As word spread earlier this week of the food aid reform section of President Obama’s 2014 budget, I wondered how Jerman Amente would greet the news.  He was a wiry 39-year-old Ethiopian farmer and grain trader when I first met him back in 2003.  The country was tipping toward a disastrous food crisis – 14 million people would be on the doorstep of starvation that year – when he invited me to see his warehouse in the crossroads town of Nazareth.  He unlocked the door and threw open its large metal panels, revealing, astonishingly, a room full of food.

It was a gobsmacking site in a country that would be receiving more than one million tons of international food aid.  Bag upon bag of Ethiopian grown wheat, corn, beans, peas and lentils were stacked in towering columns stretching toward the ceiling.  It was the bounty from the two previous farming seasons, when Ethiopian farmers reaped bumper harvests.  Those surpluses overwhelmed the weak markets and prices plunged 80% in some areas, to levels below their cost of growing the food.  It was a catastrophe for the farmers; their success had led to failure.  Without a market, the food piled up in warehouses or rotted on farms.

Just a few blocks away, though, trucks laden with international food aid, most it from the United States, raced down the main highway.  This is how I described the scene in the book ENOUGH, Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, with Jerman at his warehouse:

“He could feel the trucks rumbling in from Djibouti, massive double-load wagons stacked to the top with 220-pound white woven-plastic bags bearing the characteristic red, white and blue markings of American food intended for hungry foreigners.  The trucks came in waves….The ground shook as they rolled over the potholes.

“Jerman shook with anger whenever he saw those trucks.…(He) scrambled to the summit of one of his mountains of grain and comically posed for pictures.  “I should hold a sign saying, ‘Please send food.  In Ethiopia we have no food!’ ”  He howled wickedly.  “I don’t think Americans can imagine this.”

“No, Americans imagined their food aid arriving to save the day amid blighted landscapes of misery where everything was brown, dying and grim.  Their perceptions of the situation – and of their own best intentions – were perhaps most clearly expressed on one of the trucks that rolled up to the Ethiopian government’s strategic grain storehouse in Nazareth, groaning under the weight of American wheat and corn to be unloaded there.  The truck’s passenger-side window had been converted into a stained-glass painting of Jesus.  It was perfect imagery: Jesus, in Nazareth, bringing salvation to the Ethiopians.

“Americans certainly didn’t imagine their food aid arriving in green fields, rolling past warehouses full of local food.  They didn’t imagine African countries producing grain surpluses, certainly not those countries with all those starving people.”

It was eminently clear to me, standing there with Jerman, that something was wrong with the U.S. food aid system, which, since the 1940s, mandated that the U.S. provide American-grown food on American flagged ships.  No matter that it doubled the cost and the time of food delivery to the hungry.  There was no room, no flexibility, for American dollars to be spent buying up food that was grown locally, in the same country or the same region where hunger reigned.

It was hard to fathom.  Why not buy up the food here first?  It would be cheaper.  It was already here, so it didn’t need to sail on the high seas for months.  And it would be a great help to local farmers, who saw their own markets collapse from their surpluses.  Instead of solely shipping in surplus food from America, why not buy up local surpluses first?

It seemed like common sense.  But common sense had long ago left the U.S. food aid system.  As the years went by, U.S. business and political interests had come to wield ever more influence over food aid policy, keeping the focus on what was best for American agribusiness and for the politicians it supported rather than on what was best for the world’s hungry.  Even as American generosity grew – half of all international food aid has routinely been provided by the U.S. – so did its self-interest.

Jerman and other farmers who had gathered with him told me that they were grateful for international assistance because the need in their country was so great.  But couldn’t some of that assistance be to also help local food systems?

Again from ENOUGH:

“Jerman reported that some farmers hauling their own grain up from the south, hoping to sell it on the markets, had pulled a U-turn in Nazareth when they met the food-aid trucks coming in from the east.  They returned to their farms and stashed the grain in flimsy storage facilities, breezy bins open to the elements, where insects and pests and the heat would ruin it in a matter of months.  What kind of incentive was this for farmers to improve their harvest?  With food aid flooding into the country, what was the use of producing a surplus?”

Back then, Jerman told me: “If we take the perspective of the American farmer, it is logical to supply food aid to the world.  This is the right policy for America.  But if the main aim of aid is not only to support American farmers but to support the poor country, then the donors must do what is best for the Ethiopian farmers and the Ethiopian people.  If this is the aim, to solve the hunger problem, then the U.S. must change.  Don’t only send your food.”

It’s taken 10 years, but finally change may be coming, pending approval from Congress.  There have been modest moves toward what is called “local purchase” in past U.S. budgets, but they have been tentative pilot projects.  Now the President was proposing that nearly half of America’s $1.5 billion food aid budget could be used to buy local food when that food was available in hunger areas.  Just like Jerman had pleaded a decade ago.  Imagine that.

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.