996

Sheikh Hasina
November 13, 1996— Rome, Italy
1996 World Food Summit
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On 12 November, 1973, when my father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the Prime Minister, Bangladesh became a member of FAO. After 23 years, standing on this podium, I recall the continuing meaningful cooperation between Bangladesh and FAO since then. I consider the invitation to speak here today a rare honor and a privilege. Addressing this august assembly is both a matter of honor and of humility to me.

I feel honored because I am associated with the proclamation of a Declaration that will reaffirm and ensure the inalienable right of every human being to a fair share of the world's food. In and out of prison, on streets and in public meetings for the last 21 years, I fought for people's right and entitlement to food, democracy, protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedom in my country. It is a matter of satisfaction for me that in this Declaration, to the end of securing rights and entitlement to food, democracy and human rights have been recognized as fundamental bases.

I also stand before you humbled. Humbled because there can be no human rights for a person defeated and debased by hunger. And more than 800 million people in the world today are denied an adequate diet to the point where their lives are at risk and, quite often aborted by premature death. Two hundred million children are ill-fed, listless and without hope. Asia, the fastest growing region in the world, is paradoxically the home for more than 500 million undernourished men, women and children.

I am humbled because I am here to testify that a fundamental human right is being flouted: the right to live with dignity, the right not to die of starvation - a right acknowledged by the International Covenant of the United Nations in 1966. A right reiterated over and over again by the World Food Conference in 1974, the World Food Security Compact in 1985, and the Declaration of Barcelona and the World Declaration on Nutrition in 1992.

Today, as I speak from the podium of FAO, I also recall that the Hot Springs Conference, a decisive step towards the creation of FAO, asserted in a core Resolution: "Whereas the first cause of hunger and malnutrition is poverty."

That was in 1943 when the world witnessed the death of millions of peasant farmers and the tragic flight of entire populations in search of new homes and means to feed themselves. Today, poverty persists and the dimension of misery is frightening.

Never has the sheer number of men, women and children suffering from hunger been so high. Never have so many people uprooted by natural disasters and human cruelty alike, crowded along roads and struggled their way on to make-shift hovels or pitifully flimsy vessels. Never have so many 'ecological boat people' drifted in ever greater numbers into marginal areas or over-crowded slums. Never have the muted cries of the hungry been made more desolate by the lonely anguish of exhausted earth, denuded forest-stands and sterile fishing grounds.

Yet today, the threat of conflict between East and West is well behind us. And the people with the broken plough ask us, if we care to hear a question: "What are we all and the world powers waiting for to use the huge resources swallowed up by our budgets for human destruction to engage in outright battle with poverty and hunger?" "The hungry cannot wait." We must, therefore, give an answer and a committed one for that, not tomorrow or the day after, but today, now.

My people have known the face of hunger - hunger because of natural disasters and environmental degradation, hunger because of human inflicted destruction and selfish demand inherent in quantitative growth. Historically, the heaviest burdens have been imposed upon my people, not by nature but by fellow-human beings. Unjust economy and social structure have trapped the rural majority into detention camps of poverty, powerlessness, and stunted personal development.

The Constitution of Bangladesh has enjoined upon the state to secure for its citizens the "provisions of the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care." It was, Bangabandhu, the Founding Father of the Nation, Sheik Mesuba Amman, who inspired everybody to join the struggle for the economic emancipation of the people. His endeavors were rudely interrupted on 15 August 1975 when he, along with most of the members of his family were brutally murdered. With this backdrop we struggled for 21 long years not only to restore the voting rights of the people but also to ensure the economic emancipation of our people. A people's movement had to be launched with the overwhelming support of the people in all walks of life to ensure a free and fair election and an accountable and responsible government. The common men and women made great sacrifices and suffered great hardship to achieve these goals. With political stability restored, the people of Bangladesh have resumed the effort to build a strong, stable and prosperous country.

Our Government has given the highest priority to the agriculture sector. This year's budgetary allocation for agriculture has been increased by 34 percent above the previous level. A special fund has been set up to support farmers affected by natural calamities. We are determined to provide support to the farmers for equitable access to resources and financial services. What I am talking about is participatory development not just transfer of resources but of empowerment of the actual farmers. In this connection I welcome the bold and timely initiative taken by the Director-General of FAO in launching the Special Program for Food Security in Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries. We know from our bitter experience in the early 1970s that dependence on others often results in a perpetual fast.

Our farmers need support for that - support for entitlement to scientific knowledge; for equitable access to resources and financial services; for investment in water-control and marketing infrastructure. And all those in a participatory rather than patron-client mode. What I am talking about is not just the transfer of resources and technology, but of empowerment of the actual producers with both.

Efforts at the community and national level need to be supported at the global level with international solidarity founded on equitable sharing of resources, technology and market-opportunity.

It is unfortunate that compassion-fatigue coupled with plateauing grain yield and price-inflation has sliced food aid to half in three short years, from 15.3 million tons in 1993 to 7.6 million tons in 1996. Let us not forget that food aid has always been vital even in the most advanced countries - food stamps in one, soup kitchens in another. Such programs still bring essential relief in many countries to tens of millions who live below the poverty line.

Again, the obligation to preserve our life-support system imposes an additional burden on the developing countries; one that they cannot shoulder without the support of the international community. A world that is going to have to double its farm production in 25 years without destroying the environment will need a collective pooling of resources and knowledge and genuinely cooperative endeavor. What is obvious at this point of time, is the increasing brittleness of our natural resources base. Farming in the future must therefore be less profligate, more careful, especially in its treatment of genetic diversity - the building blocks of food for our children.

It appears today that the exciting breakthrough of the gene revolution is within reach. But the north, with its technological resources will have to cooperate equitably with the South and its God-given genetic riches. Confronting each can beggar the other. By cooperating, both can redeem our unfulfilled pledge of driving out hunger.

All these advances in frontier technology will be meaningless to our rural poor if structural reforms do not place within their reach resources to produce and procure "a little more food on their tables, a little more clothing on their backs, a little more roofs over their heads".

It is in this context that I recall the words of President Vaclav Havel, "I have never fixed my hope on what is happening above. I have always been interested in what was happening 'below'. What could be won there and what defended". Movements from below are invaluable in as much as grassroots groups speak for the voiceless and stand up for the marginalized - a role we often shirk.

What is required is a grand alliance of people's organizations, non-governmental organizations, private enterprises, governments and international organizations. The road to a world without hungry people and thirsty land is long and hard, but it exists. Whether our cooperative efforts in the coming years will match the promise of a gentler and kinder world that is more caring and less private is not for us to say.

That conclusion, is reserved for two judges; our children, to whom we shall bequeath either a pillaged earth or a habitable world, and the hungry millions whom we are pledged to serve - and have, so often, so short. I thank you for your patience. Peace be upon you!

Joy Bangla, joy Bangabandhu, long live Bangladesh, joy hungry millions of the world, khoda hafez.

Hasina, Sheikh. 1996. "Bangladesh: Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of the People's Republic of Bangladesh." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.