December 18, 2014 | By Roger Thurow

A Christmas Miracle—Almost

The Last Hunger Season Film Series

‘Twas the week before Christmas
And all through the House,
Optimism was stirring
Of more food for good health.

The House of Representatives had brought us to the edge of a Christmas miracle by passing legislation giving statutory authorization to Feed the Future, President Obama’s initiative to reduce global hunger through agricultural development. The Global Food Security Act had been bottled up for nearly six years, a captive of Washington’s polarized politics. On the ground in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, millions of smallholder farmers and their families—ironically, the hungriest people on the planet—were benefiting from increased investments in their work; Feed the Future was swinging the aid pendulum away from feeding the hungry with emergency food aid to long-term agricultural development aid that creates the conditions for the hungry to grow more food to feed themselves. (See how agriculture development benefits smallholder farmers in Africa, and the entire global food chain, in this Last Hunger Season short-film series).

Still, Feed the Future’s own future has been in constant peril, under threat from tight budgets, cuts to foreign aid, and political paralysis. The prospect for Feed the Future becoming a permanent part of America’s good work abroad has often looked bleak.

Then last week, members of the House—rallied by a gang of dogged supporters of agriculture development and, perhaps, moved by the spirit of the holiday season—embraced the legislation with rare bipartisan support. Next up to complete this Christmas miracle would be the Senate, where another group of dogged supporters had kept a fire burning for Feed the Future. Momentum for action on food security grew when the Senate followed another House move and approved the Water for the World Act. That bill builds upon the Water for the Poor Act of 2005, which was championed by the late Senator Paul Simon to make access to safe drinking water and sanitation a priority of American foreign policy. Since water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) go hand-in-hand with abundant, nutritious food in the assault on world hunger, it seemed that adoption of the Global Food Security Act would naturally follow.

But, alas, political strategizing on the extent of compromise in this lame duck Congress intervened, and the clock ran out on Senate action for this year. Global food security would have to wait for the New Year, and the new Congress.

For Congress to not establish Feed the Future as a pillar of American policy (as it had for President George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR) would be to ignore the gathering momentum worldwide to end hunger. In the past couple of months, conferences in New Delhi, New York, Addis Ababa, and Rome, and a multi-city launch of a first-ever Global Nutrition Report, have given food and nutrition security a prominence that won’t go away.

In New York, dozens of university presidents gathered at the United Nations under the banner of Presidents United to Solve Hunger (PUSH). They committed their schools to doing what they can to end hunger: spreading knowledge, generating research, inspiring the leaders of the future. In Delhi, a Together for Nutrition conference rallied all sectors of Indian society to attack malnutrition in a country with the highest numbers of undernourished and stunted children. The Global Nutrition Report was a heads-up to the entire world. The report highlighted the benefits of ending hunger—particularly the “hidden-hunger” of micronutrient deficiency—and noted the costs of inaction, not only in the developing world but in the rich world as well, as the ever-widening obesity problem weighs on economies. It clearly outlined the globalization of malnourishment; how a malnourished child—whether stunted or obese—in one part of the world is a malnourished child everywhere.

We are seeing a swelling outrage that the ancient affliction of hunger and child stunting remains with us in the second decade of the 21st Century. Even Pope Francis sounded the alarm when he spoke at the International Conference on Nutrition in Rome in November. We should be “scandalized” that hunger persists today, he said. He added that food, nutrition, and the environment should be viewed as global public issues at a time when the nations of the world are linked together more tightly than ever before.

“When solidarity is lacking in one country, it’s felt around the world,” Pope Francis said.

Global solidarity on ending hunger would indeed be a miraculous development. When Congress reconvenes in the New Year, it will be time to finish the work left undone.


| By Roger Thurow

Remembering the Post-9/11 Promises to Raise Foreign Aid

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.

| By Roger Thurow

Coping with Drought

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

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.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger

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

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

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.  

| By Roger Thurow

Political Will

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

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

The Importance of Innovation

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.”

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

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.

| By Roger Thurow

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.




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.

» Learn more.
» Order your copy of the book.


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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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 »