February 26, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

Going Together

 WASHINGTON, DC – In the new initiative to end hunger through agriculture development, an old African proverb is lighting the way: If you want to go fast, go it alone.  If you want to go far, go together.

For the Obama administration, which is leading the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, this means taking a “whole of government” approach, bringing the focus and resources of many agencies to the same task.  For Africa, it means looking beyond national borders and thinking regionally.

This introduces a new set of challenges to an already daunting task: boosting food production on a continent that has entered the 21st Century hungrier and more malnourished than ever before.  For the Obama administration, the “whole of government” effort will require avoiding the turf wars and budget jealousies legendary in this town.  For Africa, where getting an individual country to work through development priorities is difficult enough, it will require working together with several countries to develop regional strategies.  For donors, it will require new ways of dispensing aid, from bilaterally to regionally.  And a new way of thinking: subsuming your own self-interests to work across agencies and across borders.

But to go far in ending hunger through agriculture development, it will be necessary to go together.

This is one of the realities being confronted at a conference summoned by the Partnership to Cut Poverty and Hunger in Africa.  It is called “Putting Principles into Action,” an effort to keep the wheels turning on the Obama initiative.  There are funding commitments to be kept ($22 billion pledged by the G-8 countries last summer), lofty rhetoric to be implemented on the ground (“We will make your farms flourish,” President Obama said in his inaugural address) and new ideas to be tested.

Among the Africans, there is a growing recognition that for any individual country to succeed agriculturally, it will need to cooperate with its neighbors.

“Unless you are willing to harmonize with your neighbors, can you achieve your national priorities?,” asks Boaz Blackie Keizire, an official in the African Union Commission who is working to implement the continent’s agriculture priorities.

They are keenly aware of this in Rwanda, where the Global Food Security Initiative has first landed on the ground.  The Rwandan government convened a meeting of western governments and aid donors in December to outline its goals, strategy and plan of action for achieving measurable progress on agriculture development and poverty reduction.  Its plan was hailed as the first project-ready country investment plan to capitalize on the U.S. initiative.  Since then, some two dozen other countries have come forward to advance plans of their own.

That is the first step, to come forth individually.  The next step is to march forward together.

Rwanda, for instance, is landlocked, and depends on its neighboring countries for ports and transport to the sea to market any surplus agriculture production.  And it is a small country, unable to deploy economies of scale in purchasing supplies such as fertilizer and seed.  President Kagame and Agriculture Minister Agnes Kalibata have stressed that Rwanda’s success in improving agriculture production will be limited with regional success.

Rwanda agriculture will only flourish if regional markets flourish, and regional transportation, regional communication, regional infrastructure.

The goal of the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, also called Feeding the Future, is to create the conditions for Africa’s farmers to grow enough food to feed their families and also have surpluses to sell on the markets.  If there aren’t sufficient markets to absorb the surpluses, prices of the commodities fall and farmers lose incentive to grow as much as they can.  It has happened over and over again in Africa and has kept African agriculture from advancing.

Thus, Boaz notes, “surplus production is a regional aspect.  You produce a surplus in your country, you need a region to sell it in.”

“I’m from Uganda,” he continues.  “Uganda often has big surpluses.  In the immediate vicinity, Ethiopia and Kenya have regular food shortages.  This speaks to clear regional cooperation.”

Or, he says, consider this: “In Kenya or Uganda, you find a huge market for staples in southern Sudan.  So you build a nice big road to southern Sudan.  But who cares for that road, so that it doesn’t end with your country’s border?”

These questions have long bedeviled Africa.  Despite centuries of ethnic divisions, competing colonial legacies and post-colonial conflicts, three regional economic trading blocs have emerged in Africa in recent years, groupings of nations in the East, West and Southern parts of the continent.  They now need to be deployed in the fight against hunger.

Export, tariff and subsidy policies beg to be coordinated regionally to foster trade.  Regional standards and certifications will help advance seed research and distribution.  Larger markets will create more efficient supply chains for agriculture inputs, like fertilizer, and be more attractive to investors.  Transportation and irrigation policies cross borders along with the roads and the rivers.  As do diseases afflicting plants, animals and humans.

Success crosses borders, and failure does too.

In the fight against hunger through agriculture development, African countries need to go together, or they won’t go very far at all.


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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.

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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.


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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