April 22, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

A Green-Letter Day

Earth Day was a green-letter day in the fight against global hunger.

Clamor was raised.  Action was taken.  Momentum was accelerated.

Earth Day in Washington was all about growing more things.  Particularly growing more food.  And especially helping the small farmers of the poorest countries – who are also the world’s hungriest people — grow more food.

The action:

A global agriculture trust fund was launched by three powerful institutions that, by acting in concert and with others, can move the needle on reducing hunger: the U.S. Treasury, the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The fund, which is called the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program and will be administered by the World Bank, begins with initial contributions of about $900 million.

Donors who chipped in at the launch include the U.S. ($475 million), Canada ($230 million), Spain ($95 million) South Korea ($50 million) and the Gates Foundation ($30 million).  The U.S. contribution is part of a $3.5 million commitment to agricultural development over the next three years; the Gates contribution is part of $1.5 billion invested over the past several years to spur the productivity of small farmers.

The hope is that this fund will be a magnet for other donors — be they countries, foundations or corporations — to finance the war on hunger.  So far, there have been pledges galore; world leaders at the G8 and G20 summits last year promised to come up with $22 billion over three years for agriculture development in the poorest countries.  The fund is one way to round up the money, perhaps like the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria attracted billions of dollars in relatively short order to combat those scourges.

The fund’s money will be dispensed by a steering committee of donors and recipient countries, with input from development organizations both international and local.  The intention is that the investments will follow agriculture priorities set out by the recipient countries and will provide long-term, predictable financing.  The aim is to reverse the neglect of agriculture development investment over the past three decades; agriculture’s share of total development assistance from the rich world to the poor shrank from about 17% to about 3%.

The fund will finance medium – to long-term agriculture development projects focused on three main areas:
  • Raising agriculture productivity through projects such as improvements in water management and irrigation infrastructure, land use planning, and access to common farming machinery;
  • Linking farmers to markets with investments in rural roads, market information and communication technologies and post-harvest warehouses and transport;
  • Technical assistance and capacity development, such as expanding networks of seed and fertilizer distributors, modernizing rural administrations and strengthening producer organizations.
 
The challenge will be to find consensus on the investment priorities, avoid the red tape that has so often strangled promising initiatives and crushed incentive, and move swiftly to put the funds into play, particularly in Africa.  The best measurement of success will be to actually see fields flourishing and hunger declining.

The clamor:

The warning of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner rattled around Washington: “A global economy where more than one billion people suffer from hunger is not a sustainable one.”

While the fund was being launched at the U.S. Treasury, a clamor was rising in Congress.  In testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there was consensus across the political aisle that one billion hungry people indeed posed a looming international economic and security threat, as well as a great moral challenge.

The Senators heard exhortations to pursue the policies and support the investments in agriculture development necessary to reduce hunger and keep the world fed as food demand doubles with the expected increase of the earth’s population to more than 9 billion people by 2050.  Agriculture development, they were told, has been demonstrated to be the most effective way to alleviate rural poverty and hunger over the long term.  The drumbeat was consistent and steady, by USAID Administrator Raj Shah, Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and former World Food Program Executive Director Catherine Bertini, as well Senators Dick Lugar and John Kerry.

History was an important touchstone for much of the Earth Day clamor.  “Investing in small farmers is an incredibly effective way to combat hunger and extreme poverty – history has proved it many times,” Bill Gates said at the fund launch.

And, as the Green Revolution proved, what works best is when everyone works together, when governments and financial institutions and universities and philanthropies and corporations are supporting the same agriculture development goals, and when these efforts are adequately funded.

The momentum:

No one was clamoring to re-invent the wheel.  The clamor was to keep the wheel spinning.  “The world knows what works,” Gates insisted.

The day should provide a momentum boost to President Obama’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, also known as Feeding the Future.  But to keep the wheel spinning, Congress needs to appropriate the money for the global agriculture fund and the remainder of the $3.5 billion pledged for ag development.  The U.S. has already contributed $67 million to the fund and has requested $408 million more in the president’s fiscal 2011 budget, which is subject to Congressional approval.

Korean Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-Hyun, celebrating the fund launch, did his best to keep up the momentum by speaking from experience – and from the heart.

He noted that Korea suffered from severe food shortages as it embarked on its economic development in the 1960s.  Thus, his country was quick to put an initial $50 million into the fund.  Ending hunger through agriculture development, he said, should be a matter of “empathy rather than sympathy, deep down in the heart.”

Archive

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Harvest and Hunger

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

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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.

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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.  

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Political Will

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

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 »