There is no doubt that the financial crisis roiling Europe has unsettled world markets, scrambled politics, shaken re-election prospects in several countries and darkened many 401-k prospects.  But as the drama stretches on and on, another mighty impact is emerging: it is derailing the momentum to fight hunger and poverty through agricultural development.

The Euro crisis certainly overshadowed the G8 meeting in May.  President Obama announced the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition before the leaders began their deliberations.  But when the deliberating began, it was consumed by the politics and economics of the Eurozone.  Earlier this week, the G20, meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, was also preoccupied by the financial crisis.  The G20 was supposed to be the setting to really move the needle on development challenges.  While some of the G20 countries did support a new initiative to drive private sector investment into more innovative agricultural solutions, the G20 didn’t do much to put into action the Action Plan on Agriculture it had ballyhooed at its previous meeting in Cannes.  As a number of advocacy groups noted, the focus was on more words rather than new action.

The lack of concrete action prompted the ONE campaign to note that, “Political courage seems to be in short supply…The G20 has consistently promised a lot, but delivered very little.  If it’s not careful the G20 will rapidly become irrelevant to the most pressing issues facing the world today….Leaders must provide substance to their rhetoric by ensuring that their stated desire to address global poverty is backed up by concrete action in the months ahead.”

Courage is an important word.  Before the G20 began, I exhorted the leaders to adopt the courage of the smallholder farmers who, they claim, are at the center of their Action Plans.  Many smallholder farmers across the developing world are taking the leap of faith to try new technologies and new methods – when made available to them – to boost their harvests, improve their nutrition and end their hunger seasons.  It is incumbent on the rich world governments to make this leap with them, for the smallholder farmers are indispensable in meeting the common challenge facing us all: nearly doubling global food production by 2050.  As Oxfam commented on the eve of this week’s Rio-Plus-20 meeting: “With the right support and techniques these small farmers can help feed our growing population without doing further damage to the environment.”

The smallholder farmers are also to be considered in that ultimate of domestic legislation, the Farm Bill, now making its volatile way through Congress.  And courage is needed here, too, as reforms to subsidies and international food aid programs are considered.

The subsidies, which largely flow to larger agribusiness concerns, have hurt smaller, poorer farmers here in the United States and abroad.  They have created an uneven plowing field between those that get subsidies and those that don’t, and they have ratcheted up the tensions in international trade.

The Senate’s version of the Farm Bill makes some progress on adjusting the subsidy programs, but more overhaul is necessary.  The same is true on the international food aid front.  The 2008 Farm Bill created a pilot program to study the effectiveness of purchasing food aid in the countries and regions plagued by hunger (since surplus and shortage, feast and famine often exist side-by-side in many hunger crises) rather than shipping U.S. grown food at much greater expense and time.  This so-called local purchase not only saves money since more than half of the cost of U.S. food aid is consumed by the shipping cost, but it also benefits the local farmers by introducing another element of demand for their crops.  The Senate version, Oxfam notes, turns the pilot into a full program, funded at $40 million a year.

Cue the applause sign.  But celebrate only briefly, for that is a very modest sum.  A good dose of courage would triple or quadruple that amount.

 
 
It was a beautiful day, as Bono might sing, when President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton and a phalanx of corporate leaders, and the Irish rock star himself, gathered in Washington DC on May 18 to shift the effort to end hunger through agricultural development into a higher gear.

I’ve written about the words of President Obama that day, demanding an “all hands on deck” effort.

And I’ve spoken about Secretary Clinton’s emphasis on the nutrition pillar of this effort, especially focusing attention on the crucial 1,000 Days time that stretches from a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.  “Nutrition is too important,” she said, “to be treated as an afterthought.”

But I’ve kept quiet on what Bono said that day mainly because I wanted to confirm that he really said what I thought I heard.  Now that I’ve read the text of his speech, I know I wasn’t hallucinating when he launched this riposte:

“We need aid.  Of course we still need aid.  Of course we do.  Does anyone disagree?  Anyone apart from brain-dead, heart-dead ideologues or professional controversialists?  Come on.”

I laughed when I heard this broadside against those who clamor that Africa would be better off without aid, those who had gained great publicity by positioning themselves as the “anti-Bono.”  Touché, I thought, well-played.

The Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security that day was, to a large extent, about reversing the impact of a withdrawal of development aid and investment from Africa’s agriculture sector.  If those “brain-dead, heart-dead ideologues” were correct, African farming would be flourishing.  For what they advocate actually has transpired.  Aid and investment fled from African agriculture in the past three decades.  African agriculture was left to succeed on its own.

Has it?  Is it better off without development aid and investment?  No.  Africa’s farmers are far behind farmers everywhere else in the world.  Many of the continent’s smallholder farmers – there are tens of millions of them – don’t grow enough to feed their families.  This neglect has given us the ugly, unconscionable oxymoron: Hungry Farmers.

Beyond Africa, aid has been showered on agriculture.  The U.S. wouldn’t have become the breadbasket it is without extensive government support of farmers.  The same is true of Europe, and of the new food powers in Asia and Latin America that benefited from the assistance of the Green Revolution.  Even after those agriculture transformations, the aid flows.  This is what the haggling over the current farm bill in the U.S. Congress is all about.

The argument shouldn’t be for or against development aid for agriculture, but what kind of aid, how it is structured and monitored.  (This should be true for agriculture assistance in the U.S. and Europe as well; in both places, farm subsidy programs have grown so big they consume a large chunk of government budgets.)  Of course, some aid to Africa has gone terribly wrong, especially when it has ignored the wishes of its intended beneficiaries, distorted local markets, fed corruption.

Which is why Bono also mentioned the word “transparency” repeatedly.  “We won’t have food security without it,” he said.  “Track where the money is coming from and where it goes and what good it’s doing.”

He talked about vigilance, about partnerships not paternalism, about change.  “Aid is way, way smarter than it was because of science, technology, accountability, learning from mistakes,” he said.  “And one more thing.  It’s finally dawning on most of us that the continent that contains the most poverty also contains the most wealth…

“The challenge is not the old one of how to make up for a lack of resources.  The challenge is how to well manage an abundance of resources and how to make sure that this bounty benefits all people over the long term and not just the few people in the short term, how to use this plenty to eliminate poverty, extreme poverty.  And this is new.”

I write about the potential of this approach in my new book, The Last Hunger Season.  In western Kenya, smallholder farmers – hungry farmers -- working with a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, are doubling, tripling, quadrupling their maize harvests in a year, and they are diversifying their farms to reach a nutritional variety with the food they grow and to stretch their incomes across growing seasons.  This isn’t agricultural aid in the old sense of giving them seeds and fertilizer and tools; it’s a new mindset of making these essential elements of farming widely available to them and providing financing for them to pay for it.  This is how agricultural improvements have taken root in other precincts of the world – availability, accessibility, affordability.

The best kind of aid seeks to eventually end aid altogether.  That happens when once hungry farmers become self-sufficient throughout the year, year after year, eliminating the hunger season.

One Acre, which began with some 40 farmers in 2006, is now serving more than 130,000 farmers.  The farmers, finally able to access the basic elements of their trade, are doing the work themselves, they are transforming their own lives.

It’s a new day.  It’s a beautiful day.