January 28, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

We Do Big Things

For those of us who were listening to the President’s State of the Union address this week, listening for a reference to the fight against hunger through agriculture development, we heard this near the end of the speech:

“This is just a part of how we are shaping a world that favors peace and prosperity.  With our European allies, we revitalized NATO, and increased our cooperation on everything from counter-terrorism to missile defense.  We have reset our relationship with Russia, strengthened Asian alliances, and built new partnerships with nations like India.  This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador to forge new alliances for progress in the Americas.  Around the globe, we are standing with those who take responsibility – helping farmers grow more food; supporting doctors who care for the sick; and combating the corruption that can rot a society and rob people of opportunity.”

That is the essence of the presidential initiative known as Feed the Future – helping the smallholder farmers of the developing world, particularly those in Africa, feed themselves, rather than us feeding them.  It is an effort to reverse the decades of neglect of agriculture development in the poorest countries of the world.  It is a recognition that those farmers have a vital role in adding to the global food supply, in helping to feed not only themselves, but to feed all of us.

That the President mentioned this, even if it is only five words – helping farmers grow more food – puts Feed the Future at the center of the administration’s diplomatic and development efforts, a prime deployment of America’s soft-power.  The speech was dubbed “Winning the Future.”  Feed the Future will be critical to assuring victory.  It will help the world meet the need to double food production by 2050 to keep up with the rising appetite of a world population growing both more numerous and more prosperous.

But I believe there was more for the world’s hungry in the State of the Union than those five words.  The President concluded his speech with a rhetorical flourish which also surely applies to Feed the Future:

“We do big things.

From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.

We are a nation that says, “I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company. I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree. I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try. I’m not sure how we’ll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we’ll get there. I know we will.”

We do big things.”

What is bigger than launching a major assault on global hunger through agriculture development, helping people feed themselves and increase their incomes by improving their harvests?

That’s what America does.

It is a task Congress should embrace.  As I’ve written before, funding and authorizing Feed the Future and assuring American leadership on this front is the historic challenge of the 112th Congress.  Even for a Congress in budget-cutting mode.  Yes, the deficit is huge.  Yes, spending cuts need to be made.  But don’t be small-minded in the cutting.  Don’t do the easy political thing and take a knife to all programs that are considered “foreign” operations or “foreign” aid, calculating that the beneficiaries of those programs don’t vote in American elections.

Do the big thing.

Do what is important for America’s place in the world.  Do what is important for really making a difference, for fundamentally changing the lives of hundreds of millions of people – and creating opportunities for American business along the way.  Do a big thing.

It is what America does.  The hungry of the world are precisely those the president was referring to when he summed up the American spirit of generosity and big-thinking:

“I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try.”

This is the thinking that propelled two of America’s greatest achievements in diplomacy and development.  The Marshall Plan was big.  The Green Revolution was big.  Now, Feed the Future and all related efforts on that front – from the foundations, the humanitarian agencies, the corporations, the universities, the churches – can be big.

How to Win the Future?  Feed the Future.

It’s a big thing.  With a big question: Will we get there?


| By Roger Thurow

A Wondrous Journey

Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.

| By Roger Thurow

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. 

| By Roger Thurow

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.

» Learn more.
» 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.

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?

Learn more »


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 »