October 29, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

A Dangerous Myopia

It is lamentable that the deep and persistent economic woes in the U.S. and Europe are breeding a certain dangerous myopia in international development afIt is lamentable that the deep and persistent economic woes in the U.S. and Europe are breeding a certain dangerous myopia in international development affairs.

“Americans are more resolute in their desire to put their own house in order,” notes the Chicago Council’s report on its fascinating 2010 national survey of American public opinion.  It is very aptly titled, “Constrained Internationalism: Adapting to New Realities.”

For me, one of the most significant findings is that 91% of Americans want to focus on fixing problems at home rather than addressing international challenges.  That’s up nine points from 82% in the 2008 poll.  The survey found that 60% of Americans think economic aid to other nations should be cut back while only 7% think it should be expanded.  And concerning our urgent priority at Outrage and Inspire, only 42% say that combating world hunger should be a “very important” foreign policy goal of the U.S., which is down four points from two years ago.

These attitudes stand at odds with others revealed in the survey.  For instance, 51% of Americans would like to see homeland security expanded, and 30% favor expanding defense spending.  These same people, who obviously value security, should also be pushing for an expansion of the war on global hunger, which requires more aid for agriculture development in the developing world not less.  For surely a world with nearly one billion chronically hungry people can’t be seen as safe and secure.  The rioting in dozens of countries during the shortages and high prices of the food crisis of 2007-2008 proves that.

Europeans also seem to share this myopia on development aid and world hunger.  At least their heads of state and cabinet ministers do, since they have been reluctant to put up the money to match their pledges to boost agriculture development, particularly to Africa.  This is highlighted by a 10-member committee of development experts from Europe and Africa, called the Montpellier Panel, which has just released a report titled, Africa and Europe: Partnerships for Agriculture Development.

The announcement of the report contains this succinct assessment:

“The report comes at a time when Brazil, China and India are scaling up their investments and partnerships in various sectors across Africa, and Africa is taking the lead in boosting its own agricultural development. Europe risks being left behind as a key partner to tap the huge potential of the farm sector in Africa. GDP is now rising in 27 of Africa’s 30 largest economies — both in countries with significant resource exports and in those without. That growth is coming from a variety of sources, not just oil and other natural resources, but also agriculture, finance, retail, and telecommunications.

“The report portrays an Africa vulnerable to spikes in food prices, yet also lays the groundwork for unprecedented progress in food production. Meanwhile, Europe has made big promises for a massive increase in agriculture aid, but has yet to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action. The current murky state of European assistance obscures its record as historically Africa’s most reliable partner.”

This gap between rhetoric and action results from the dangerous myopia that there isn’t enough money for crucial development tasks in foreign lands.  The $22 billion that the G-8 countries pledged in agriculture development aid for the poorest countries at their summit in 2009 is a mere drop in the bucket compared with the money that rich world countries spend subsidizing their own farmers.  And the U.S. pledge of $3.8 billion is less than the total amount of money being spent by politicians running for office this fall.  Yet European leaders won’t come up with the money they have promised and the U.S. Congress has been whittling back the requests of President Obama.

The Montpellier Panel warns of breaking the momentum that has been building in bringing a green revolution to Africa:

“Despite significant progress globally, we have on the one hand a very top down global response characterized by strong rhetoric and the promises of large-scale funding and, on the other, a rich diversity of on-the-ground activities in sub-Saharan Africa undertaken by government and private agencies and NGOs but which remain uncoordinated. We believe there is a potentially dangerous gap between the two strands of activity. If we do not bridge the gap there is a risk that new investments will dissipate into more small scale activity, and we will not see the transformational change that is needed.”

And if we don’t see that change – because our development myopia is obscuring the vision — the global challenge to double food production by 2050 will become even more daunting.  Africa’s farmers, currently so far behind farmers in most of the rest of the world, will be indispensable in satisfying the world’s ever-increasing demand for food.

As I write in the new November/December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine:

“…The rich world neglects Africa’s development at its own peril. It will be impossible to multiply global food production — that is, to reduce hunger in poor countries while meeting growing demand in emerging ones — in the coming decades if Africa’s farmers are not given the means to grow as much food as they possibly can….The continent that has been fed by the world’s food aid must now help feed the world.”

Now is not the time to retreat in the war on global hunger, but to advance.airs.


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

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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. 

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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. 




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.


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.

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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.

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