March 16, 2011

Hunger Won't Wait

Capitol Hill Forum Highlights Food Security Gains, Risks

The global community finally understands the food security problem and has responded with elegant development approaches, says USAID’s Chief Economist Dr. Steve Radelet, but it is a good news/bad news scenario: Will the worst budget crisis in recent times squeeze resources to a point where substantial progress is undermined?

Speakers at the March 15 Capitol Hill Forum, organized by the Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development and 22 co-sponsors—including ACDI/VOCA—warned against undoing key political and financial commitments made in the aftermath of the last global food crisis.

“This is the worst time to disinvest in agriculture,” says IFPRI’s Dr. Ousmane Badiane. “For the first time, we have the right conditions to make a difference.”

U.S. Representatives Jo Ann Emerson and James McGovern, who co-chair the House Hunger Caucus, hosted the Capitol Hill Forum, Hunger Won’t Wait, which was attended by Capitol Hill staff, development professionals, and representatives of government agencies and the private sector.

Another Looming Food Crisis?

Hunger will affect 1 billion people this year, says Emerson, who opened the forum by calling on attendees to help educate the many new members of Congress and their state-based constituents on the crucial importance of global food security issues.

The costs of basic food commodities also are at their highest levels since the United Nations began tracking prices in 1990, says McGovern, who added that, according to the World Bank, food price spikes have pushed about 44 million people into extreme poverty.

McGovern has been helping new colleagues in the House to understand that the issue of global food security is a question of national security—not just a question of charity—that is a long-term challenge.

“Food-secure countries are more productive and more stable,” McGovern says, noting that during the last global food crisis (2007-2008), nearly 40 countries experienced food riots.

Still, McGovern emphasized that hunger is a solvable, political condition.

The morning discussions included:

Economic Context

USAID’s Radelet highlighted recent food price increases, underscoring the structural, weather and policy factors that feed price volatility.

Prices increases are due in part to the fastest economic growth in low-income countries in 20 years, he says, which has brought about new food consumption patterns among the formerly poor. And while everyone typically points to the effect of China’s and India’s new wealth, Radelet includes changes in Africans’ diets as well: Half of African nations have decreased poverty by at least 10 percent.

Another factor behind today’s high prices is weather, both in terms of immediate shocks and new patterns possibly due to climate change. Radelet cited drought and extreme cold weather in Russia, drought in Brazil, and drought followed by floods in Australia as crippling many commodity markets.

A third factor is government policies. While some countries are imposing export bans and stockpiling commodities to cope with rising prices, it could be worse, Radelet says. At least the global community has seen the third-highest wheat production ever, and improved African yields in particular, he adds.

What To Do?

Given the looming food crisis, the international development community is asking, “What can we do”?

Radelet recommends that developing countries increase information flows and market transparency—and get rid of export bans, taxes and tariffs—to help markets perform better, though safety nets may still be necessary in affected areas. Over the long term, he adds, governments should take the obvious course and invest in agriculture, especially research, extension, transportation links and integrated markets.

To the broader development community, he recommends players keep the big picture in mind. At stake is not just national security but our long-term financial security, he says, adding that though the international development community responds when there is a crisis, that is always more expensive.

Better to follow through, he says, with the hallmark result of the 2007 food crisis—smart and robust programs like Feed the Future, which unite the community, especially local partners, in an integrated approach that focuses on small farmers, agribusinesses and women.

Radelet also notes that the development community must build local capacity as part of everything it does, and track its progress through better monitoring and evaluation. Although the global development community must keep an eye on shorter term results, he says, it also needs to track intermediate indicators for 2-4 years, while planning for change that can take 20-30 years.

Tanzania: Ambassador Maajar Heralds Success

The Honorable Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar, Tanzania’s Ambassador to the United States, mentioned hearing President Obama’s call in his State of the Union address to invest in the future. Her reaction: “Well, that’s difficult to do with a hungry stomach.”

According to Maajar, the most important thing to do is to invest in agriculture, which Tanzania has done through a movement led at the top.

“For the socioeconomic development of Tanzania, agriculture is almost everything,” says Tanzania President Kikwete, who has promulgated a policy known as Kilino Kwanza, or Agriculture First, to drive the country’s economic growth. This policy is crucial to a country where more than a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP) is derived from agriculture, with farm exports accounting for nearly one third.

Kilino Kwanza embraces roads, agriculture extension, irrigation, market access, land reform and especially technology—95 percent of the country’s food production still depends on the hoe.

Building on this country-led investment are further investments, such as the Southern Agriculture Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT), which was launched earlier this year at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland.

The U.S.-supported program is expected by 2030 to generate $1.2 billion in revenue, create 420,000 jobs and reduce poverty for 2 million Tanzanians—benefits that will extend to the entire region.

Moreover, the SAGCOT initiative already has shown results. The ambassador referred to poor women in Arusha, near her home, who have succeeded in growing high-value vegetables for export.

The Way Forward

Badiane, Africa Director at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), highlighted the many positive changes in African agricultural development due to assistance from the world community, especially increased assistance from the United States.

For the first time, IFPRI’s statistics show sustained economic growth across Africa for 10-15 years, with increasing numbers of countries participating in the growth. African food production is rising, despite declining food production in the rest of the world, with a concomitant decrease in poverty. And the key to success isn’t just the money, Badiane says. It also requires enlightened policy.

The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) is an excellent example, according to Badiane. This program under NEPAD, an implementing agency of the African Union, is agriculture-led, but designed to include all stakeholders. Badiane adds that it incorporates policy efficiency, peer review, mutual learning and transparency, and it exploits regional complementarities.

To date, almost two dozen countries have entered into CAADP compacts. Rwanda, the first country to sign, has increased its agriculture development budget from 3.8 percent to 6.8 percent, which has facilitated a network of modelers to support ongoing efforts.

While Africa continues to have large pockets of poverty, the continent now has a strong foundation and better conditions for a continued productive push toward meaningful agricultural development, Badiane says.

For more information

U.S. Representative James McGovern's speech (PDF, 41 KB)

Tanzanian Ambassador Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar 's PowerPoint presentation (PDF, 525 KB)

IFPRI's Ousmane Badiane"s PowerPoint presentation (PDF, 1.1 MB)

Flickr Album: See photos from the Capitol Hill event

Learn more about ACDI/VOCA's development work in food security and agribusiness.

Pictured at top left from left to right: IFPRI Africa Director Ousmane Badiane, Tanzanian Ambassador Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar, USAID Chief Economist Dr. Steve Radelet, and AIARD President 2010-2011 Rob Nooter.