A Green-Letter Day
Earth Day was a green-letter day in the fight against global hunger.
Clamor was raised. Action was taken. Momentum was accelerated.
Earth Day in Washington was all about growing more things. Particularly growing more food. And especially helping the small farmers of the poorest countries -- who are also the world’s hungriest people -- grow more food.
A global agriculture trust fund was launched by three powerful institutions that, by acting in concert and with others, can move the needle on reducing hunger: the U.S. Treasury, the World Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The fund, which is called the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program and will be administered by the World Bank, begins with initial contributions of about $900 million.
Donors who chipped in at the launch include the U.S. ($475 million), Canada ($230 million), Spain ($95 million) South Korea ($50 million) and the Gates Foundation ($30 million). The U.S. contribution is part of a $3.5 million commitment to agricultural development over the next three years; the Gates contribution is part of $1.5 billion invested over the past several years to spur the productivity of small farmers.
The hope is that this fund will be a magnet for other donors -- be they countries, foundations or corporations -- to finance the war on hunger. So far, there have been pledges galore; world leaders at the G8 and G20 summits last year promised to come up with $22 billion over three years for agriculture development in the poorest countries. The fund is one way to round up the money, perhaps like the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria attracted billions of dollars in relatively short order to combat those scourges.
The fund’s money will be dispensed by a steering committee of donors and recipient countries, with input from development organizations both international and local. The intention is that the investments will follow agriculture priorities set out by the recipient countries and will provide long-term, predictable financing. The aim is to reverse the neglect of agriculture development investment over the past three decades; agriculture’s share of total development assistance from the rich world to the poor shrank from about 17% to about 3%.
The fund will finance medium- to long-term agriculture development projects focused on three main areas:
- Raising agriculture productivity through projects such as improvements in water management and irrigation infrastructure, land use planning, and access to common farming machinery;
- Linking farmers to markets with investments in rural roads, market information and communication technologies and post-harvest warehouses and transport;
- Technical assistance and capacity development, such as expanding networks of seed and fertilizer distributors, modernizing rural administrations and strengthening producer organizations.
The challenge will be to find consensus on the investment priorities, avoid the red tape that has so often strangled promising initiatives and crushed incentive, and move swiftly to put the funds into play, particularly in Africa. The best measurement of success will be to actually see fields flourishing and hunger declining.
The warning of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner rattled around Washington: “A global economy where more than 1 billion people suffer from hunger is not a sustainable one.”
While the fund was being launched at the U.S. Treasury, a clamor was rising in Congress. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there was consensus across the political aisle that 1 billion hungry people indeed posed a looming international economic and security threat, as well as a great moral challenge.
The senators heard exhortations to pursue the policies and support the investments in agriculture development necessary to reduce hunger and keep the world fed as food demand doubles with the expected increase of the earth’s population to more than 9 billion people by 2050. Agriculture development, they were told, has been demonstrated to be the most effective way to alleviate rural poverty and hunger over the long term. The drumbeat was consistent and steady, by USAID Administrator Raj Shah, Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and former World Food Program Executive Director Catherine Bertini, as well Senators Dick Lugar and John Kerry.
History was an important touchstone for much of the Earth Day clamor. “Investing in small farmers is an incredibly effective way to combat hunger and extreme poverty -- history has proved it many times,” Bill Gates said at the fund launch.
And, as the Green Revolution proved, what works best is when everyone works together, when governments and financial institutions and universities and philanthropies and corporations are supporting the same agriculture development goals, and when these efforts are adequately funded.
No one was clamoring to re-invent the wheel. The clamor was to keep the wheel spinning. “The world knows what works,” Gates insisted.
The day should provide a momentum boost to President Obama’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, also known as Feeding the Future. But to keep the wheel spinning, Congress needs to appropriate the money for the global agriculture fund and the remainder of the $3.5 billion pledged for ag development. The U.S. has already contributed $67 million to the fund and has requested $408 million more in the president’s fiscal 2011 budget, which is subject to congressional approval.
Korean Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-Hyun, celebrating the fund launch, did his best to keep up the momentum by speaking from experience – and from the heart.
He noted that Korea suffered from severe food shortages as it embarked on its economic development in the 1960s. Thus, his country was quick to put an initial $50 million into the fund. Ending hunger through agriculture development, he said, should be a matter of “empathy rather than sympathy, deep down in the heart.”
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.
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