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U.N., Islamic Bank Make $1B Farming Deal

Funding from an Islamic bank will help develop agriculture in poor countries, a U.N. food agency said ahead of a summit to discuss the so-far elusive goal of reducing the number of hungry people in the world.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which is hosting the three-day summit starting Monday, said it had reached a deal with the Islamic Development Bank for $1 billion in funding to help develop agriculture in poor countries that belong to both organizations.

"This agreement comes at a critical moment, when the international community recognizes it has neglected agriculture for many years," the Rome-based agency said Sunday. "Today, sustained investment in agriculture — especially small-holder agriculture — is acknowledged as the key to food security."

Organizers of the gathering, to be attended by some 60 heads of state, agriculture ministers and other officials, hope to wean national policies away from long-standing emphasis on food aid and instead generate support for a new approach: help farmers, livestock herders and fishermen to produce enough food for their own people.

U.N. officials point to villages in Kenya, Pakistan and Haiti to show this is possible.

In one Kenyan village, for example, an irrigation project is credited with not only reducing hunger there, but also allowing farmers to produce enough rice to sell surplus to the U.N. World Food Agency to help feed African's hungry.

But past U.N. food summits have so far failed to meet their stated goals, including to halve the number of the world's hungry by 2015.

U.N. officials recently put the number of hungry at 1.02 billion, or roughly one out of every six people on the planet.

The last summit in June 2008 concentrated on how climate change and soaring food prices were undermining food security.

A draft declaration for this week's summit would commit world leaders to the new strategy to increase agricultural development aid. But it does not include a 2025 deadline for eradicating hunger — a goal sought by the United Nations.

Also missing are specific funding pledges, such as the $44 billion in yearly agricultural aid that the Food and Agriculture Organization says will be needed in coming decades.

Some critics were calling for other approaches. The international agency Oxfam said Sunday that "money alone will not solve the problem," and suggested instead that the U.N. could drastically reduce the 24,000 hunger-related deaths tallied daily around the globe if it was allowed by countries to coordinate their various initiatives.

Without such coordination, "all the different initiatives do not add up to a single effective, coherent and accountable whole," Oxfam report author Chris Leather said in a statement.

The London-based think tank International Policy Network complained that the "real causes of hunger and food insecurity are not even on the agenda" for the summit, and cited restrictions on trade between and within countries as a factor undermining agricultural investments.

Trade subsidies as well as wealthy nations' purchasing quotas to boost their own farmers are also often cited as factors frustrating efforts to fight hunger.

The think tank noted that, despite past summit commitments to slash the number of hungry, "there are more hungry people now than in 2002 when they held their first summit."

Pope Benedict XVI will lend his moral authority to hunger-fighting efforts with an address Monday morning.

After dusk on Sunday, Rome lit up the Colosseum in a sign of solidarity with the hunger-fighting efforts.