Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire - From Aids To Agriculture

As we have heard during this week’s international conference in Washington, D.C., there has been wondrous progress on the AIDS treatment front since President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) nearly a decade ago.

At that time, there were only about 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa receiving the life-saving drug therapy.  By last year, thanks to the work of a global alliance attacking AIDS, that number had soared to an estimated 6.2 million.  There is much work still to be done; barely half the people in need of treatment in Africa are receiving it, and there were still more than 300,000 pediatric HIV infections last year.  But the progress spurred by PEPFAR over the past decade is a remarkable achievement; it stands as a cornerstone of America’s global health programs and a pillar of the nation’s foreign policy.

Now there is another presidential initiative that holds the potential of achieving another set of remarkable results in Africa.  President Barack Obama’s Feed the Future initiative seeks to end hunger through increasing investment in agricultural development, particularly for the vast legion of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Because of the neglect of agricultural development over the past four decades, these farmers are woefully behind, producing only one-tenth to one-quarter the yields of farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the rich world.  They are often unable to grow enough to feed their families throughout the year.  As a result, they and their children endure the misery of an annual hunger season.  Hungry farmers – what a horrible oxymoron.

Feed the Future aims to reverse this neglect by boosting investment in agricultural development on a wide front – African governments and donor countries, the private sector and philanthropic foundations and humanitarian agencies – and across a broad range of endeavors, from seed research to crop storage.  Promises to do so have been made from the G8 countries and from the G20 assembly and from a chorus of CEOs.  President Obama has called for an “all hands on deck” effort.

Particularly critical is fostering smallholder farmer access to the essential elements of farming that for so long have been beyond their reach: better quality seeds, soil nutrients, training, financing, improved storage facilities.  Just as access to treatment has been critical in the fight against AIDS, so is access to these basics of agriculture critical to conquering hunger.  Just as with the “Lazarus effect” of AIDS medication, these farming innovations can transform lives from barely surviving to robustly thriving.  ONE’s appropriately named Thrive campaign calls on African leaders, donor governments and the private sector to implement smart agriculture and nutrition plans that can move tens of millions of smallholder farm families out of extreme poverty and hunger.

Central to this movement is that Feed the Future and U.S. leadership to end hunger through agricultural development become a cornerstone of American policy no matter who is in the White House or which party controls Congress.  Here, PEPFAR’s path to a unity of purpose is instructive.

After President Bush announced his initiative in early 2003, it was embraced and authorized by Congress in an unusual display of bipartisan support.  When the president signed into law the United States Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act of 2003, it was hailed as the largest commitment by any nation to an international health initiative.  In 2008, with another burst of political unity, PEPFAR was reauthorized by Congress.  And the Obama administration has continued to make it a centerpiece of the nation’s development work.

Feed the Future is worthy of similar bipartisan support and unity of purpose.  It can stand alongside PEPFAR as an example of what America does in the face of crisis and great need.  There would be no political bickering over agricultural development spending, no calls from budget cutters (as can be heard now) to eliminate the program.  It is that important to improving vast numbers of lives in the developing world.  And it is that important to all our lives as well, as demands increase on the world food supply, be they from a growing global population or from extreme weather conditions ruining harvests from Indiana to India.  It is very clear: If the smallholder farmers of Africa succeed, so might we all.

Then another international conference can convene in Washington to hail the progress on agricultural development: the number of rural families who moved from dire poverty, the decrease in stunting from malnutrition, the emergence of food powers in Africa.  The last hunger season would finally be at hand.


The farmer fell to his knees, landing hard on the parched soil, and raised his arms to heaven.

“God, have mercy on us,” he prayed, opening his palms to his field.  “Provide us with the rain, for when it rains enough, the dirt will easily break.  And the seeds will germinate and push up through the soil.  Hear my prayer, dear God.”

An American farmer this summer?  It certainly could be, as the worst drought in decades chokes the U.S. farm belt.

But this particular prayer came from Francis Wanjala Mamati, a Kenyan farmer whose worries mounted by the day as drought spread across his country and all of East Africa.  I remember it clearly, for it was on my birthday in March of 2011.  An intense sun, shimmering in a clear blue sky, scorched everything below.  The temperature was nearing 100 degrees.  And Francis, one of the farmers I portray in The Last Hunger Season, was about to begin turning the soil with his jembe, his hoe, in anticipation of the start of the rainy season.  He knew his work would be wasted if the rains didn’t come -- and come in a hurry.

Francis was consumed by the same anxiety plaguing American farmers this year.  Oh God, where are the rains?  In many places, their work – their plowing and planting and nurturing – has been wasted, with the drought ruining crops and spreading financial woe.  More than 1,200 counties have been declared disaster areas.

Weather concerns unite farmers all across the world.  Be they in Iowa, tilling the richest soil in the world, or in Ethiopia, scratching at some of the poorest, all farmers look to the skies.  And the consequences of weather that harms their crops effect consumers all around the globe; commodity prices have now begun their inexorable rise as field after field in the U.S. farm belt withers.

This year’s droughts in the Sahelian countries of West Africa and in the states of Middle America remind us that we’re all in this together.  We’re all part of the same global food chain.  To succeed in our great challenge – nearly doubling global food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a population growing both in size and prosperity – we need both the mighty farmers of America and the smallholder farmers of Africa to be growing as much as possible.

But they don’t all have the same chance to succeed.  There are many differences between farmers in the U.S. and Africa, but one of the greatest, and gravest, is their ability to survive a crop disaster.  In the U.S., thankfully, there is a safety net for much of the damage; insurance and government disaster relief will largely compensate farmers for their losses which will allow them to plant again next year.  In Africa, the farmers, at best, will get some food aid.  The national safety nets, if there are any at all, are very thin and riddled with holes.  In most cases, there is no monetary compensation for crop loss, no support to help farmers bounce back the following season.  The consequences of one bad season can be felt for years.

It comes down to this: When a crop fails in the U.S., someone writes a check, either the government or an insurance company.  When a crop fails in Africa, people die.  The farmers fall deeper into poverty, their children deeper into the abyss of malnourishment and physical and mental stunting.

Francis Mamati knows the feeling.  When he was born, his mother gave him a second name: Wanjala.  Wanjala is the local word in western Kenya for hunger.  Francis was born during the hunger season, the time between harvests when food stocks run low and meals are skipped.  When the new crop is ruined, wiping out the harvest, the hunger season has no end.

After his prayer for rain, Francis “Hunger” Mamati rose to his feet and attacked the soil with his jembe, trusting that the weather would turn in his favor.  From radio reports, he knew the misery that was spreading across his country and all of East Africa as the drought took hold.  “So much crying, so much hunger,” he said.

Then he looked at me and asked, “I think in the U.S.A. there is no drought.”

Oh, there’s drought I told him.  At that time in 2011, Texas in particular was suffering a lack of rain.  Francis shook his head and declared a kinship for the farmers on the other side of the world.

“We must pray for them, too,” he said.

And we must do the same for Francis and all the farmers of Africa.  We need to raise the clamor and support the burgeoning efforts of governments, development agencies and the private sector to boost agricultural development in Africa – to widen the access to the essential elements of farming, like seeds, soil nutrients, training and financial credit, and to promote resilience through safety nets.  Yes, there are pressures on budgets everywhere, but this is not the time to retreat on the promise of ending hunger through agricultural development.

Look upon the parched fields.  Hear the prayers of farmers in America and Africa.  And know: We’re all in this together.

With the London Olympics approaching, it is time that we dusted off the old Nike slogan – Just Do It – and apply it to the agricultural development front.

We have just finished up a dazzling run of high-level summit meetings that focused global attention on the need to end hunger – and increase the planet’s food production, a benefit to all of us – through agricultural development.  It started with the Chicago Council on Global Affair’s symposium on food security and nutrition, continued through the G8 and G20 summits and then finished with the Rio Plus 20 gathering.  There was much talk and plenty of lofty rhetoric.  We reaped a bumper harvest of high-minded resolutions.  This was all accompanied, and followed, by earnest analysis of what it all means and much hand-wringing that it wasn’t enough.

It certainly should be enough.  The awareness is there.  The commitments are there.  The political will is there – or at least the politicians proclaim it is.  Finally, finally, finally.  Now, one more thing: Just Do It.

Where we fall short is in the implementation.  In this realm, we’re far better at goal setting than goal achieving.  It is time to move from the season of pronouncements to the season of accomplishments.

We know that agricultural development works.  We see many examples of it in Africa, where such development has been utterly neglected for decades, resulting in the horrible oxymoron “hungry farmers” that describes tens of millions of families.  I write about the work of smallholder farmers affiliated with One Acre Fund in The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.  It is on the brink of change – of consistently producing surplus harvests with an improved nutritional mix, of conquering the annual hunger season, of thriving rather than merely surviving -- because agricultural development works.  We know the impact of better seeds, soil management, technical training, improved storage, access to micro-financing, efficient markets.  Just Do It.

We have established the Millennium Development Goals and, for the most part, we know how to achieve them.  Just Do It.

We know that proper nutrition during the 1,000 Days of a mother’s pregnancy and the first two years of her child’s life are absolutely critical in the child’s development.  We know how important that time is to avoid physical and mental stunting, how important those days are to helping individuals, families, societies reach their potentials.  Just Do It.

We know that agricultural improvements spur greater economic development because we have seen it happen across the rich, developed precincts of the world.  Just Do It.

I’ve written that the essence of all these intended efforts – from the White House and State Department with the Feed the Future initiative, the G8 and G20 chambers, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, the mighty philanthropic foundations, a growing number of corporate boardrooms, the spreading grassroots movement – comes down to improving the lives of the world’s smallholder farmers with the addition of three little letters: A-N-D.  Putting an AND between the farmers’ goals of feeding their families throughout the year, educating their children, improving their nutrition, accessing the necessary health care.  That’s what increased harvests mean.

To achieve these three little letters we need to act on three little words: Just. Do. It.