March 2, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

Looking Back, Moving Forward

At President Obama’s first international summit, the G8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy in July 2009, he rallied his fellow rich world leaders to commit to investing $22 billion to conquer global hunger through agricultural development.  He spoke passionately about both the moral obligation and the global security imperative of ending hunger and the despair and hopelessness such deep poverty breeds.

The resulting L’Aquila Food Security Initiative, one of the cornerstone results of the summit, pledged to reverse the neglect of agricultural development with “sustained and predictable” funding and “to act with the scale and urgency needed to achieve sustainable global food security” by working with governments in vulnerable countries to develop and implement their own agriculture strategies.

It was a first step to make good on a promise in the President’s inaugural address several months earlier: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

It was a major step to begin shaping what the President already envisioned as a legacy for his administration: to be the leader of the greatest effort to end hunger since the Green Revolution, which stands alongside the Marshall Plan as the most significant deployments of American soft-power.

And, above all, it was a decisive step to address one of the world’s great problems: the number of chronically hungry people in the world soared past one billion on the heels of the food crisis of 2007-08, when dwindling stockpiles of staple commodities and skyrocketing prices triggered rioting in dozens of countries.Now as the next G8 meeting approaches, in May in Chicago, those forward steps are in danger of retreat.  The L’Aquila Initiative was a three-year commitment and it is coming to an end with only mixed results.  The last two G8 summits did little to advance the program.  President Obama launched his own initiative called Feed the Future to carry out the U.S. L’Aquila promises, and it has survived the Congressional budget-cutting battles fairly well.  But some of the other countries have failed to meet their commitments and the momentum of ending hunger through agriculture development has slowed.

The G8’s own accountability report, released at last year’s meeting in Deauville, France, conceded, “G8 countries have struggled to maintain their official development assistance commitments.”  It acknowledged that only 22% of the L’Aquila pledges on agriculture development had been disbursed two years into the three-year initiative.

The ONE campaign, an advocacy movement pushing for global policies that would eliminate hunger and extreme policy, produced a report at the time of Deauville charging that, “The G8 and other major donors are not approaching agriculture and food security with the urgency they deserve…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.”

And so it is up to President Obama in Chicago to restore the urgency and political will that was a hallmark of the L’Aquila Initiative.  He will need to summon the passion that moved his fellow leaders in Italy.

In L’Aquila, he insisted that ending hunger through agricultural development be a top G8 priority, even though he wasn’t the host.  The leaders had come to Italy ready to commit $15 billion to a food security program, but Obama implored them to increase the stake to $20 billion, which later moved up to $22 billion.  He did it with an impassioned plea that came from his own family connection to poor farmers in Africa.  In briefing the assembled press about the deliberations at the summit, the president’s aides stressed his passion for the food security issue so much that it prompted the first question at his press conference.  Not the global economic meltdown, not nuclear weapon proliferation, not climate change – the other major topics of the summit – but this:

“Mr. President, we were told that you made your appeal for the food security money personal by citing your family experience in Kenya…”

The President acknowledged that he had talked about his father, who grew up herding goats in a small farming village in western Kenya before heading to the U.S. to pursue higher education.  He noted that many family members still lived in rural Kenya; he hastened to add that his relatives weren’t going hungry, but that hunger was real and ever-present in those villages.  He said the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative was needed to help hungry farmers “become self-sufficient, provide for their families and lift their standards of living.”

He also said: “There is no reason why African cannot be self-sufficient when it comes to food.  It has sufficient arable land.  What’s lacking is the right seeds, the right irrigation, but also the kinds of institutional mechanisms that ensure that a farmer is going to be able to grow crops, get them to market, get a fair price.  And so all these things have to be part of a comprehensive plan, and that’s what I was trying to underscore during the meeting today.”

That underscoring needs to be repeated – and done with bold strokes — in Chicago.  As host of the meeting, President Obama can insist that agriculture development be a top priority on the G8 agenda and he can assure that it won’t be pushed aside by deliberations over debt, recession and the world’s conflicts.  Chicago, the City of Broad Shoulders, is where the G8 leaders need to accept their responsibility and follow through on their commitments.

The President’s own promises to the world’s poor and to his own legacy depend on it.  As does eventual victory in the fight against hunger.

Archive


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My Moment of Great Disruption

In a 2013 TEDxChange talk, Roger Thurow talks about the smallholder farmers of Africa and the potential for good news in agricultural development.


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Hay Festival 2013: a look at the effects of famine

In the first year classroom of Shemena Godo Primary School, in Boricha, Ethiopia, three dozen children study the alphabet. On a black chalkboard, teacher Chome Muse highlights the letter B and writes the combination with each vowel. Ba, be, bi, bo, bu.

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A Mother's Day parable from Uganda

A mother knows. “This child is brilliant,” Harriet Okaka says about her one-year-old son, Abraham.  She isn’t bragging, just observing.  “I can tell, just by looking at him,” she says, “the way he plays, the way he is.”

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1,000 Days Project

Roger Thurow’s next 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.

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Imagine this: food aid reform

As word spread earlier this week of the food aid reform section of President Obama’s 2014 budget, I wondered how Jerman Amente would greet the news.


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Give peas a chance

As the ballots were being counted in the recent Kenya election, I saw photos of people displaying the encouraging message: Give Peace a Chance.  So far, that sentiment seems to be holding.


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The young man from the farm was looking smart in an olive green suit, salmon tie and cufflinks.  His black shoes were a bit scuffed, but his English was polished.  “We are moving forward,” he said.  “Forward ever, backward never.”

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Learning to Fish

In the vast assembly room at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, overlooking one of the nation’s premier food banking facilities, Drexton Granberry joyfully came to the end of his speech.  


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A Thanksgiving Tale: The Hungercloth

I often write and speak about the awful oxymoron, "Hungry Farmers." How can the smallholder farmers of Africa suffer through an annual hunger season when every morning they rise with one task: grow food for their families?


Multimedia

Videos


 


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?

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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 »