- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Americans are generous in a crisis, both here and abroad. No nation is swifter to respond, no people are more giving than Americans when a tragedy strikes. Today, a silent tragedy is sweeping the global south. More than 1 billion people are hungry because of a shortage of food. Most of those people are small farmers and their families living in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

This crisis, and it is a crisis, must be met, for it has profound social, economic and security implications for the United States and the rest of the world.

The good news is the crisis can be abated. What is needed is leadership. And at a time when the world is expecting the United States to re-engage with the international community, a renewed commitment to alleviating hunger and poverty gives America the opportunity to reintroduce itself to the world as a force for positive change.

President Obama has indicated his support for such an effort, for he pledged - at the recent meeting of the Group of 20 richest countries - to increase U.S. support toward agricultural development to $1 billion by 2010. It will take strong and sustained presidential and congressional leadership to turn the new president’s words into actions and to create a long-term strategy for America to take the lead in reducing global hunger and poverty.

Currently, the architecture of U.S. foreign assistance is deeply flawed. Despite the link between global poverty and farming, the United States spends 20 times more on food aid to the regions in crisis than on helping farmers there grow their own food.

Aid is critical, but, incredibly, our funding to build agriculture in developing countries has plummeted 85 percent since the 1980s. The U.S. government agencies that once made the “green revolution” possible no longer have the mandate or resources to help developing nations raise farm output and incomes.

What went wrong? In part, we were lulled into a false sense of security by progress after the green revolution. Although that revolution significantly reduced poverty in East Asia, Southeast Asia and parts of South Asia, it did not reach sub-Saharan Africa or the poorest parts of South Asia.

We also assumed commercial agriculture could boost food output in Kenya, Bangladesh or India, yielding higher incomes and lower food prices. But it was small farmers living largely outside the market economy, with little access to the resources to enable them to produce a marketable surplus, who were hungry and poor. These circumstances leave more than 700 million people struggling to survive.

The United States is uniquely suited to support international efforts for agricultural development: It has the strongest agricultural research, education and extension system in the world.

We should use these strengths in our foreign policy and renew our commitment to alleviating global hunger and poverty by making agricultural development central to our foreign assistance. A new report of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs lays out several steps to achieve this:

• The president should put agriculture clearly on the global agenda of the administration and Congress, increasing assistance and providing affirmative leadership at the level of the National Security Council as part of a broader “soft power” approach to diplomacy.

• We should strengthen the U.S. Agency for International Development and expand funding for institution-building partnerships in agricultural education, extension and research, especially in sub-Saharan Africa with strong support for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The Lugar-Casey Global Food Security bill is an excellent vehicle for this critical step.

• The United States should work through the Millennium Challenge Corp. and World Bank to invest in neglected agricultural infrastructure in the developing world, targeting the needs of small farmers.

• We should listen to what developing countries say they need, paying particular attention to the roles and needs of women, who provide the majority of agriculture-sector labor in the world.

• The president and Congress should continue to work with other nations to reform and modernize global agricultural subsidies that make it difficult for farmers in developing countries to build economically viable agricultural systems.

• The United States should ensure that in addition to humanitarian needs, food aid should make an investment in child nutrition and local economies through buying more food aid locally.

What is the cost? These proposals are not part of the chorus of multibillion-dollar “asks” deafening Congress. The Chicago Council report estimates it will cost about $1 billion annually, just 4.5 percent of our current assistance budget, to begin to make agriculture a central part of foreign assistance.

What is the result? If the United States begins making these modest investments in agriculture this year to the most needy parts of Africa and Asia, at least 280 million people will be lifted from poverty by 2020.

Mr. Obama’s intent to increase support for agricultural development is a critical step in the right direction. The only thing between success and failure is sustaining this leadership. What better way could there be for the Obama administration to reintroduce America to the world?

Catherine Bertini was the executive director of the United Nations World Food Program (1992-02). Dan Glickman was U.S. secretary of agriculture (1995-2001). They were co-chairs of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Agricultural Development Project.

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