Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Fighting Hunger: Law of the Land

From across the pond, amid the sniping and bickering of the current election season in the United Kingdom, comes a worthy idea: enshrining in law the nation’s commitment to provide a certain level of foreign development aid.

In a rare flash of agreement, the contentious leaders of the three main parties—Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labour, David Cameron of the Conservatives, and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg—have all pledged to provide foreign aid equal to 0.7% of gross national income each year beginning in 2013. (That level has long been the rhetorical goal of rich countries, going back more than four decades. Most countries have fallen short; Britain is just up to 0.52%.)

Election promises go up in smoke in the U.K. as they do in the U.S. But this one looks like it might indeed be etched in legislative stone. A draft law published earlier this year, before the electioneering began, would require the U.K. to spend at least 0.7% on development aid annually. Even the queen is for it.

What makes this a good idea is that it ensures that Britain would continue to live up to its pledges on the development front no matter the party in power, the makeup of parliament, or the ups and downs of the economy. It would be part of the national character.

“Nobody would want to be the party that cuts that level,” says Liz Wilson, one of the lead researchers of the Africa and Europe Partnership in Food and Farming project of the Imperial College of London. “If any party would go back on it when in office, they’d have to have a very good argument. None would back out of it lightly.”

Although some aid organizations in the U.K. worry about what kind of aid will be delivered since that won’t be specified in the bill, they generally praise the measure for guaranteeing that the government will live up to its long-standing pledges.

In a government-prepared analysis of the bill, Prime Minister Brown is quoted as saying the measure “would make (the U.K.) the first country in the world to give a permanent guarantee we will reach and maintain the United Nations aid target of 0.7%.” The report also says the legislation “will help the U.K. to influence other major donors to increase their aid levels and achieve the 0.7% target.”

Here’s one possible sphere of influence in the U.S.:

Legislation that would embed President Obama’s global hunger and food security initiative as part of America’s national mission. It would ensure that no matter who occupies the oval office or which party controls Congress, the push to reduce hunger and poverty through agriculture development would receive funding and political support.

There is precedent for this. President George W. Bush’s program to attack the AIDS epidemic in Africa—known as PEPFAR—was embedded in foreign aid policy through legislation. A Republican idea, it now receives support and funding from a Democratic administration and Congress. The program transcends partisan politics—rare is a voice raised against it—and unites executive and legislative will. It is the right thing for America to do.

The hunger and food security initiative—known as Feed the Future—is the same. American leadership is crucial to reversing the neglect of agriculture development in the poorest countries over the past couple of decades. It also needs to be placed above partisanship.

The Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act could make that happen. The Senate bill—created by Republican Dick Lugar and Democrat Bob Casey—seeks to reorient U.S. development assistance to focus on hunger and poverty alleviation with resources invested in long-term rural development and agriculture. It also aims to revitalize higher education for agriculture and extension services in places like Africa, establish a special coordinator for global food security, and improve the U.S. emergency rapid response to food crises.

The Senate bill has been merged with a similar one in the House brought by Betty McCollum to provide congressional consensus. It also incorporates several elements of the Roadmap to End Hunger drawn up by a coalition of humanitarian agencies last year. And it proposes three-year funding authorization (rising from $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2013).

Embedding global food security as an official part of U.S. development policy to secure long-term support and funding is necessary because agriculture and food systems are built over time through investments across many sectors of a country’s economy. There are no quick fixes that can be covered by funding for a year or two. Once started, we need to follow through. Even after the current president and senators and members of Congress are no longer in office, their drive to end hunger through agriculture development must live on.

“Authorizing legislation is the key to the long-term success of U.S. investments in agricultural development,” former agriculture secretary Dan Glickman said in testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last week. (Glickman is also co-chair, with Catherine Bertini, of the Chicago Council’s Global Agriculture Development Initiative.) He maintained that this commitment must be sustained for a minimum of 10 years.

Yes, 10 years, at least. That fits the timeframe of our New Decade’s Resolution: Let’s make ending hunger the singular achievement of this decade.

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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