Kudrin Wants G8 to Create Global Food Fund

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said the establishment of a fund to help poor nations withstand rising global food prices will be high on his agenda as he heads to a meeting with Group of Eight colleagues in Japan this week.

Speaking at a government meeting on Monday, Kudrin said sky-high food prices and ways to help low-income countries cope with them would be a major theme when finance ministers from the G8 countries meet in Osaka on Friday and Saturday.

"We want to create an operational fund to support these types of countries," Reuters quoted Kudrin as saying. "The second initiative is to work out a mechanism that would soften the blow of such crises for the poorest countries."

The finance ministers are meeting to lay some of the groundwork for the G8 summit in Hokkaido in early July, where President Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to meet British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. President George W. Bush for the first time in his new capacity.

The Finance Ministry provided few details of the initiative Monday, saying only that the idea has been floated many times before and was put forward again by World Bank President Robert Zoellick in April.

"As to how the G-8 will do this, it's too early to say," a ministry spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said it was also unclear exactly how Russia would support the initiative.

The World Bank recently announced the creation of a new Global Food Crisis Response program to "fast-track $1.2 billion to address immediate needs arising from the food crisis." A World Bank spokesman said he was not immediately aware if there were plans to establish a separate fund.

Having accumulated huge wealth on the back of high oil prices, Russia is now in a position to help developing economies, especially when it comes to agriculture, economists say. Food experts welcomed the idea of the fund in principle but said success would depend on the mechanisms and policies chosen.

Marijke Drysdale, an economist with Global Information and Early Warning System, a unit of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, said countries like Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan had enormous potential to increase food production.

"Russia still has a lot of land that can be used much more productively than is done now," she said by telephone from Rome.

But she warned rich nations would only be able to alleviate hunger with sustainable policies and not by "simply throwing money" at the problem.

The FAO estimates that around 850 million people suffer from hunger.

At a summit convened in Rome by the FAO last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the annual cost of increasing supply by 50 percent by 2030 would be $15 billion to $20 billion.

Representatives from 180 countries largely failed to agree on a response to rising food prices at the summit.

"They had their own interests," said John Riddle, an FAO spokesman.

Tricia O'Rourke, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, said Monday that a new fund was not what was needed most.

"There are already existing initiatives and mechanisms through which to channel money and the establishment of new fund may divert attention and resources from these," she said in e-mailed comments. "Rather, the answer is clear global co-ordination of financing efforts."

A Western diplomat said success working within the G8 on the issue would depend on Moscow's approach.

"Russia now has the luxury to help poor countries," the diplomat said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. Moscow would have to ensure, however, that it is contributing to humanitarian causes without using its newfound wealth as a "political tool."