UK urged to look to science and AI at global hunger summit

Britain to relaunch food security efforts after cuts to its international development budget

As many as 62 million people in eastern and southern Africa could be facing food insecurity by early 2024, it is feared. AFP
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Britain will relaunch its efforts to tackle global hunger at a summit this month where it will be urged to embrace opportunities from science and AI despite cuts to the UK’s aid budget.

The UK will use the food security talks it is hosting on November 20 to publish a new development blueprint meant to be “above party politics” as a general election looms.

Development Minister Andrew Mitchell is leading efforts to repair Britain’s humanitarian image and show UK leadership on hunger after aid cuts he fiercely opposed.

After suspending a pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid, the UK’s aid budget has fallen by 15 per cent since 2019, with some of the money spent on looking after refugees at home.

As the summit approaches ministers have been urged to look to science as a way of making progress towards stalled development goals, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tries to position the UK as a leader in technology and AI.

The UN says its 2030 poverty goals are off track at the halfway point since their adoption in 2015. Hunger problems have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and the impact of climate change, with food security set to be a key talking point at Cop28 in Dubai later this month.

The World Bank warned in an update this week that food price inflation remains high around the globe, with as many as 62 million people in eastern and southern Africa feared to be facing food insecurity by April next year.

Bond, an alliance of UK charities, said in a briefing that Britain should use the food summit to act on commitments to share technology under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“Technological advances to improve food security and nutrition must be shared more quickly, and be supported by upskilling relevant populations, including small-scale women farmers,” it said.

The necessary aid “includes investing in climate-resilient agriculture, seed security, and scaling up of community-based disaster-risk reduction such as early-warning systems,” it said.

The Royal Society, the UK’s historic scientific academy, said Mr Sunak’s dream of making Britain a “science superpower” depended on funding for international research and innovation being available and trustworthy.

“The recent cuts have damaged that reputation with all our partners worldwide, not simply those in developing countries,” it said in a submission for Mr Mitchell’s new policy.

Elrha, a UK humanitarian charity, called for 2 per cent of the aid budget to go on research and innovation, compared to the current level of 0.2 per cent which it described as a “chronic lack of funding”.

It urged the government to “support the humanitarian community to realise the benefits and mitigate the harm of AI”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosted a summit at Bletchley Park this week aimed at establishing common ground on AI’s risks.

“It is vital that the humanitarian sector acts now to ensure measures are in place to protect populations from the potential harms of AI while also making the most of it its potential to strengthen humanitarian response where appropriate,” the charity said.

Mr Mitchell told MPs last month that the food summit would look “at the way in which technology, science and artificial intelligence can drive forward our objectives”. Britain will set out how it plans to work with international partners “for the greatest impact”, he said.

He said Britain’s new development plan was “most unusual” in seeking support across parties, as he looks to embed a new policy before a 2024 election in which the Conservative government is widely expected to lose power.

The Labour chair of Parliament's International Development Committee, Sarah Champion, wrote in a letter to Mr Mitchell that recent cuts had “sent the message that the UK government simply does not care” about the world’s poorest people.

She welcomed the “AI for development” vision outlined by the UK at the UN General Assembly, but said local community representatives “must be involved with the development and implementation” of any AI initiatives.

Mr Mitchell sketched out the basis of a new development policy in a speech in April in which he called for a focus on “working alongside countries as partners” rather than “charity, handouts and dependency”.

Declaring that “Britain is back”, he used the speech to rebrand the country’s aid offering as UK International Development, aiming to bring charities and universities under the same umbrella as officials.

Updated: November 03, 2023, 12:54 PM