June 8, 2017

21st Century Diplomacy: Advancing US Foreign Policy and Humanitarian Goals through Agricultural Development

By Zach Wehrli, BA candidate at the University of Chicago and Intern with the Council's Global Food and Agriculture Program

Agricultural Development as a Diplomatic Strategy

Development diplomacy, a strategy popularized in foreign policy circles over the last decade, can be generally understood as the use of development policies to advance a political or diplomatic agenda. Within the field of global development, actors focus on initiatives targeting sectors like public health, education, and agriculture; similarly, development diplomacy can involve any of these sectors. But as recent literature, including the Council’s annual global food security report, has suggested, investments in agricultural development are particularly effective in furthering US interests abroad.

In fact, the United States has been encouraging agricultural development in other countries for decades. The scalable nature of development diplomacy efforts, and ones involving agricultural development in particular, allows policymakers to craft specialized, impact-driven programs in order to achieve their goals, ranging from individual farmer mentorship programs to full scale, in-country development projects. Agricultural development has the ability to further a wealth of US interests at home and abroad while simultaneously advancing global engagement and humanitarianism—two ideals that have been essential tenets of US foreign policy for the better part of the last century.

Despite all this, agricultural development is still an underutilized and under-discussed diplomatic strategy. By looking to the projects already being implemented by government entities like the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), the benefits of engaging in development diplomacy through the implementation of agricultural development policies become evident, offering insight into how agricultural development will be invaluable in advancing major foreign policy initiatives over the next century.

The Work of the Foreign Agricultural Service

So what is FAS? Current agricultural development policy is overseen primarily by FAS in partnership with USAID and the State Department. Officially, FAS was reconstituted in its modern capacity in 1953 under Agriculture Secretary Ezra Benson. As a branch of USDA, FAS works in collaboration with other federal agencies to achieve its multidimensional mission of crafting beneficial trade policies, developing potential markets for US exports, managing agricultural attaches in embassies abroad, and contributing to the US government’s efforts to end global food insecurity.

The work of FAS perfectly exemplifies the intersection of global humanitarian aid and advocacy for the interests of the US government, demonstrating that agricultural development is a diplomatic strategy with the capacity to benefit recipient populations while at the same time advancing a national agenda. The diverse ways in which the United States can engage in development diplomacy are one of its greatest strengths. Even within the subset of agricultural development, the ability to create specialized, scalable strategies to address even the most complex of foreign policy issues is fundamental to the efficacy of development diplomacy, which can be observed through existing FAS programs.

Scalability and Impact

For example, small-scale, targeted agricultural development work has proven immensely effective at strengthening bilateral trade relationships with middle-income and developing countries and emerging democracies. One such example, The Cochran Fellowship Program, has trained over 17,500 fellows from 125 countries since its inception in 1984. In an effort to foster economic relationships beneficial to US exporters and consumers, FAS invites 600 fellows from around the world for 2-3 weeks each year to engage in training regarding “agricultural trade, agribusiness development, management, policy, and marketing.” From South African farmers imparting their newfound agricultural expertise to students in their communities to an individual in the Philippines singlehandedly purchasing more than $4 million of US agricultural products, The Cochran Fellowship Program has proven that small-scale agricultural development can yield material benefits for US producers, increased quality of life for recipients, and strengthened bilateral relations with vital US allies.

The US government has also employed agricultural development on a larger scale to achieve vastly more complicated goals. The US Regional Stabilization Strategy implemented in Afghanistan in 2010, for example, incorporated agricultural development at the core of its efforts to support the newly established Afghan government and continue the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Through increased spending, an increased civilian presence—including 89 agricultural experts from USDA and USAID—and cooperation with local Afghan governments, the United States sought to increase agricultural productivity, regenerate agribusiness, and increase agricultural sector jobs. The strategy was designed to lift the Afghan people out of poverty and eliminate instability contributing to the revitalization of terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, simultaneously advancing the humanitarian, diplomatic, and defense agendas of the United States. Today, agriculture accounts for 56 percent of jobs in Afghanistan and the United States continues to invest in the agricultural sector through partnerships with organizations like the FAO and the World Bank.

Why Now?

Not only do well-executed development diplomacy policies have the ability to further US interests, from national security to economic prosperity, but they also have the potential to advance the most vital humanitarian goals of the 21st century. Agricultural development policies are an incredibly effective component of these efforts, as agricultural development has been proven to reduce food insecurity, expand gender equality, increase income levels, increase educational attainment, decrease political instability, and drastically impact health.

Like any diplomatic strategy, however, agricultural development interventions are not infallible. It is vital that all parties involved, including governments, businesses, and farmers themselves, have the capacity and expertise to succeed long after lenders and investors have left—a challenge that has plagued the development sector since its modern inception. The FAO determined that the most effective agricultural development strategies involve local farmers as business partners and equals, leading to the most positive outcomes for economic and social development. And, without adequate national oversight and governance strategies, even the most equipped and well-trained farmers may fail to succeed.

Over the next century, as technology, climate change, population shifts, and globalization continue to alter the international structure, it will be vital for governments to engage in innovative, impact-driven diplomacy to achieve the most difficult of political goals. Development diplomacy is a vital asset in the foreign policy arsenal of the United States; if wielded effectively, it could be crucial in helping the US overcome the greatest diplomatic challenges of the 21st century. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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