Once again, lamentably, the prophecy of Norman Borlaug comes to pass:

“Man can and must prevent the tragedy of famine in the future instead of merely trying with pious regret to salvage the human wreckage of the famine, as he has so often done in the past.  We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation, if we permit future famines.”

Dr. Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, issued this warning back in 1970 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end hunger through agriculture development.  That’s 41 years ago, and, yet, another famine is upon us.  And, again with pious regret, we try to salvage the human wreckage.

The reasons for this famine in the Horn of Africa are manifold: a severe drought has gripped the entire region; the conflict in Somalia has deprived many people of food and is forcing hundreds of thousands to flee through the bush and the desert in hope of finding food and salvation in neighboring communities and countries; high commodity prices and food shortages are spreading hunger and social volatility.

Another contributing factor is the “criminal negligence” Dr. Borlaug warned about.  After the success of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s, agriculture development slid down the scale of top global priorities.  Africa’s smallholder farmers were particularly neglected by their own governments and by international development programs.  For the past several decades, they have had limited access to better seeds, fertilizer, financing, insurance, irrigation, improved storage, reliable transport and efficient markets.  Thus, smallholder farmers in the Horn of Africa and throughout the continent are woefully under-producing.  They are generally unable to feed themselves let alone their countries and their regions.

Here, as seen by the World Food Program, is the current toll of the present famine and the efforts to “salvage the human wreckage”:

“Since the beginning of July, WFP has assisted some 7.4 million drought-affected people throughout the Horn of Africa and is ramping up to reach more than 9.6 million people over the coming weeks and months.  In August, WFP assisted some 990,000 people in Somalia; 3.74 million in Ethiopia (including 240,000 refugees); 1.86 million people in Kenya (including 546,000 refugees); 109,000 drought-affected people in Djibouti and more than 700,000 in the Karamoja region of Uganda.” The effort to reach more people includes nearly one million Somalis living in areas the WFP hasn’t been able to access because of the conflict.

Pious regret has generated $385 million in announced contributions to the WFP.  And a wave of money has also flowed to other international relief organizations.  But the problem with pious regret is that it only lasts so long.  Thus, the WFP also says that the budget shortfall for the whole Horn of Africa appeal for the next six months is $215 million.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, under heavy budget-cutting pressure, reduced slightly the food aid amount from the previous year as it marked up the fiscal year 2012 agriculture spending bill last week.  But a battle still looms over foreign aid spending, wherein lies the best way to heed Dr. Borlaug’s imperative to “prevent the tragedy of famine in the future.”

That is to focus on agriculture development, particularly programs designed to create the conditions so the smallholder farmers can be as productive as possible and be able to feed their families and their nations.  To aspire to longer-term solutions of food security that will only come by shifting from mere pious regret to actually reversing the neglect.

Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire -
Friday, September 09, 2011


The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

Amid the remembrances of 9/11, let us also flash back to Sept. 20, 2001, 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 provide some ready answers: “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.  Politicians from both parties emphasized that America needed to emphasize its generosity and goodwill throughout the world.  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, the U.S. took the lead in launching a new round of world trade talks in Doha, Qatar, 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. was at the front of the line at a conference in Monterrey, Mexico, called the Summit on Financing for Development.  The world’s richest countries pledged billions of dollars in fresh aid to spur economic development in the poorest countries.  This was called the “Monterrey Consensus.”  The Doha-Monterrey strategy was to deliver a one-two punch to poverty: open trade, increase aid.

As we described in the book, ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty:

President Bush arrived at Monterrey pledging a 50% increase in American foreign aid over three years and talking about linking greater contributions to developing nations with better democratic performance and economic freedom.  “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror,” he told his fellow leaders.  “We fight against poverty because opportunity is a fundamental right to human dignity.  We fight against poverty because faith requires it and conscience demands it.”  He also said in Monterrey, “To be serious about fighting poverty, we must be serious about expanding trade."

Unfortunately, two months later, much of that sentiment was already shifting in reverse.  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.

Now, 10 years later, the immediate post 9/11 sensitivities to reducing poverty around the world seem to have totally vanished in the dark clouds of the debt crisis and the budget cutting fervor.  Instead of increasing spending to reduce poverty, many in Congress are determined to slash it.  Instead of building up the United States Agency for International Development and its new Feed the Future program – which would enhance America’s standing abroad by leading an international push to end hunger through agriculture development -- many want to cut its funding.

The mood of showcasing and spreading America’s generosity and goodwill around the world has deteriorated into a drive to diminish those efforts.  Any programs with the label “foreign” aid are particularly big targets.  Many Republicans seem to have closed their ears, and their minds, to those post-9/11 words of the most recent Republican President making the case for a big increase in foreign aid: “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.”

The Monterrey Consensus to increase development spending has been shattered and replaced by an effort to build a consensus to cut back foreign aid.

The emotional anniversary of 9/11 arrives as Congress is returning to take up the 2012 budget and to continue work on crafting a new Farm Bill.  As we remember September 11, it would be right to also resurrect our better instincts to generously and aggressively attack global poverty.