March 25, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Hope Springs Eternal

With the arrival of spring comes an enduring optimism: Hope springs eternal.

That is what we say on the north side of Chicago as another baseball season nears.  Could this be the year – after 102 years – that the Cubs finally win a World Series?  No games have yet been played, so every team is in first place, the Cubs – wonder of wonders — included.

A similar hope and optimism consumes the farmers of western Kenya I have been visiting.  As they plant their maize seed, hope springs eternal that this might be a year of bumper harvests and great opportunity.

For the long-suffering farmers, their optimism is more justified.  They have seen the benefits of using hybrid seeds and a small amount of fertilizer and deploying better planting methods, like proper spacing between plants and more disciplined care.The rains were slow in coming to western Kenya; they arrived a couple of weeks later than they did last year.  This caused some anxious scouring of the horizon for signs of clouds and precipitation.  And when they came, the rains brought a new set of concerns, mainly that the heavens continue delivering a steady soaking that will allow the seeds to begin to grow.  But this is mainly a time of optimism.

The rains unleash a glorious freshness across the countryside.  Everything that had become dusty and parched during the scorching hot, dry season is renewed.  The oppression of drought turns into the democracy of opportunity that comes with the beginning of a new planting season.  It is as if the rains themselves bring a revolution – a revolution of attitude, of dreams of deliverance from hunger and poverty.

I asked a group of farmers, who help each other plant, about their expectations for the harvest.  Some, tilling half an acre, talked of harvesting 10 or 12 bags (90 kilograms each).  Those working a full acre spoke of expectations for 20 or 24 bag harvests.  Such production would mean yields three-times higher than before they began using better seeds, a thimble-full of fertilizer and more efficient planting methods.  These abundant harvests, as I wrote from Kenya earlier this month, would allow the farmers to beat back chronic hunger, pay school fees for their children, buy a cow or two, replace the grass-thatched roof with metal sheets.

One of the farmers wore a knit cap with the name Obama stitched on the front.  Although she doesn’t know the specifics, she has heard that the American president, whose father came from rural Kenya, wants to help smallholder farmers like them.  Indeed, President Obama’s Feed the Future program aims to end hunger through agriculture development.  The immediate beneficiaries would be the smallholder farmers of Africa and other poor precincts of the globe, by improving their access to seeds and fertilizer and improving storage facilities and markets so they can maximize the income from any surplus production.   And more production from them will help all of us by adding to the global food supply, which is coming under increasing pressures from a growing population and seemingly more-frequent extreme weather events.

As the farmers of Kenya plant, the lawmakers in the American Congress uproot and cut.  Slashing the budget is their preoccupation.  Some have their sights set on whacking foreign aid, which would include aid to the poorest farmers of the world.  Doing so would shatter the optimism of a new season and undercut the budding feeling of opportunity and hope that comes with the rains and the planting.

Warning of the consequences was Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank and a former government minister in Nigeria who pressed for economic and social reforms.  One family’s despair over a lack of food, over a shrunken harvest, can soon become a matter of despair for the entire world, she said.

If families can’t put food on the table, “what is a national problem becomes an international problem,” she said earlier this week while receiving the international global leadership award from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  “We must invest in agriculture.”  She then spoke the language of the business leaders in the audience: Agriculture in developing countries, she said, has three times the potential to lift people and nations out of poverty than any other economic lever.

Why, then, would we want to stifle aid to agriculture development?

Delivering this same message, but in a much more dramatic way, are three men of faith who are planning to begin fasting next week to raise the clamor about the budget-cutting threat.  Tony Hall, a former Congressman, ambassador and current executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, along with David Beckmann of Bread for the World and Jim Wallis of Sojourners are launching a new campaign of “fasting, prayer and advocacy to protect vulnerable people from Congressional budget cuts.”

The budget proposals, they believe, “will disproportionately impact hungry and poor people in the U.S. and abroad.”  Their plea to national leaders: Don’t balance the budget on the backs of those who are already stooped from hunger.

Ambassador Hall has long been raising the clamor in Washington.  In 1993, as a member of Congress, he fasted for 22 days – water only – to protest, as he said, “the lack of conscience of the U.S. Congress towards hungry people.”  Congressional leaders were eliminating the only committee that worked with the poor and the hungry.

The fast, he recalls, “was pretty lonely at first.”  But eventually thousands of high school and university students joined him.  The word spread, publicity mounted.  In the wake of the fast, Congressman Hall started the Congressional Hunger Center and the World Bank convened a conference to increase its lending to poverty reduction programs.

The situation today, he says, is more alarming.  He writes in his blog “The stakes are even higher this time, as many of the proposed budget cuts will cause even greater harm to vulnerable people than the cuts that provoked my last fast.”

What impact will their fast have this time?  Tony Hall is optimistic the clamor will be heard.  Even in this gloomy season of budget cutting, hope springs eternal.


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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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