March 26, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

Relief to Resilience

There is little mail service in rural Africa, so the smallholder farmers there wouldn’t have received last week’s annual letter of U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah.  But they certainly would welcome his words.

“To put it simply,” Shah wrote, “if you care about fighting poverty, then you should care about boosting harvests.”

Boosting harvests is the smallholder farmers’ top priority, for that is their main way to eliminate the dreaded hunger season, improve household nutrition and generate income to pay school fees and better their living conditions.

For the farmers in western Kenya who I followed last year for the forthcoming book The Last Hunger Season, the planting season is now imminent.  They are waiting for the long-rains season to begin before they sow their maize seeds.  If the rains will be steady, they are anticipating good harvests, but they know that one bumper crop won’t be good enough.  They will need bumper harvest after bumper harvest to complete the transition from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, from merely farming to live to farming to make a living.  It’s a huge difference, requiring repeated success.

The USAID administrator knows this as well.  “The development community,” he said in his letter, “has to expand its focus from relief to resilience, from responding after emergencies strike to preparing communities in advance.”

Those communities need to have access to better seeds and soil nutrition, and to financing to afford them, and to extension advice to best utilize them.  And they need that year after year.  Agricultural development requires a long-term commitment, with steady budgets, rather than an ad hoc reaction to hunger emergencies.

That, of course, is the principle at the center of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative, which has become a cornerstone of USAID’s work.  And it should be at the core of any development strategy devised by the world’s leading industrial countries, known as the Group of 8, or G8, at their summit meeting in May, which President Obama will host.

It was certainly the lesson that came from last year’s hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, when 13 million people needed to be fed by the outside world.  The emergency food aid response saved countless lives, but it didn’t provide any resiliency for the future.  Food aid, it should now be eminently clear, won’t prevent the next famine.  Only agriculture development, with the goal of more plentiful and nutritious harvests, will.

From relief to resilience.  That’s the way to both save lives and reduce poverty.

Archive


| By Roger Thurow

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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Forward ever

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.

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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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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 »