Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Unity of Purpose

Bourlog photo Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, stands as a monument to how one determined individual can make a huge difference in the fight against hunger. But he often stressed that it took an army of individuals, with a unity of purpose, to win the war.

“I cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that further progress depends on intelligent, integrated and persistent effort by government leaders, statesmen, tradesmen, scientists, educators and communication agencies,” Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, said while exhorting the world to carry on the agriculture revolution throughout the developing world.

Forty years later, Sen. Richard Lugar repeated those words as he concluded a speech on American foreign assistance and development aid. It is time once again, he said, to summon a unity of purpose in the war against hunger.

“We need to be unified around common purposes for which we can marshal the appropriate level of resources and variety of approaches,” Sen. Lugar told his audience at the Society for International Development two weeks ago. He called for a “focus on the big issues – food scarcity, poverty, disease, environmental degradation – that prevent economic growth in a large swath of the world’s countries.” Those objectives, he said, “require that strategies reflect the needs of the countries we are helping rather than the vagaries of our own budget process, which often allocates funds in response to lobbying pressures, media interest or political favoritism.”

The Global Food Security Act, which Sen. Lugar has co-authored with Sen. Robert Casey, attempts to forge a unity of purpose, particularly between Congress and the White House, over ending chronic hunger in the world by reversing decades of neglect of agriculture development. It is a neglect that was prophesied by Borlaug in 1970 when he warned that the world mustn’t lose its unity of purpose in carrying the Green Revolution beyond Asia to Africa and other hungry parts of the world:

“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. Humanity cannot tolerate that guilt.”

Certainly we have reached that point; the neglect can no longer be tolerated. Making agriculture development a top priority of governments around the world has become a moral imperative with more than 1 billion people now going to bed hungry every night. And it is a security imperative as population growth combined with rising prosperity and greater demand for food in countries once plagued by famine, like China and India, is driving projections that the world will need to double food production by 2050.

The food crisis of 2008, when rising prices and dwindling surpluses triggered rioting in dozens of countries, was “a wakeup call for the development community, for international donors and for policy makers worldwide,” Lugar reminded his audience.

We can see the unity of purpose emerging on various fronts. Business leaders, humanitarian agencies, international lenders, and philanthropists are embracing the need to create the conditions for the small farmers of the developing world, particularly in Africa, to be as productive as possible so they can feed their families and their countries. They are reaching the same conclusion that Bill Gates declared at the World Food Prize:

“Poor farmers are not a problem to be solved,” Gates said in his first major address on agriculture. “They are the solution – the best answer for a world that is fighting hunger and poverty, and trying to feed a growing population.”

And, most important, a unity of purpose is building in Africa, as well. Last week, Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika became chairman of the African Union and immediately pledged to champion greater investment in agriculture to end chronic hunger on the continent.

“Five years from now, no African child should die of hunger,” he proclaimed. “Africa must feed Africa.”

It is lofty rhetoric, reminiscent of so many hollow commitments on ending hunger that have come from western capitals down through the decades. But Mutharika has been leading by example. Five years ago he was elected president while Malawian children were dying during a severe hunger crisis. One of his early official acts was to formally declare a state of emergency so the United Nations could launch a special appeal for food aid. The country held out its begging bowl and $110 million worth of emergency food rushed in to fill it. Countless lives were saved, but Mutharika felt humiliated that he couldn’t feed his own people.

He gathered his cabinet and said, “As long as I’m president, I don’t ever want to go begging for food.” And then his government developed a plan – a unity of purpose - to subsidize fertilizer and seed for Malawi’s small farmers. The World Bank and other international development agencies howled in protest, claiming that such subsidies ran counter to the prevailing development practice of the previous two decades that stressed fiscal discipline and government withdrawal from the farming sector (even though the U.S. and Europe were escalating government subsidies to their farmers). But Mutharika pressed ahead, declaring, “These are Malawi’s children who are starving, not the World Bank’s.”

The subsidy program, combined with good weather, has reversed Malawi’s agriculture fortunes; its farmers have produced surpluses the past couple of years. And instead of holding out a begging bowl, it is helping to feed other countries; Malawi is now a contributor to the U.N. World Food Program rather than a recipient.

The unity of purpose to tackle hunger was on display in the rush to get food to Haiti after the devastating earthquake. The WFP last week reported an unprecedented outpouring of aid, almost $230 million in cash. The donors included a host of governments both rich and poor; Malawi offered 150 metric tons of rice. Corporations such as Yum! Brands, Unilever, TNT and ADM provided cash and logistics. Individuals, from the famous to the anonymous, raised millions. Online gamers playing games such as FarmVille contributed $1.5 million in just five days, says the WFP.

Emergencies often inspire a unity of purpose.

So too should the chronic, everyday hunger of a billion.

  *  *  *  *  *

MOMENT TO CELEBRATE: Twenty years ago yesterday, Feb. 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of a South African prison. I was in Cape Town that day as he uttered his first public words in 26 years. One enduring memory is of a larger-than-life leader who boldly repeated many of the positions that had landed him in prison. His message to his supporters in the African National Congress, and to the white government as well, was clear: He was a man of his convictions, unshakable. But he was also without bitterness; instead of calling for revenge against apartheid’s masters, he championed reconciliation and doing what would be best to move the country forward in peace and prosperity. Mandela knew what the long-divided country needed if it was to achieve success for all its people: Unity of purpose.

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.



« Inspiring Gratitude Secretary Vilsack Hears from Bread Member »


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Unity of Purpose:

Stay Connected

Bread for the World