Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

A Dangerous Myopia

It is lamentable that the deep and persistent economic woes in the United States and Europe are breeding a certain dangerous myopia in international development affairs.

“Americans are more resolute in their desire to put their own house in order,” notes the Chicago Council’s report on its fascinating 2010 national survey of American public opinion. It is very aptly titled, “Constrained Internationalism: Adapting to New Realities.”

For me, one of the most significant findings is that 91 percent of Americans want to focus on fixing problems at home rather than addressing international challenges. That’s up nine points from 82 percent in the 2008 poll. The survey found that 60 percent of Americans think economic aid to other nations should be cut back while only 7 percent think it should be expanded. And concerning our urgent priority at Outrage and Inspire, only 42 percent say that combating world hunger should be a “very important” foreign policy goal of the United States, which is down four points from two years ago.


These attitudes stand at odds with others revealed in the survey. For instance, 51 percent of Americans would like to see homeland security expanded, and 30 percent favor expanding defense spending. These same people, who obviously value security, should also be pushing for an expansion of the war on global hunger, which requires more aid for agriculture development in the developing world, not less. For surely a world with nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people can’t be seen as safe and secure. The rioting in dozens of countries during the shortages and high prices of the food crisis of 2007-2008 proves that.

Europeans also seem to share this myopia on development aid and world hunger. At least their heads of state and cabinet ministers do, since they have been reluctant to put up the money to match their pledges to boost agriculture development, particularly to Africa. This is highlighted by a 10-member committee of development experts from Europe and Africa, called the Montpellier Panel, which has just released a report titled “Africa and Europe: Partnerships for Agriculture Development.”

The announcement of the report contains this succinct assessment:

“The report comes at a time when Brazil, China and India are scaling up their investments and partnerships in various sectors across Africa, and Africa is taking the lead in boosting its own agricultural development. Europe risks being left behind as a key partner to tap the huge potential of the farm sector in Africa. GDP is now rising in 27 of Africa's 30 largest economies -- both in countries with significant resource exports and in those without. That growth is coming from a variety of sources, not just oil and other natural resources, but also agriculture, finance, retail, and telecommunications.

“The report portrays an Africa vulnerable to spikes in food prices, yet also lays the groundwork for unprecedented progress in food production. Meanwhile, Europe has made big promises for a massive increase in agriculture aid, but has yet to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action. The current murky state of European assistance obscures its record as historically Africa's most reliable partner.”

This gap between rhetoric and action results from the dangerous myopia that there isn’t enough money for crucial development tasks in foreign lands. The $22 billion that the G-8 countries pledged in agriculture development aid for the poorest countries at their summit in 2009 is a mere drop in the bucket compared with the money that rich world countries spend subsidizing their own farmers. And the U.S. pledge of $3.8 billion is less than the total amount of money being spent by politicians running for office this fall. Yet European leaders won’t come up with the money they have promised and the U.S. Congress has been whittling back the requests of President Obama.

The Montpellier Panel warns of breaking the momentum that has been building in bringing a green revolution to Africa:

“Despite significant progress globally, we have on the one hand a very top-down global response characterized by strong rhetoric and the promises of large-scale funding, and, on the other, a rich diversity of on-the-ground activities in sub-Saharan Africa undertaken by government and private agencies and NGOs but which remain uncoordinated. We believe there is a potentially dangerous gap between the two strands of activity. If we do not bridge the gap there is a risk that new investments will dissipate into more small-scale activity, and we will not see the transformational change that is needed.”

And if we don’t see that change—because our development myopia is obscuring the vision— the global challenge to double food production by 2050 will become even more daunting. Africa’s farmers, currently so far behind farmers in most of the rest of the world, will be indispensable in satisfying the world’s ever-increasing demand for food.

As I write in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine:

“… The rich world neglects Africa's development at its own peril. It will be impossible to multiply global food production—that is, to reduce hunger in poor countries while meeting growing demand in emerging ones—in the coming decades if Africa's farmers are not given the means to grow as much food as they possibly can…. The continent that has been fed by the world's food aid must now help feed the world.”

Now is not the time to retreat in the war on global hunger, but to advance.

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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