I’m surprised that “surprise” is a word being used to describe President Obama’s nomination of Jim Yong Kim to head the World Bank.  Surprise, perhaps, over the specific name, because Dr. Kim hadn’t figured prominently in the speculation of who would replace current World Bank president Robert Zoellick.

But there should be no surprise over the intention of the nomination: to select someone who has been deeply and passionately immersed in development and poverty reduction efforts to run the world’s largest poverty-reduction institution.  In fact, it makes all the sense in the world.

As President Obama said today as he nominated Dr. Kim, “The leader of the World Bank should have a deep understanding of both the role that development plays in the world and the importance of creating conditions where assistance is no longer needed.  It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency.”

Past leaders of the World Bank have been economists and trade specialists and defense experts and diplomats. Now comes Dr. Kim (traditionally, Washington selects the president of the World Bank, while the Europeans name the head of the International Monetary Fund).  A Korean-American, he is a global health expert who co-founded Partners in Health, a nonprofit that provides health care for the poor in some of the most wretched places on earth.  Most recently the president of Dartmouth College, Dr. Kim is also a former director of the department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization.

The background he brings to the World Bank will hopefully be good news for the Bank’s renewed commitment to agriculture development as the driving force of poverty reduction in the world’s poorest countries.  Zoellick began to reverse decades of neglect of agriculture development and multiplied the amount of money flowing into projects to help the world’s poor and hungry smallholder farmers become as productive as possible.  That work needs to continue and accelerate.

From his past experience, Dr. Kim is fully aware of the ravages of malnutrition and hunger, how an absence of food and micro-nutrients undermines all the good work being done on the health front.  He knows that you can’t solve the world’s health problems, the world’s development problems, without ending hunger and malnutrition.

He also has been a committed practitioner of intensive consultation with the intended beneficiaries of a development program, to understand the challenges, needs and desires of the world’s poor.  Living with those you seek to help, questioning the inequalities, pushing for innovative solutions, have been hallmarks of Partners in Health.

Too often in the past at the World Bank, economic theory and text-book financial practices trumped practical on-the-ground understanding.  Projects that looked good on office blackboards often backfired in tiny villages.  The classic example was the Bank’s structural adjustment policies of fiscal austerity that ended up punishing smallholder farmers in the developing world, particularly in Africa, and derailing agricultural development for decades.  Structural adjustment, well intentioned on the drawing board, ordered poor country governments to drop their support of agriculture so the private sector could develop and flourish. 

Well, the private sector in most African countries was too weak, too undercapitalized and too disinterested to fill the void and agriculture collapsed.  Seed companies failed, extension services disappeared, the farmers were left alone to bear 100% of the risk of a very risky business.  In the meantime, rich world governments – who control the World Bank -- increased their support of their own farmers, creating a horribly unbalanced global agriculture system.  It was nearly three decades before the World Bank reversed course and once again made agriculture development a top priority.

Dr. Kim will need to keep it there.  His co-founder of Partners in Health, Paul Farmer, said after hearing the news of his friend’s nomination, according to the New York Times: “Jim is all about delivery and about delivering on promises often made but too seldom kept.”

Delivering on promises to the poor. It should no longer be a surprise.  It should be expected.
 
 
There is little mail service in rural Africa, so the smallholder farmers there wouldn’t have received last week’s annual letter of U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah.  But they certainly would welcome his words.

“To put it simply,” Shah wrote, “if you care about fighting poverty, then you should care about boosting harvests.”

Boosting harvests is the smallholder farmers’ top priority, for that is their main way to eliminate the dreaded hunger season, improve household nutrition and generate income to pay school fees and better their living conditions.

For the farmers in western Kenya who I followed last year for the forthcoming book The Last Hunger Season, the planting season is now imminent.  They are waiting for the long-rains season to begin before they sow their maize seeds.  If the rains will be steady, they are anticipating good harvests, but they know that one bumper crop won’t be good enough.  They will need bumper harvest after bumper harvest to complete the transition from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, from merely farming to live to farming to make a living.  It’s a huge difference, requiring repeated success.

The USAID administrator knows this as well.  “The development community,” he said in his letter, “has to expand its focus from relief to resilience, from responding after emergencies strike to preparing communities in advance.”

Those communities need to have access to better seeds and soil nutrition, and to financing to afford them, and to extension advice to best utilize them.  And they need that year after year.  Agricultural development requires a long-term commitment, with steady budgets, rather than an ad hoc reaction to hunger emergencies.

That, of course, is the principle at the center of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative, which has become a cornerstone of USAID’s work.  And it should be at the core of any development strategy devised by the world’s leading industrial countries, known as the Group of 8, or G8, at their summit meeting in May, which President Obama will host.

It was certainly the lesson that came from last year’s hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, when 13 million people needed to be fed by the outside world.  The emergency food aid response saved countless lives, but it didn’t provide any resiliency for the future.  Food aid, it should now be eminently clear, won’t prevent the next famine.  Only agriculture development, with the goal of more plentiful and nutritious harvests, will.

From relief to resilience.  That’s the way to both save lives and reduce poverty.
 
 
The most common tool in African agriculture is also the most impractical.  Or at least it appears to be.  It is the hoe, which is used for plowing, planting, weeding and harvesting.  It is a simple tool that produces the majority of the continent’s food, and yet it has remained unchanged over the centuries, defying any technological advance.

Consider that the golf club, the tool of the leisure class, has been the object of much attention and improvement in the past couple of decades.  The club face has been the object of high-tech research to refine the angle and shape, the shaft has been reinforced with all sorts of space-age materials.  And club architects have even lengthened the putter so the golfer, if so inclined, no longer needs to bend over the ball.

Not so the hoe.  No new metal compounds to toughen the blade or reinforce the handle have been developed.  Most curious is that on many African farms the handle remains short, just two or three feet in length.  This requires the farmer to bend deeply to work the soil.  It is back-breaking labor.

But what appears to be terribly awkward and impractical can also be seen as the most efficient and practical.  For it is women who do most of the farming, and often they do it with a swaddled baby on their backs.  Women farmers have told me how the bending position allows the baby to lie horizontally, blissfully sleeping while they work.  Also, the women say, they have to bend deeply in any case to properly nestle the seeds in the soil and pull the weeds and harvest the vegetables.  And, sadly, smallholder women farmers have been ignored by the private sector and largely deemed too poor and too remote to be worthy of technological innovation.

Thus the handle has remained short.  Except when wielded by men.  I have watched men farmers fashion longer handles, five or six feet in length, so they don’t have to bend so deeply in the fields.

Why, I’ve often been asked, is the farming in Africa mainly done by women?  A prime reason is that farming is mostly subsistence agriculture, and so it is seen as a menial task, like household chores.  Fetch the water, gather the firewood, tidy the compound, tend the crops – that is, in the main, the hard work of rural women.

But as more attention, and money, shifts to agricultural development, the role of women farmers becomes even more important and prized.  And the women themselves become more empowered, especially as their farming evolves from mere subsistence to sustainable and profitable, from farming to live to farming to make a living.

In the past year, while following the lives of smallholder African farmers in western Kenya, I witnessed this remarkable transformation and chronicle it in the book The Last Hunger Season, which will be published in May.  As subsistence crops become cash crops, providing money as well as food, the role of women in the households strengthens.  I sat in numerous conversations between husband and wife, where the woman’s view on crop selection was paramount.  The women were shaping the farming strategy, emphasizing crop diversity for better household nutrition and for more varied income.  And the women were full participants in discussions over how the farming income was spent; in all cases, they insisted that the money be used to improve nutrition for the children, pay for education and improve living conditions in the house.

These women would be grateful that their efforts – as Africa’s farmers – were at the center of so much discussion on International Women’s Day, which was celebrated this week.  My inbox filled with interesting observations:

There was an infographic from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Farming First that explores the role of rural women in agriculture.  It is called “The Female Face of Farming” and can be found here.

From the NGO Landesa there was a video on the importance of land rights for women farmers that can be found here.

And from the Chicago Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative there was a new Issue Brief entitled “Ensuring the Success of Feed the Future:  Analysis and Recommendations on Gender Integration”.  It was authored by Ritu Sharma, cofounder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, and can be found elsewhere on this site.

Hopefully, this bumper crop of attention will yield bumper crops of food – and ever more empowerment of the farmers.
 
 
At President Obama’s first international summit, the G8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy in July 2009, he rallied his fellow rich world leaders to commit to investing $22 billion to conquer global hunger through agricultural development.  He spoke passionately about both the moral obligation and the global security imperative of ending hunger and the despair and hopelessness such deep poverty breeds.

The resulting L’Aquila Food Security Initiative, one of the cornerstone results of the summit, pledged to reverse the neglect of agricultural development with “sustained and predictable” funding and “to act with the scale and urgency needed to achieve sustainable global food security” by working with governments in vulnerable countries to develop and implement their own agriculture strategies.

It was a first step to make good on a promise in the President’s inaugural address several months earlier: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

It was a major step to begin shaping what the President already envisioned as a legacy for his administration: to be the leader of the greatest effort to end hunger since the Green Revolution, which stands alongside the Marshall Plan as the most significant deployments of American soft-power.

And, above all, it was a decisive step to address one of the world’s great problems: the number of chronically hungry people in the world soared past one billion on the heels of the food crisis of 2007-08, when dwindling stockpiles of staple commodities and skyrocketing prices triggered rioting in dozens of countries.

Now as the next G8 meeting approaches, in May in Chicago, those forward steps are in danger of retreat.  The L’Aquila Initiative was a three-year commitment and it is coming to an end with only mixed results.  The last two G8 summits did little to advance the program.  President Obama launched his own initiative called Feed the Future to carry out the U.S. L’Aquila promises, and it has survived the Congressional budget-cutting battles fairly well.  But some of the other countries have failed to meet their commitments and the momentum of ending hunger through agriculture development has slowed.

The G8’s own accountability report, released at last year’s meeting in Deauville, France, conceded, “G8 countries have struggled to maintain their official development assistance commitments.”  It acknowledged that only 22% of the L’Aquila pledges on agriculture development had been disbursed two years into the three-year initiative.

The ONE campaign, an advocacy movement pushing for global policies that would eliminate hunger and extreme policy, produced a report at the time of Deauville charging that, “The G8 and other major donors are not approaching agriculture and food security with the urgency they deserve…A major injection of political will and good faith are needed without further delay to leverage support from other donors, recipient country governments and the private sector.”

And so it is up to President Obama in Chicago to restore the urgency and political will that was a hallmark of the L’Aquila Initiative.  He will need to summon the passion that moved his fellow leaders in Italy.

In L’Aquila, he insisted that ending hunger through agricultural development be a top G8 priority, even though he wasn’t the host.  The leaders had come to Italy ready to commit $15 billion to a food security program, but Obama implored them to increase the stake to $20 billion, which later moved up to $22 billion.  He did it with an impassioned plea that came from his own family connection to poor farmers in Africa.  In briefing the assembled press about the deliberations at the summit, the president’s aides stressed his passion for the food security issue so much that it prompted the first question at his press conference.  Not the global economic meltdown, not nuclear weapon proliferation, not climate change – the other major topics of the summit – but this:

“Mr. President, we were told that you made your appeal for the food security money personal by citing your family experience in Kenya…”

The President acknowledged that he had talked about his father, who grew up herding goats in a small farming village in western Kenya before heading to the U.S. to pursue higher education.  He noted that many family members still lived in rural Kenya; he hastened to add that his relatives weren’t going hungry, but that hunger was real and ever-present in those villages.  He said the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative was needed to help hungry farmers “become self-sufficient, provide for their families and lift their standards of living.”

He also said: “There is no reason why African cannot be self-sufficient when it comes to food.  It has sufficient arable land.  What’s lacking is the right seeds, the right irrigation, but also the kinds of institutional mechanisms that ensure that a farmer is going to be able to grow crops, get them to market, get a fair price.  And so all these things have to be part of a comprehensive plan, and that’s what I was trying to underscore during the meeting today.”

That underscoring needs to be repeated – and done with bold strokes -- in Chicago.  As host of the meeting, President Obama can insist that agriculture development be a top priority on the G8 agenda and he can assure that it won’t be pushed aside by deliberations over debt, recession and the world’s conflicts.  Chicago, the City of Broad Shoulders, is where the G8 leaders need to accept their responsibility and follow through on their commitments.

The President’s own promises to the world’s poor and to his own legacy depend on it.  As does eventual victory in the fight against hunger.