June 8, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

A Beautiful Day

It was a beautiful day, as Bono might sing, when President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton and a phalanx of corporate leaders, and the Irish rock star himself, gathered in Washington DC on May 18 to shift the effort to end hunger through agricultural development into a higher gear.

I’ve written about the words of President Obama that day, demanding an “all hands on deck” effort.

And I’ve spoken about Secretary Clinton’s emphasis on the nutrition pillar of this effort, especially focusing attention on the crucial 1,000 Days time that stretches from a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.  “Nutrition is too important,” she said, “to be treated as an afterthought.”

But I’ve kept quiet on what Bono said that day mainly because I wanted to confirm that he really said what I thought I heard.  Now that I’ve read the text of his speech, I know I wasn’t hallucinating when he launched this riposte:

“We need aid.  Of course we still need aid.  Of course we do.  Does anyone disagree?  Anyone apart from brain-dead, heart-dead ideologues or professional controversialists?  Come on.”

I laughed when I heard this broadside against those who clamor that Africa would be better off without aid, those who had gained great publicity by positioning themselves as the “anti-Bono.”  Touché, I thought, well-played.

The Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security that day was, to a large extent, about reversing the impact of a withdrawal of development aid and investment from Africa’s agriculture sector.  If those “brain-dead, heart-dead ideologues” were correct, African farming would be flourishing.  For what they advocate actually has transpired.  Aid and investment fled from African agriculture in the past three decades.  African agriculture was left to succeed on its own.

Has it?  Is it better off without development aid and investment?  No.  Africa’s farmers are far behind farmers everywhere else in the world.  Many of the continent’s smallholder farmers – there are tens of millions of them – don’t grow enough to feed their families.  This neglect has given us the ugly, unconscionable oxymoron: Hungry Farmers.

Beyond Africa, aid has been showered on agriculture.  The U.S. wouldn’t have become the breadbasket it is without extensive government support of farmers.  The same is true of Europe, and of the new food powers in Asia and Latin America that benefited from the assistance of the Green Revolution.  Even after those agriculture transformations, the aid flows.  This is what the haggling over the current farm bill in the U.S. Congress is all about.

The argument shouldn’t be for or against development aid for agriculture, but what kind of aid, how it is structured and monitored.  (This should be true for agriculture assistance in the U.S. and Europe as well; in both places, farm subsidy programs have grown so big they consume a large chunk of government budgets.)  Of course, some aid to Africa has gone terribly wrong, especially when it has ignored the wishes of its intended beneficiaries, distorted local markets, fed corruption.

Which is why Bono also mentioned the word “transparency” repeatedly.  “We won’t have food security without it,” he said.  “Track where the money is coming from and where it goes and what good it’s doing.”

He talked about vigilance, about partnerships not paternalism, about change.  “Aid is way, way smarter than it was because of science, technology, accountability, learning from mistakes,” he said.  “And one more thing.  It’s finally dawning on most of us that the continent that contains the most poverty also contains the most wealth…

“The challenge is not the old one of how to make up for a lack of resources.  The challenge is how to well manage an abundance of resources and how to make sure that this bounty benefits all people over the long term and not just the few people in the short term, how to use this plenty to eliminate poverty, extreme poverty.  And this is new.”

I write about the potential of this approach in my new book, The Last Hunger Season.  In western Kenya, smallholder farmers – hungry farmers — working with a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, are doubling, tripling, quadrupling their maize harvests in a year, and they are diversifying their farms to reach a nutritional variety with the food they grow and to stretch their incomes across growing seasons.  This isn’t agricultural aid in the old sense of giving them seeds and fertilizer and tools; it’s a new mindset of making these essential elements of farming widely available to them and providing financing for them to pay for it.  This is how agricultural improvements have taken root in other precincts of the world – availability, accessibility, affordability.

The best kind of aid seeks to eventually end aid altogether.  That happens when once hungry farmers become self-sufficient throughout the year, year after year, eliminating the hunger season.

One Acre, which began with some 40 farmers in 2006, is now serving more than 130,000 farmers.  The farmers, finally able to access the basic elements of their trade, are doing the work themselves, they are transforming their own lives.

It’s a new day.  It’s a beautiful day.

Archive

| By Roger Thurow

A Wondrous Journey

Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.


| By Roger Thurow

1,000 Days and Migrant Stress

The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 



| By Roger Thurow

Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.











Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 



Multimedia

Videos


 


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 »