June 24, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Political Will

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

Someone noticed that God had blessed Nigeria with so much: oil, agriculture, natural resources, industrious people.  Why, God was asked, do you favor this country so greatly?  “Just wait,” God replied.  “Wait until you see the leaders I will give them.”

This is why, in one of the world’s leading oil-producing countries, people line up to fill their cars with gas.  “We have everything to be a great country,” the ambassador noted in a speech at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs Friday.  “Nigeria’s problem has been, pure and simple, leadership.”

Leadership has also been a problem in the fight against hunger.  Namely, the lack of political will to make ending hunger through agriculture development a top priority of every government.  The old maxim of success – where’s there a will, there’s a way – has been stood on its head in the fight against hunger.  We’ve long known the way, but we’ve been missing the will to get it done.

So it was notable this week that the World Food Prize, which honors great achievement in the fight against hunger, announced that this year’s recipients of the award are two leaders who mustered the political will: John Kufuor, the former president of Ghana, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil.

Under the leadership of their former presidents, Ghana and Brazil are two rare countries on track to exceed the first United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting in half extreme hunger before 2015.Kufuor prioritized agriculture development, and Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to make huge gains against hunger.  According to the World Food Prize, Ghana’s poverty rate has fallen from nearly 52% in 1991 to about 26% in 2008; about one-third of the population was hungry and malnourished in 1990, but by 2004 that shameful measure was less than one-tenth.

Lula da Silva summoned his entire government to get behind his Zero Hunger program, which harnessed agriculture development to boost rural incomes, widen access to food for the poor, and increase primary school enrollment.

The World Food Prize has mainly honored scientists and humanitarians in its 25 years.
The scientific breakthroughs are vital, but they don’t go very far without the political will to make sure those discoveries get into the hands of the farmers they are supposed to help.  Today, all over Africa, new seed varieties that could greatly enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers are being kept out of the fields by political mismanagement and stubborn bureaucracies.

Similarly, the political will that has recently been mustered by the U.S. government and a few other countries to reverse the neglect of agriculture development over the past three decades is being challenged by small-minded efforts to whack back such aid and investment for the sake of fiscal austerity.  And the G20 took the initiative this week to convene a summit of agriculture ministers to address food price volatility and the challenge of increasing food production and quality but then pulled its punches in delivering the political will necessary to tackle issues like regulation of commodities’ derivatives markets, biofuel subsidies and putting up new money to fulfill commitments to increase agriculture development spending.

Back at the Chicago Council lunch, the Nigerian ambassador said his new government was serious about deepening its agriculture cooperation with the U.S. to further the country’s ability to feed itself.  He and his long-suffering countrymen know better than most that an absence of leadership and political will is no laughing matter.


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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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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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