Thursday, April 26, 2012 Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire -  KEEP IT UP

Good work, now keep going.

That is the message to the U.S. government – both the administration and Congress – from the 2012 Progress Report on American Leadership in Global Agricultural Development released today by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The report applauds the emergence of bipartisan support for food security and agricultural development, particularly during a time of nasty partisan sniping and budget slashing.  This has indeed put the U.S. at the front of international efforts to end hunger and poverty and strengthen the global food chain.  But, up front in the report, there is also this ominous exhortation:

“Without continued support, the strong efforts made thus far – many of which are already showing great promise – will have been tragically wasted.”

Allow me to add italics and bold emphasis to one of those words: tragically.  It is an important reminder of what is at stake at next month’s Camp David G8 meeting, where the leaders of the world’s largest industrial countries need to reinforce their expiring promises to conquer global hunger through agricultural development.  President Obama forged that international commitment three years ago when he also launched his own Feed the Future initiative.

Since then, as the report notes, strong progress has been made in the U.S. in setting up organizational structures, increasing staffing and putting those officials to work on innovative agricultural development programs and securing a reasonably steady flow of funding from Congress.  And with this flurry of activity in the past three years has come raised expectations among the intended beneficiaries: the smallholder farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  These farmers are at the center of Feed the Future, which has set out to reverse the decades-long neglect of agricultural development – and the hunger and poverty that has followed.  To slow down now, or to retreat, would not only be a severe stain on America’s image in these regions but it would be a serious blow to the prospects of meeting one of the great challenges of our age: the need to nearly double global food production by 2050 to keep up with a growing population that is also growing in prosperity.

The progress report, compiled by the Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative, gives an “outstanding” rating – the highest mark – to the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) for launching and advancing Feed the Future and other food security initiatives.  The report notes that the MCC’s disbursements for agricultural development to African countries have virtually doubled every year since 2009.  The Department of Agriculture and Congress received “good” evaluations, and the progress of the Peace Corps was “satisfactory.”  While the Peace Corps has increased the number of agriculture and environment volunteers, the report suggests it should encourage inventive agricultural development and food security programming worldwide.

U.S. agricultural development activities in three countries – Ethiopia, Ghana and Bangladesh – also received “outstanding” ratings.  The report focused on the work of U.S. government agencies operating in those countries; the impact in the farmers’ fields, though promising, was too new to be evaluated.  U.S. appropriations for agriculture increased significantly since 2009 in all three countries.

The report noted that both Congress and the administration missed an opportunity to institutionalize Feed the Future when they neglected to embrace the Global Food Security Act of 2009.  That piece of bipartisan legislation would have ensured the continuation of Feed the Future beyond the current administration and put in place legislation to authorize appropriations for the program annually.  Instead, Feed the Future and other food security programs have become budget battlegrounds.  The House of Representatives’ version of the fiscal year 2013 budget calls for the elimination of Feed the Future, claiming now is not the time to proceed with new spending programs.

But, the report argues, this is precisely the time to press ahead and build on the progress that has been made.

“The challenge will be to sustain this higher level of U.S. effort in agricultural development for the remainder of the ten-year period needed at minimum to produce a durable result.  The memory of the 2008 world food crisis my fade in the years ahead, and if nothing emerges to refocus policy energies in this area, the United States may once again lose sight of the smallholders and pastoralists in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia who are poor and hungry year in and year out regardless of the price of food on the world market….

“Avoiding a retreat into inactivity or a lapse into complacency will be the real challenge our leaders must confront in the years ahead.  The project has been launched, but it now must be carried forward with creative and watchful care.”

There is also this admonition: “A payoff from these efforts can only come about through a dedicated, longer-term effort in both Washington and the field.”

I have seen the possible payoffs during the past year while reporting my new book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.  I have watched smallholder farmers in western Kenya – desperate farmers, struggling to feed their families throughout the year -- double, triple, quadruple their maize yields when they have access to better seeds, a small amount of fertilizer, agriculture extension advice, improved storage practices, and the financing to pay for it all.

It is this improved food production and the diversification of their farming – the very goals of Feed the Future -- that puts these families on the brink of change.  The farmers dearly want to move from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, which means that improving harvests and the nutritional quality of their food is not just as a one-year wonder but a regular event, year after year after year.

They know it will be a long journey to get to that point.  And they would like to know that the U.S. will be traveling along with them.

For these farmers to be abandoned now, again, would indeed be tragic.

 Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire -  :

As the rainy season arrived and the planting began in East Africa at the end of March, drought and hunger continued to creep across West Africa.  The African Paradox of feast and famine was forming again.

The U.S. response of food aid was quick off the mark, as it often is.  But this time there appeared to be a greater nimbleness, illustrating the evolving shift in the way the U.S. delivers its food aid.

The World Food Program announced that it had received more than $100 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide urgent food assistance to some 9 million people across the Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad.  Of that contribution, $28 million was in cash to purchase food from African farmers and to support programs in which the impacted population receives vouchers to buy their food on local markets rather than getting handouts of food from a distant land.  The U.S. donation also included an initial consignment of nearly 7,500 metric tons of food allocated from stocks pre-positioned in strategic locations in or near Africa, which would reduce the delivery time from four months to four weeks.  Additional food supplies would be shipped from the U.S. to arrive in August when the hunger is expected to be at its peak.

Allan Jury, the WFP’s director of U.S. relations, hailed Washington’s “multi-pronged approach” to the crisis in the Sahel. 

“The cash contributions and use of pre-positioned stocks enables us to deliver quick, life-saving assistance in the short-term with significant in-kind food assistance arriving just at the peak of the crisis when the needs are greatest,” he said. This combination punch against hunger is a departure from traditional U.S. food aid practice, and a welcome development.  For decades, the U.S. government mandated that all food aid be American-grown crops transported on American-flagged ships.  Even though these requirements added several months to the food aid deliveries and doubled the cost, any change to a more flexible system that included cash purchases of food nearer to the stricken areas was vehemently opposed by entrenched interest groups intent on making sure that American farmers, commodity processors and shippers – along with the hungry recipients -- received maximum benefit of the aid.  It was just a couple of years ago, as budget pressures rose and evidence mounted that more lives could be saved with a more flexible approach to food aid, that the U.S. government began a pilot project to include cash purchases abroad in addition to the food shipments from home.

Much of that evidence was coming from the WFP’s own local purchase program called Purchase for Progress.  This program encouraged African farmers to grow more and better-quality crops and to practice better harvesting and storing methods.  As the WFP bought their maize and beans and peas and lentils, the farmers found incentive to further increase production and quality.  Purchase for Progress gained steam under WFP executive director Josette Sheeran and should continue to build under her successor, Ertharin Cousin.

The U.S. has for many years been the WFP’s largest donor, with the vast bulk of its contributions being in U.S. grown commodities.  Now the U.S. has also become one of the largest cash contributors to the WFP.  For 2012, the US contribution to the WFP has reached the equivalent of $365 million, with $36 million in cash.

But now the progress to a quicker, cheaper, more efficient, greater life-saving food aid program is under threat by the budget slashers who continue to see foreign aid, and particularly food aid, as a prime target.  The 2013 budget passed by the House would eliminate the one program, the President’s Feed the Future initiative, that is hastening food aid reform.

The explanation of the budget cutters is rife with misconceptions.  They insist it is better to reduce costs in the current food aid programs than to start new initiatives like Feed the Future.  Lowering the cost of food aid would mean more local purchase, which spares the huge expense of shipping.  In order for the WFP and other hunger relief groups to do more local purchase, African farmers need to be growing more food.  And that is a main aim of Feed the Future’s agricultural development goals.  It is a simple progression, a crisp one-two punch against the deficit: Grow more in Africa, ship less from America.

Speaking of the World Food Program, check out this video marking the WFP’s 50th anniversary:

It features an eclectic mix: Bill Gates, rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, and me…among others.

It is one of Africa's cruelest ironies that as the planting season begins, as it is now across much of the continent, so does the hunger season. The food stocks from the previous harvest are running low and it will be several months before the next harvest comes in. Whatever food remains in the household is rationed: portions shrink, meals are skipped, malnutrition rises.

We have all seen the pictures of children and adults starving during famine. They are horrific and heartbreaking. While these epic hunger emergencies are becoming less frequent and less severe, thanks to initiatives like safety net programmes and more responsive food aid systems, the global hunger crisis still rages. It is a chronic crisis, a hunger that grinds on day after day, largely hidden, rarely making an appearance on our television screens. It is the hunger season that has no end.

In this crisis, nearly one billion people go to bed hungry every night, lacking the nutrition to lead full, active lives. That's about 15% of the world's population. And tens of millions of them are children who have such poor nutrition that they can't grow properly - physically or mentally - and enter their teenage years severely stunted and unable to achieve their potential.

"When you, as a parent, see your child not eating enough to be satisfied, you are hurt, but you are not in a position to control the situation," Zipporah Biketi, a 29-year-old mother of four, told me in the middle of last year's hunger season. Zipporah tends one acre of land in western Kenya near the Uganda border and knows well the struggles to feed her family throughout the year. "The younger ones, they just want to eat."

Zipporah embodies a second tragic irony: Many of the world's chronically hungry are smallholder farmers and their children. Although tending the soil is their main preoccupation, they don't grow enough to feed their families throughout the year. A majority of these farmers are women who feel a double burden of failure; they are also mothers who can't silence the crying of their hungry children.

It is this crisis of chronic hunger - the crisis of a perpetual hunger season - that the anti-poverty group ONE is targeting through its new campaign, Thrive, which launches today.Thrive attacks this deep poverty by tackling its root causes; it focuses on ending hunger through agricultural development that will enable smallholder farmers to increase their harvests and their incomes. ONE is asking African leaders, donor governments and the private sector to focus on 30 of the poorest countries that have smart agriculture and nutrition plans. Those plans are tested, cost-analysed and affordable. They just need to be put into practice.

I have seen what a profound impact smart investments in agriculture can have in Africa. For the past year, I have been following the efforts of Zipporah and three other smallholder farmers in western Kenya to escape the annual hunger season. They are members of a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, which provides a "market bundle" of services - including farming inputs, financing, training and market facilitation - to more than 100,000 farmers in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. When farmers have access to these essential elements of farming - elements that rich world farmers take for granted but which have so long been unavailable to Africa's smallholder farmers - they double or triple their harvests in one season.

Zipporah and her family live in a house made of sticks and mud with a thatched roof that leaks. Their 2010 harvest was just two 90-kilogram bags of maize, a meager amount that ran out three months after the harvest. That meant the hunger season stretched on for nine months. Children were sent off to school, and adults trudged to their fields, with only a weak cup of tea for breakfast. At times, that would be their only meal, if you can call it that, of the day. Zipporah's youngest child, two-year-old David, exhibited the common signs of malnourishment. The older children were plagued by malaria, stomach ailments, coughs.

After gaining timely access to seeds, soil nutrients, training and the little bit of credit to pay for it through One Acre Fund, Zipporah's 2011 maize harvest multiplied beyond her imagination. She rejoiced, calculating she would finally have enough to eliminate the hunger season, restore the health of her children and begin construction of a new house with solid brick walls that wouldn't wash away in the rain and a metal roof that wouldn't leak. In her eyes, the bountiful harvest was a miracle. In fact, it was evidence of a simple reality: investments in agricultural development work.

The goal of Zipporah and her neighbors is to move from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, from farming to live to farming to make a living. From surviving to thriving.

Thrive is a campaign that goes far beyond a humanitarian concern for the farmers of Africa. It takes direct aim at a great global challenge that should be of paramount concern for all of us. If we are to meet the demands of a world population that is growing in both size and in prosperity, we need to nearly double food production by 2050. To accomplish this, it is imperative that smallholder farmers like Zipporah become as productive as possible. If they succeed, so might we all.

Here we go again.

No sooner, it seems, did agriculture development spending fairly well survive the budget slashing for 2011 and 2012 then it is under attack again in the 2013 deliberations.  The House yesterday, working along party lines, passed a budget plan which nakedly proposes to kill the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative.

The plan, crafted by the House budget committee chaired by Paul Ryan, includes a paragraph titled “Eliminate Feed the Future.”  It says:

“Initiated by the Obama administration in 2009, Feed the Future aims to end global food insecurity through investments in nutrition and agriculture abroad.  While addressing the issues of poverty and malnutrition around the globe is important, the U.S. Government’s fiscal condition does not permit the expansion of U.S. foreign assistance initiatives, especially ones that overlap with existing programs.  The United States currently has two other major food aid programs: Food for Peace (the primary food aid account) and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program.  Both of these aid programs address global food insecurity in the world’s poorest countries, including through agricultural development efforts.  This budget reflects a need to consolidate our food air programs in order to eliminate associated costs with mission redundancy.”

This is wrong on so many levels, factually, logically, morally.

Factually.  There is really no overlap between Feed the Future and the “two other major food aid programs.”  Feed the Future is not another food aid program; in fact, it is the opposite.  It is an agricultural development program designed to create the conditions for poor smallholder farmers to grow more of their own food so food aid isn’t needed in the first place.  Food for Peace and McGovern-Dole may incorporate some agricultural development efforts, but they aren’t the primary focus of those programs and they aren’t as broad and targeted as Feed the Future.

Logically.  If the House Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget plan really want to reduce food aid costs, they would line up solidly behind Feed the Future, because it will do that budget cutting work for them.  The world’s smallholder farmers, ironically, are some of the main recipients of food aid.  Because of the neglect of agricultural development efforts over the past three decades, these farmers struggle mightily to feed their families.  The yields of Africa’s smallholder farmers are less than one-quarter the yields of farmers in the U.S., and much of what they do grow goes to waste because of poor storage facilities.  If Feed the Future is successful, the harvests of the smallholder farmers will grow in size and nutritional quality and they will become self-sufficient.  The need, and thus the cost, for food aid, will shrink substantially.

The budget slashers say this is the absolute wrong time to be expanding foreign aid for programs like Feed the Future.  In fact, it is absolutely the right time.  The Obama budget is requesting about $1 billion in fiscal 2013 for Feed the Future.  Cut that and you won’t see the multi-trillion dollar deficit-reduction needle move one bit.  But invest that, and the savings will accumulate year after year as the chronic need for food aid declines.

Also, this is precisely the right time to begin addressing the great global challenge facing us: the need to nearly double food production by 2050 to meet the demand of an increasing, and increasingly prosperous, population.  The smallholder farmers growing as much food as they can are indispensable to any success.  If we don’t start tackling this challenge now, then when?  Feed the Future is a key part of the momentum building around the need to reverse the neglect of agricultural development; it is building in corporations, foundations, humanitarian organizations and multilateral institutions like the World Bank.  All those allies – including other governments – who have joined the administration in marching forward in the fight against hunger would now likely join us in retreat.

Morally.  Eliminating Feed the Future would indicate that the U.S. is abdicating its leadership role in a great humanitarian challenge, a role it once relished in the times of the Marshall Plan and the Green Revolution.  Feed the Future has been emerging as one of the prime examples of the deployment of American “soft power” abroad; it puts the American people shoulder-to-shoulder with the smallholder farmers in their efforts to feed and educate their children.  I spent much of last year with farmers in western Kenya seeing how agriculture development can be a transforming agent in ending hunger and reducing poverty.  Their efforts are chronicled in the book, The Last Hunger Season, due out in May.

The Ryan budget proposal is also a retreat in the domestic fight against hunger.  It would cut 17% of food stamp spending, a heavy blow to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  Overall, the majority of the budget cuts would come from low income programs.

Last year, similar attempts were largely thwarted by the actions of many in the humanitarian community who formed a “circle of protection” around these domestic low income and foreign aid programs.  They stressed that the budget is a moral document, and shouldn’t seek to reduce the deficit on the backs of the poor and hungry.

That cry is rising again, the circle of protection is reforming.  The budget slashers may believe that their attack on foreign aid and domestic assistance programs is a far-sighted move.  But here they are wrong again.  For in terms of addressing the growing hunger problem both at home and abroad and the looming challenge of feeding the future, it is horribly short-sighted.