January 20, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

From Words to Action: A Rwandan Beginning

They were listening in the hills of Rwanda a year ago when a new American president, this one with African lineage, took the oath of office.  Minutes into his inaugural address, Barack Obama stirred their hopes:

“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.”

They were listening several months later, when the governments of the leading industrial countries – the G8 – pledged more than $20 billion in agriculture development aid.  And they were listening in September when the U.S. convened a special United Nations session to build support for a coordinated strategy that would reverse the decades of neglect of agriculture development in the poorest countries, particularly in Africa.

They heard all the words and wondered if there would ever be any action behind them.

“We were asking ourselves, ‘Is this hype ever going to turn into anything serious?,’ ” Rwanda’s minister of agriculture, Agnes Kalibata, told me.  “Why don’t we start moving?”

Impatience, and malnutrition, were growing in her country.  So Kalibata and her government issued a challenge to the U.S.: Come to Rwanda and get to work.  Help make our farms flourish.

And so, in December 2009, the U.S. and other western governments and leading development institutions came to Rwanda and finally put their words into action.  While their food aid once again poured into other east and central African nations to rescue millions from starvation, the donors gathered in Kigali and ignited a Global Food Security Initiative that aims to help farmers grow more of their own food rather than merely feeding them.  If it is successful and spreads to other countries on this most malnourished of continents, it could change the way hunger is fought and development aid dollars are spent, and usher in an agriculture revolution in Africa.

“Our commitment to go beyond emergency intervention to long-term investment … is a model for how we are thinking about development,” says Cheryl Mills, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has been rallying international support for the shift.

Elemental as it may sound, boosting agriculture production in the developing world hasn’t been a priority for a long time.  It is one of the gobsmacking outrages of international politics that for the past two decades rich world aid for agriculture development in the poorest countries, particularly Africa, has dramatically declined, falling by more than half from its peak in the early-1980s.  Rather than fight hunger with long-term agriculture development, the world relied on providing emergency food relief from surplus production in the West.

The food crisis of 2008 exposed the danger of that strategy.  Soaring commodity prices and plunging surpluses triggered riots over scarce and expensive staple foods like rice and corn in dozens of developing countries.  In Haiti, which had been directed by international development strategists to rely on imports of cheap food from places like the U.S. rather than feed itself, street protests toppled the government when that cheap food suddenly became very expensive.  A large part of Haiti’s impoverishment now on heartbreaking display after the earthquake had been fostered by this strategy that intentionally left Haiti dependent on others for staple foods.

Rwanda had also been suffering from the neglect of agriculture.  Typical of sub-Saharan Africa, about three-quarters of Rwanda’s population depends on farming for its own food and a bit of income.  Agriculture provides one-third of the national income.  Yet Rwanda’s rural infrastructure is underdeveloped.  A lack of irrigation leaves it almost wholly dependent on rain.  The hills are scarred with erosion.  Markets are weak, transport is difficult, seed research is scarce.  Since the genocide of 1994 ravaged the countryside, hunger reigned.

“Two-thirds of the country wasn’t producing adequate food.  Food aid was more rampant than anything else,” Minister Kalibata said by phone a few days after the meeting.  “The need to invest in agriculture is huge.”

In 2007, the Rwandan government, anxious to cut its dependence on food aid, embarked on its own push to boost farm production.  Since then, it has more than doubled its spending on agriculture, to 6.6% of its 2009 budget with a goal of 10% by 2012, according to the agriculture ministry.  Rwanda was the first country on the continent to complete an investment strategy under the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) of the African Union.

So when President Obama and other leaders began formulating a new strategy to combat hunger – framing it as necessary for international “security” – Rwanda was ready. When representatives of the U.S. and others arrived in Kigali in early December, Rwanda presented an investment plan heavy on details and already subject to continent-wide scrutiny. The total agriculture investment needs for the next three years were pegged at about $890 million, with priorities such as irrigation, soil conservation, local seed research and extension services to advise farmers. The government said it was putting up $540 million, leaving a funding gap of about $350 million.

The donors pledged about $100 million at the meeting and promised to help raise the rest by this summer. The U.S. said it would take the lead in bringing in other investors, from foundations, humanitarian organizations and corporations. Multinationals are already involved in Rwandan coffee and tea production, the creation of dairy cooperatives, improving rail transport and starting an industry from plants that produce pyrethrum.

The Rwanda initiative represents a shift in style as well as policy: the local government, rather than the donors, is the architect of its agriculture plan. It is key to President Obama’s approach to development aid: country-led initiatives where donors like the U.S. are partners rather than patrons.

“In the past, we have sometimes dictated solutions from afar, often missing our mark on the ground,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech earlier this month where she set the course of development in the 21st Century. “Our new approach is to work in partnership with people in the developing countries by investing in evidence-based strategies with clear goals that the countries have taken the lead in designing and implementing. This kind of rights-respecting development, built on consultation rather than decree, is more likely to engender the local leadership necessary to turn good ideas into lasting results.”

Rwanda is one of the first testing grounds.

“It’s a reversal of the old style of doing business, where the outside world would come in and say this is what we want you to do,” says David Nabarro, coordinator of the UN’s Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, who attended the Rwanda agriculture meeting. “Now the countries are saying to the outside world, ‘This is what we want to do and this is how you can help us.’”

The challenges to boosting African food production are immense. Most countries, including Rwanda, are generally further behind in infrastructure and technical expertise than were the Asian countries at the beginning of the Green Revolution. And, in the donor countries, agriculture development spending will compete with other funding priorities in tight economic times. The Obama administration’s request for $3.5 billion over three years has been slowed in a Congress preoccupied with health care.

“We have to stay committed and keep others committed. Americans are often used to seeing things change the next day. That won’t be the case in agriculture development,” Cheryl Mills cautions. “People like success, but no one likes waiting for it. We need to have a long vision.”

So raise the clamor to keep the global food security initiative at the top of the agenda. If Congress could find $3 billion to fund its “cash-for-clunkers” program last year, surely it can find an equal amount to open an assault on hunger and ignite an African-led agricultural transformation.

For in Africa, the impatience, and the hopes, are building. Within days of the Rwanda meeting, several countries, included Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zambia, told the African Union they wanted to push ahead with their own agriculture plans.

From the agriculture ministry, Agnes Kalibata says Rwanda, after a long period of darkness, is eager to show the way. “We began this process feeling like a guinea pig,” she said, “but now we feel like a lighthouse.”


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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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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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