Friday, May 20, 2011 Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

I exhorted the graduates to let their passion be their compass as they pursue their interests on a wide range of policy fronts, including education, health, food and agriculture, environment and international relations.

And I assured them that policy matters.  It is a message that is particularly important in the fight against hunger and especially timely in advance of next week’s Chicago Council symposium that will be assessing the progress of U.S. leadership in global agriculture development and strategies for future success.

Here are some excerpts from my address:

Public policy matters.  It matters very much.  And often it can have consequences far beyond what you may have envisaged for a community, a state, or a nation in formulating those policies.  The consequences can reverberate around the world.

Throughout my 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, I’ve written about the impact of many, many public policies, good and bad.  But I’d like to zero in on one set of policies and one issue in particular that has emerged as my passion: Ending hunger through agriculture development.

In the fight against hunger, policy matters.

The killing of Osama bin Laden has had us all flashing back to Sept. 11, 2001.  Perhaps it has had you thinking back to where you were on that day when you heard, when you watched, the horrific news. … What I’ve been thinking back to, particularly while pondering what I would discuss with you today, occurred nine days after 9/11, when President Bush addressed a joint session of Congress…

He asked a question he believed many Americans were asking: “Why do they hate us?”

He went on to say: “They hate what we see right here in this chamber – a democratically elected government.  They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

But after the shock of September 11, the President and the nation also understood that fear and misery in poor countries could create a toxic environment for resentment and terrorism.

The crafting of post-9/11 public policy began to reflect this.  Reducing poverty in the developing world became a prime pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

In November 2001, America took the lead in launching a new round of world trade talks designed to bring the poorest countries more fully into the global trading system.  This was dubbed the “development round.”

A few months later, in March 2002, the U.S. and Europe and other rich world countries gathered in Monterrey, Mexico and pledged billions of dollars in fresh aid to spur economic development in the poorest countries.  This was called the “Monterrey Consensus.”

Then, two months later, Congress passed and President Bush signed a profound piece of legislation that was a hallmark of domestic politics but that reverberated mightily around the world.  The 2002 Farm Bill.

With a flourish of his pen, the President increased the subsidies the U.S. government paid to American farmers and, in turn, increased the poverty of millions of other farmers in the developing world, especially in Africa, whose governments couldn’t afford to pay similar subsidies and, in fact, had long been specifically directed by the policies of the World Bank and other institutions not to subsidize their farmers.

That piece of legislation, that Farm Bill, undermined the efforts of the development round of the trade talks.  It undercut the spending pledges at Monterrey.  It exacerbated the uneven plowing fields of international agriculture, making it harder for African farmers to compete.  It spread hunger and poverty.

I went down to the west African country of Mali to speak with cotton farmers impacted by the increase in U.S. subsidies, particularly the increase for American cotton farmers.  In most instances, the cotton grown by both farmers in Mali and Mississippi ended up on the world market.  Often, overproduction by American farmers, encouraged by the subsidies, contributed to lower world prices.  American farmers with their subsidies were cushioned from falling prices.  The Malian farmers, deprived of subsidies, were not.

“You have to know where your freedom ends and another’s begins,” Mody Diallo, one of the cotton farmers, told me.  He didn’t hate America’s freedoms.  In fact, he greatly admired them and he wanted those freedoms for himself and his countrymen.

But, he said, “You should enjoy your freedom up to the point of hurting someone.  If I have money, I can enjoy it any way I want, but I must be concerned that I don’t hurt my neighbor.  The Americans know that with their subsidies they are killing so many economies in the developing world.”

Why do they hate us?  Here was another answer to the President’s question.

After that trip, I began looking into the long reach, the unintended consequence of our policies, particularly in agriculture. …

What I found was that so much of today’s hunger is caused by bad policy spanning the political spectrum in the rich world and the poor.

I found neglect – policies that turned foreign aid away from agriculture development, leaving Africa’s farmers far behind farmers elsewhere in terms of access to fundamental farming technologies.

I found hypocrisy – the subsidies of the U.S., Europe and other rich world countries that funneled hundreds of billions of dollars to their farmers while insisting that African governments don’t fund their own farmers.

I found good intentions gone bad – America’s food aid policy that defied modernization and reform, that mandated that U.S. grown food be sent as aid into hungry countries while locally grown grain sat unused in warehouses, a policy that often undermined the incentive of African farmers to produce as much as possible.

Then I went to Ethiopia in 2003, to cover a devastating famine; 14 million people would be on the doorstep of starvation.  There, the impact of all these policies was made cruelly manifest.

I then explained how what I saw in Ethiopia ignited a new level of passion in me, leading me to write a book with my Journal colleague Scott Kilman, ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, and then eventually to leave the paper to speak and write about hunger from a multitude of platforms.

To, as I told the graduates:

Raise the clamor about the kind of public policy needed.  Policies that reverse the neglect, that end the hypocrisy, that consider the global consequences of parochial domestic decisions.  Policies that can make ending hunger through agriculture development the singular achievement of our age.  Policies like the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative.

All this is to say, by way of encouragement, that public policy matters, that passion matters.

Join me in this.  Follow your passion, give voice to what matters to you.

Raise the clamor.  Shout from the ramparts.

Shout above the din of the budget cutting.

Shout that your policy interest matters.

Someone just might pay attention.  Somebody might stop and think about something for the first time, or begin to think differently about something.

That’s how things change.

So please, please, go forth and follow your passion.  Make a difference.  Create a more equitable, more just world.

We’re counting on you.

Roger Thurow - Friday, May 13, 2011 - SOMETHING TO CUT

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

Now, a word – just a single word -- on what to cut.  Subsidies.

Not all the agriculture subsidies, especially those that help keep smaller farmers afloat or help maintain our food security.  But those billions of dollars in subsidies that end up in the hands of people who never get soil under their fingernails (but may own a piece of land eligible for the payments) or in the coffers of corporate farms – mainly those who don’t need the taxpayer-funded subsidies to spur greater production – or in the accounts of an ethanol industry that turns some 40% of the U.S. corn crop into fuel for cars while the world faces the looming challenge of nearly doubling food production by 2050 to meet the demand of a growing population and the growing prosperity of that population.

For decades, the ever-expanding agriculture subsidy programs of the U.S. and Europe have constituted one of the supreme hypocrisies of geopolitics and world trade.  As their subsidies grew, the rich world countries, and the international development agencies they control, were directing African governments, for the sake of fiscal austerity, to get out of agriculture and to stop subsidizing their farmers.  This created a huge imbalance in the global trade of agriculture goods; subsidized farmers were cushioned from the impact of falling commodity prices, while the unsubsidized farmers in the poorer precincts of the world suffered mightily from declining prices if their products, like cotton, were sold on the world market.  The result was that the farmers of Africa were left tilling terribly uneven plowing fields; they were left to fend for themselves in a global trading system increasingly tilted against them.

The subsidy schemes in both the U.S. and Europe had been initiated with good intentions during times of much poverty and desperation, especially for farming communities.  But, as Scott Kilman and I wrote in the book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty:

“Over the years (the subsidies) became entrenched.  The political will to scale them back grew ever dimmer as farmers became wealthier relative to the rest of society and better able to finance powerful lobbies in Washington.  In fact, although America and Europe were tight allies in the arms race with the Soviet Union, they furiously battled each other in an escalating farms race by subsidizing the prices that foreign customers paid for commodities such as wheat.”

The American subsidy payments were fiercely defended by the agriculture lobby during negotiations over the Farm Bill, which became the best example of Darwinian evolution in legislation.  Nothing could kill it, or even pry it open for reform.

In the battle over the 2008 Farm Bill, a number of organizations from across the political, religious and humanitarian spectrums formed the Alliance for Sensible Agriculture Policies to campaign against the subsidy system.  It looked like they were making progress, even winning converts in the Farm Belt, but in the end they were badly outgunned.

From Enough:

“The Farm Bill that was finally enacted in June 2008 had 672 pages, 60% more than the 2002 Farm Bill.  According to Congressional Budget Office forecasts, the federal government will spend about $104.2 billion during the life of the five-year bill on programs that put money into the bank accounts of farmers.  The amount covers everything from crop-price support payments to land idling checks to crop insurance subsidies.”

But now, as negotiations over the fiscal 2012 budget heat up and the parameters for a new Farm Bill are shaped, some members of Congress are saying that subsidies shouldn’t escape the budget-cutting scrutiny, that some tightening and reform should be considered.  “We shouldn’t be giving corporate farms, these large agribusiness companies, subsidies.  I strongly believe that,” Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, told a gathering of reporters last week.

Even some farm groups acknowledge that the time is ripe for a recalibration of subsidies.  With prices of many staple commodities rising to a higher plateau, and with farm incomes up, the need for price support fades.  And many farmers have been supporters of Congressional candidates clamoring for overall budget cuts and debt ceilings.  Also, the impact on farmers in the developing world is being better understood; if those farmers are to contribute to the doubling of food production in coming decades, they need incentives to produce surpluses, which means level plowing fields in the global trading system.

Still, the budget warfare will be fierce.  As we quoted an official of a subsidy watchdog group in Enough: “The staying power of subsidies is remarkable.”