October 1, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

African Voices

Listen to these African voices:

“As our governments take action, we need the international community to do its part as well. A green revolution in Africa depends on locally driven solutions plus reliable donor support.  Neither ingredient is sufficient on its own – both are indispensable.”

These are the words of two African agriculture ministers – Agnes Kalibata of Rwanda and Joseph Sam Sesay of Sierra Leone – written in The Guardian this week.  Their countries are at the forefront of African-led efforts to engineer an agriculture transformation on the continent.  Since 2007, Rwanda has increased its investment in agriculture by 30% and Sierra Leone has boosted spending on agriculture to nearly 10% of its budget from just 1.6%.  Accordingly, food production has dramatically increased and malnutrition is in retreat.

And yet they know that they can’t finance all their agriculture needs themselves.  They need the support of the international community.

Their plea for “reliable donor support” is a repudiation to all those who believe that Africa would be better off without foreign aid.  Aid to agriculture isn’t dead aid, it is living aid.  As international aid for the development of African agriculture has severely diminished over the past three decades, the continent’s agriculture hasn’t thrived, as the less-aid-is-better argument would conclude.  Instead, African agriculture productivity has severely slumped along with the aid.

The development of agriculture in every country in the world has required government assistance.  Rich countries like the U.S. and those of Europe could provide their own aid to their farmers – and continue to do so in massive amounts.  But most African countries, so poor and so far behind in agriculture, don’t have the resources to do it on their own.  So they are reaching out – not for food aid to feed their people but for agriculture development aid so their people can feed themselves.The ministers go on to say:

“We know the solutions to our systemic challenges: our farmers need improved inputs, including seeds as well as improved soils; they need roads that will connect them to markets; they need agribusiness credit and private sector investments to spur growth; they need facilities to reduce their estimated 40-60% post-harvest losses and they need training and technology to cope with climate change.  Most of all, they are yearning for results.  If we can boost agricultural productivity, we can accelerate economic growth and raise incomes for communities, countries and our continent as a whole.”

These words are a repudiation to those who say that Africa’s agriculture development efforts are being steered by outside forces intent on imposing American products on unwitting Africans.  Ministers Kalibata and Sesay know as well as anyone what is needed to boost food production in their countries.  These aren’t solutions being imposed from the outside.  They are common sense solutions that every agriculture system in the world needs to be successful.  Africa shouldn’t be expected to settle for less.  And it is aid to support projects desired and designed by the African governments themselves, rather than aid that funds donor-driven projects.

The aid they seek isn’t aid that will just be scattered around their countries wily-nily, like farmers indiscriminately scattering seed on the soil.  It is aid that will be targeted to specific agriculture projects, like farmers taking care to plant their seeds in a disciplined manner that will give them the greatest chance of yielding strong crops.  This isn’t foolish aid, it is wise aid.

The ministers’ concern is that the rhetorical pledges of rich world countries to aid Africa’s agriculture development aren’t translating into monetary commitments.  The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a new multi-donor fund to help the world’s poorest farmers, was launched in April with an initial commitment totaling $880 million.  In June, the Fund made its first allocations, dispersing a total of more than $200 million to five of the eight countries that had submitted proposals for agriculture development projects.

Rwanda and Sierra Leone were among the five countries receiving grants.  Rwanda is using the money to support its efforts to terrace hillside farms and create a better watershed system that will hold soil and seeds in place during the heavy rains.  In Sierra Leone, the money is adding to the government’s investments in post-harvest storage and marketing infrastructure that will help smallholder farmers move from subsistence to commercial farming.

But since those initial grants, the flow of money into the Fund has slowed.  Some two dozen countries, most of them in Africa, are expected to apply for funding during the next allocation in coming weeks.  But Fund managers say there may only be enough to finance projects in three countries.  The agriculture ambitions in the countries turned away will be slowed.

Listen to the voices of Africa. “Let our collective action be sustained,” they are saying, “until we end food insecurity.”

Archive

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The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

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At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

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Harvest and Hunger

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country.

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Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

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Rowing in the Same Direction

Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

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Political Will

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

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Countering Drought

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

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Cool Beans

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.


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Big Brains on Little Brains

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

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Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

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Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

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Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

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Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

Multimedia

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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.

Books

The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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EnoughEnough

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »