July 15, 2011 | 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.

This week brought a revealing, and tragic, juxtaposition of those facts. On Monday, ONE, an advocacy organization pushing for policies that eliminate hunger and extreme poverty, presented a report that found that donors are falling far short of their L’Aquila commitment to mobilize $22 billion by the end of 2012 to finance agriculture development in the poorest countries. And, ONE noted, it isn’t only the money that is failing; the political will needed to prevent future food crises is also lagging.

As the week moved on, newspapers brought us the manifestations of those failures: pictures of emaciated children in hunger refugee camps in Kenya, where masses of desperate people are gathering as they flee drought and famine in Somalia.

Hunger, once again, in the 21st Century while lofty promises and pious pledges go unfulfilled.

Relief agencies report that 10 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda are in dire need of emergency food aid. That’s a huge increase over the 6.3 million in the region who needed assistance earlier this year.
The leaders who gathered at the L’Aquila G8 summit in 2009, in the wake of the 2007-08 global food crisis, had the right idea: reverse the decades-long neglect of agriculture development and begin the long term task of increasing the productivity of Africa’s smallholder farmers while dealing with emergency hunger crises as they arise. They promised to deliver the $22 billion within three years.

But what happened to the sense of urgency? Rather than rushing the L’Aquila commitments out the doors of finance ministries and into agriculture development projects, many of the rich world promise-makers are sitting tight on the money. ONE’s “Agriculture Accountability” report finds that only 22% has been dispersed so far:

“Canada and Italy have disbursed more than two-thirds of their pledges. France, the UK and the U.S. need to make substantial disbursements in order to be on track…Meanwhile, Germany, Japan and the EC (European Community) are difficult to assess because they have not yet reported any disbursements, for various reasons.”

In the case of the U.S., the ONE report notes that Congress has appropriated about $2 billion for President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative and other projects for fiscal years 2010 and 2011. That’s about 60% of the U.S. pledge, but disbursements to the field and future appropriations are in the balance as Washington focuses on slashing the federal budget. As the report says, “ONE considers disbursements to be the ultimate measure of political will and bureaucratic expediency.”

As the promised money has been bottled up, the hunger in the Horn has been spreading, propelled by drought on top of chronic underproduction of food. It is the kind of “slow-onset” humanitarian crisis that doesn’t get as much attention as earthquakes and floods or uprisings and wars. Yet it is precisely the kind of crisis that increased investment in agriculture development would lessen or prevent.

“Rather than waiting for a full-blown, life-threatening disaster that will cost exponentially more in loss of lives, livelihoods and humanitarian interventions, we must act now to save those already suffering from hunger and malnutrition as we build resiliency and food security in the region,” the heads of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Program and Oxfam said in a joint statement.

“The good news is that we know what to do,” they added. And that mission is to forge “a partnership between countries, humanitarian organizations and the development assistance community to link long-term development efforts with humanitarian assistance to build food security.”

The leaders who made the promises at L’Aquila know this, which is why they christened their effort the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative. But there they left it, with a nice name and lofty commitments but weak follow-through in the past two years.

“The G8 and other major donors are not approaching agriculture and food security with the urgency they deserve,” the ONE report asserts. “A major injection of political will and good faith are needed without further delay to leverage support from other donors, recipient country governments and the private sector.”

ONE reminds the leaders that the promises they made were to “real people in peril, real people whose lives and futures depend on better aid for agriculture, food security and rural development.”

They were promises made to the people who are now crowding into the hunger refugee camps in east Africa.

Empty promises lead to empty stomachs.


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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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