February 11, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

Unity of Purpose

 Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, stands as a monument to how one determined individual can make a huge difference in the fight against hunger.  But he often stressed that it took an army of individuals, with a unity of purpose, to win the war.

“I cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that further progress depends on intelligent, integrated and persistent effort by government leaders, statesmen, tradesmen, scientists, educators and communication agencies,” Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, said while exhorting the world to carry on the agriculture revolution throughout the developing world.

Forty years later, Sen. Richard Lugar repeated those words as he concluded a speech on American foreign assistance and development aid.  It is time once again, he said, to summon a unity of purpose in the war against hunger.

“We need to be unified around common purposes for which we can marshal the appropriate level of resources and variety of approaches,” Sen. Lugar told his audience at the Society for International Development two weeks ago.  He called for a “focus on the big issues – food scarcity, poverty, disease, environmental degradation – that prevent economic growth in a large swath of the world’s countries.”  Those objectives, he said, “require that strategies reflect the needs of the countries we are helping rather than the vagaries of our own budget process, which often allocates funds in response to lobbying pressures, media interest or political favoritism.”

The Global Food Security Act, which Sen. Lugar has co-authored with Senator Robert Casey, attempts to forge a unity of purpose, particularly between Congress and the White House, over ending chronic hunger in the world by reversing decades of neglect of agriculture development.  It is a neglect that was prophesied by Borlaug in 1970 when he warned that the world mustn’t lose its unity of purpose in carrying the Green Revolution beyond Asia to Africa and other hungry parts of the world:

“Man can and must prevent the tragedy of famine in the future instead of merely trying with pious regret to salvage the human wreckage of the famine, as he has so often done in the past.  We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation, if we permit future famines.  Humanity cannot tolerate that guilt.”

Certainly we have reached that point; the neglect can no longer be tolerated.  Making agriculture development a top priority of governments around the world has become a moral imperative with more than one billion people now going to bed hungry every night.  And it is a security imperative as population growth combined with rising prosperity and greater demand for food in countries once plagued by famine, like China and India, is driving projections that the world will need to double food production by 2050.

The food crisis of 2008, when rising prices and dwindling surpluses triggered rioting in dozens of countries, was “a wakeup call for the development community, for international donors and for policy makers worldwide,” Lugar reminded his audience.

We can see the unity of purpose emerging on various fronts.  Business leaders, humanitarian agencies, international lenders and philanthropists are embracing the need to create the conditions for the small farmers of the developing world, particularly in Africa, to be as productive as possible so they can feed their families and their countries.  They are reaching the same conclusion that Bill Gates declared at the World Food Prize:

“Poor farmers are not a problem to be solved,” Gates said in his first major address on agriculture, “they are the solution – the best answer for a world that is fighting hunger and poverty, and trying to feed a growing population.”

And, most important, a unity of purpose is building in Africa, as well.  Last week, Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika became chairman of the African Union and immediately pledged to champion greater investment in agriculture to end chronic hunger on the continent.

“Five years from now, no African child should die of hunger,” he proclaimed.  “Africa must feed Africa.”

It is lofty rhetoric, reminiscent of so many hollow commitments on ending hunger that have come from western capitals down through the decades.  But Mutharika has been leading by example.  Five years ago he was elected president while Malawian children were dying during a severe hunger crisis.  One of his early official acts was to formally declare a state of emergency so the United Nations could launch a special appeal for food aid.  The country held out its begging bowl and $110 million worth of emergency food rushed in to fill it.  Countless lives were saved, but Mutharika felt humiliated that he couldn’t feed his own people.

He gathered his cabinet and said, “As long as I’m president, I don’t ever want to go begging for food.”  And then his government developed a plan – a unity of purpose – to subsidize fertilizer and seed for Malawi’s small farmers.  The World Bank and other international development agencies howled in protest, claiming that such subsidies ran counter to the prevailing development practice of the previous two decades that stressed fiscal discipline and government withdrawal from the farming sector (even though the U.S. and Europe were escalating government subsidies to their farmers).  But Mutharika pressed ahead, declaring, “These are Malawi’s children who are starving, not the World Bank’s.”

The subsidy program, combined with good weather, has reversed Malawi’s agriculture fortunes; its farmers have produced surpluses the past couple of years.  And instead of holding out a begging bowl, it is helping to feed other countries; Malawi is now a contributor to the UN World Food Program rather than a recipient.

The unity of purpose to tackle hunger was on display in the rush to get food to Haiti after the devastating earthquake.  The WFP last week reported an unprecedented outpouring of aid, almost $230 million in cash.  The donors included a host of governments both rich and poor; Malawi offered 150 metric tons of rice.  Corporations such as Yum! Brands, Unilever, TNT and ADM provided cash and logistics.  Individuals, from the famous to the anonymous, raised millions.  Online gamers playing games such as FarmVille contributed $1.5 million in just five days, says the WFP.

Emergencies often inspire a unity of purpose.

So too should the chronic, every day hunger of a billion.


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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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