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

African Farmers: Surviving or Thriving?

It is one of Africa’s cruelest ironies that as the planting season begins, as it is now across much of the continent, so does the hunger season. The food stocks from the previous harvest are running low and it will be several months before the next harvest comes in. Whatever food remains in the household is rationed: portions shrink, meals are skipped, malnutrition rises.


| By Roger Thurow

Relief to Resilience

There is little mail service in rural Africa, so the smallholder farmers there wouldn’t have received last week’s annual letter of U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah.  But they certainly would welcome his words.

| By Roger Thurow

Developments at the Development Bank

I’m surprised that “surprise” is a word being used to describe President Obama’s nomination of Jim Yong Kim to head the World Bank.  Surprise, perhaps, over the specific name, because Dr. Kim hadn’t figured prominently in the speculation of who would replace current World Bank president Robert Zoellick.

| By Roger Thurow

The Rising Power of Women Farmers

The most common tool in African agriculture is also the most impractical.  Or at least it appears to be.  It is the hoe, which is used for plowing, planting, weeding and harvesting.  It is a simple tool that produces the majority of the continent’s food, and yet it has remained unchanged over the centuries, defying any technological advance.

| By Roger Thurow

Looking Back, Moving Forward

At President Obama’s first international summit, the G8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy in July 2009, he rallied his fellow rich world leaders to commit to investing $22 billion to conquer global hunger through agricultural development.  He spoke passionately about both the moral obligation and the global security imperative of ending hunger and the despair and hopelessness such deep poverty breeds.

| By Roger Thurow

Mr. Xi Goes to Iowa

Those were interesting photos from the dusty archives that appeared in various newspapers and TV reports this week, pictures of a visitor from China inspecting hogs, vegetable farms and grain processing facilities in Iowa back in 1985.  It became downright fascinating when it turned out that visitor, Xi Jinping, was now returning to the U.S., and to Iowa, as the vice president of China.  Oh, and he is presumed to be China’s next president.

| By Roger Thurow

Global Collaboration

At the foot of Mount Kenya, a patch of maize stalks are defying the odds.  They are standing tall and robust in a trial field where the soil had been intentionally depleted of nitrogen, one of the essential nutrients for maize.

| By Roger Thurow

Learning by Doing

Learning by doing is the philosophy of the Pan-American agricultural school known as Zamorano in Honduras.  Students come to class every day dressed in their uniform of blue jeans and blue shirt.  They come to work, not just to study; more often than not, their classrooms are the fields and the food production plants on campus.  They plant seeds and pull weeds and milk cows and nurture fish and make ice cream and inseminate queen bees.

| By Roger Thurow

Sidetracked

A not so funny thing happened on the way to the G20 meeting in Cannes last week.

| By Roger Thurow

The Right Vote

We’ll keep this short:

“Vote for the Appropriations Committee recommendation for foreign operations and against any cuts that would hurt hungry and poor people.”

| By Roger Thurow

Girls Grow

The teenagers of rural western Kenya I have met during the past year have no shortage of ambition.  Especially the girls.  They want to be doctors and nurses and teachers and lawyers and pilots.


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?

Learn more »

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 »