The world’s poorest countries face famine and civil unrest if global food prices keep rising, the International Monetary Fund has warned.

Speaking at a press conference in Washington, D.C. IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said the 48% rise in food prices since 2006 may undermine gains the international community has made to reduce poverty.

To ensure such millions of people in some of the world’s poorest countries avoid starvation Mr Strauss-Kahn called on rich countries to increase the amount they give to tackle poverty.

Higher food prices will raise the cost of imports for poor countries creating trade imbalances that could affect the economies of developed nations, he said. “It’s not only a humanitarian question,” he said.

World Bank calls on governments

In response, World Bank president Robert Zoellick has been urging governments to act quickly to help hungry people by committing emergency aid to the UN World Food Program, which is seeking $500m in emergency assistance by 1 May.

He has also sought backing for a new deal on global food policy to combat hunger and malnutrition, and at the 13 April meeting of the IMF-World Bank Development Committee, he won that support.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, he warned that 100m people could be pushed back deeper into poverty if action was not taken. “We can’t afford to wait,” he said, adding that “we have to put our money where our mouth is, now, so that we can put food into hungry mouths. It’s as stark as that.”

Improved global financial stability

Since its previous meeting in October 2007, the IMF said, global financial instability has increased, world economic growth has slowed, and growth prospects for 2008 and 2009 have deteriorated.

It agreed that “policymakers should continue to respond to the challenge of dealing with the financial crisis and supporting activity, while making sure that inflation is kept under control.

While each country’s situation is different, coherent action must be taken, taking due account of cross-border interactions.”

As for emerging market and developing countries, it noted that so far, they have “continued to grow strongly and show resilience in the face of the ongoing financial crisis, though their growth prospects have moderated and inflation risks have increased.”