As word spread earlier this week of the food aid reform section of President Obama’s 2014 budget, I wondered how Jerman Amente would greet the news.  He was a wiry 39-year-old Ethiopian farmer and grain trader when I first met him back in 2003.  The country was tipping toward a disastrous food crisis – 14 million people would be on the doorstep of starvation that year – when he invited me to see his warehouse in the crossroads town of Nazareth.  He unlocked the door and threw open its large metal panels, revealing, astonishingly, a room full of food.

It was a gobsmacking site in a country that would be receiving more than one million tons of international food aid.  Bag upon bag of Ethiopian grown wheat, corn, beans, peas and lentils were stacked in towering columns stretching toward the ceiling.  It was the bounty from the two previous farming seasons, when Ethiopian farmers reaped bumper harvests.  Those surpluses overwhelmed the weak markets and prices plunged 80% in some areas, to levels below their cost of growing the food.  It was a catastrophe for the farmers; their success had led to failure.  Without a market, the food piled up in warehouses or rotted on farms.

Just a few blocks away, though, trucks laden with international food aid, most it from the United States, raced down the main highway.  This is how I described the scene in the book ENOUGH, Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, with Jerman at his warehouse:

“He could feel the trucks rumbling in from Djibouti, massive double-load wagons stacked to the top with 220-pound white woven-plastic bags bearing the characteristic red, white and blue markings of American food intended for hungry foreigners.  The trucks came in waves….The ground shook as they rolled over the potholes.

“Jerman shook with anger whenever he saw those trucks.…(He) scrambled to the summit of one of his mountains of grain and comically posed for pictures.  “I should hold a sign saying, ‘Please send food.  In Ethiopia we have no food!’ ”  He howled wickedly.  “I don’t think Americans can imagine this.”

“No, Americans imagined their food aid arriving to save the day amid blighted landscapes of misery where everything was brown, dying and grim.  Their perceptions of the situation – and of their own best intentions – were perhaps most clearly expressed on one of the trucks that rolled up to the Ethiopian government’s strategic grain storehouse in Nazareth, groaning under the weight of American wheat and corn to be unloaded there.  The truck’s passenger-side window had been converted into a stained-glass painting of Jesus.  It was perfect imagery: Jesus, in Nazareth, bringing salvation to the Ethiopians.

“Americans certainly didn’t imagine their food aid arriving in green fields, rolling past warehouses full of local food.  They didn’t imagine African countries producing grain surpluses, certainly not those countries with all those starving people.”

It was eminently clear to me, standing there with Jerman, that something was wrong with the U.S. food aid system, which, since the 1940s, mandated that the U.S. provide American-grown food on American flagged ships.  No matter that it doubled the cost and the time of food delivery to the hungry.  There was no room, no flexibility, for American dollars to be spent buying up food that was grown locally, in the same country or the same region where hunger reigned.

It was hard to fathom.  Why not buy up the food here first?  It would be cheaper.  It was already here, so it didn’t need to sail on the high seas for months.  And it would be a great help to local farmers, who saw their own markets collapse from their surpluses.  Instead of solely shipping in surplus food from America, why not buy up local surpluses first?

It seemed like common sense.  But common sense had long ago left the U.S. food aid system.  As the years went by, U.S. business and political interests had come to wield ever more influence over food aid policy, keeping the focus on what was best for American agribusiness and for the politicians it supported rather than on what was best for the world’s hungry.  Even as American generosity grew – half of all international food aid has routinely been provided by the U.S. – so did its self-interest.

Jerman and other farmers who had gathered with him told me that they were grateful for international assistance because the need in their country was so great.  But couldn’t some of that assistance be to also help local food systems?

Again from ENOUGH:

“Jerman reported that some farmers hauling their own grain up from the south, hoping to sell it on the markets, had pulled a U-turn in Nazareth when they met the food-aid trucks coming in from the east.  They returned to their farms and stashed the grain in flimsy storage facilities, breezy bins open to the elements, where insects and pests and the heat would ruin it in a matter of months.  What kind of incentive was this for farmers to improve their harvest?  With food aid flooding into the country, what was the use of producing a surplus?”

Back then, Jerman told me: “If we take the perspective of the American farmer, it is logical to supply food aid to the world.  This is the right policy for America.  But if the main aim of aid is not only to support American farmers but to support the poor country, then the donors must do what is best for the Ethiopian farmers and the Ethiopian people.  If this is the aim, to solve the hunger problem, then the U.S. must change.  Don’t only send your food.”

It’s taken 10 years, but finally change may be coming, pending approval from Congress.  There have been modest moves toward what is called “local purchase” in past U.S. budgets, but they have been tentative pilot projects.  Now the President was proposing that nearly half of America’s $1.5 billion food aid budget could be used to buy local food when that food was available in hunger areas.  Just like Jerman had pleaded a decade ago.  Imagine that.

 
 
In a report launched today – a valuable yardstick called, A Growing Opportunity: Measuring Investments in African Agriculture – ONE reviews the past decade and finds some notable successes in terms of mustering money and political commitment, and the impact of agricultural development.

Ten years ago, Africa’s hunger season reached new levels of desperation.  Hunger crises gripped the continent from the Horn to the southern tip.  In Ethiopia, the feast of successive bumper harvests had incredibly, swiftly turned to famine, with 14 million people on the doorstep of starvation, surviving on international food aid.  A drought spread through central Africa and crept down the east coast, destroying harvests.  In southern Africa, AIDS was creating a new kind of famine where it wasn’t the crops that were dying but the farmers who planted them.

The suffering was immense.  And it exposed the folly of international development philosophy and practice of the preceding three decades: agricultural development and sustained resilience, particularly for the smallholder farmers, had been woefully neglected. 

The farmers who grew the majority of the continent’s food, who made up the majority of the population in many countries, were seen as too poor, too remote, too insignificant to be worthy of development efforts.  This had been the shared attitude of rich world donor governments, African governments themselves, the mighty development institutions and the private sector.

Something had to change.  And it did.

Amid the misery in 2003, African leaders gathered in Maputo, Mozambique and determined to reverse the neglect.  At an African Union (AU) summit, the heads of state promised to allocate 10% of national budgets to agriculture and seek 6% annual agricultural growth by 2008.  The AU leaders also adopted the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) as a common framework to be implemented by member states to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty through agricultural development.  This would be development led and owned by African countries, and supported by donors.

How have the seeds sown by the Maputo Declaration grown?

In a report launched today, Tuesday, March 26, 2013 – a valuable yardstick called, A Growing Opportunity: Measuring Investments in African Agriculture – the ONE campaign reviews the past decade and finds some notable successes in terms of mustering money and political commitment, and the impact of agricultural development.

As of January 2013, the report notes, 24 countries had signed CAADP compacts and held their business meetings and launched “solid, costed and technically reviewed” plans to accelerate agricultural development.  Another six countries had committed to start the process and develop plans.  The report assessed 19 of those plans:

Eight of those 19 countries are on track to meet the first Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty by 2015.  At least 13 have had 6% annual growth in the agriculture sector.  Leading the way has been Ethiopia; by 2011, the government was spending 19.7% of the total budget on agriculture, almost double the Maputo commitment.  The result is average annual growth of 24.2% in the agricultural sector in the 2008-2011 period, which, in turn, has accelerated poverty reduction, particularly in the rural areas.

Still, the report notes, much remains to be done.

“Despite progress, Maputo financing commitments are off track,” ONE found.  “Disappointingly, our analysis shows that only four of the 19 countries examined have met the target of spending 10% of the national budget on the agriculture section.”  Those countries are Ethiopia, Niger, Malawi and Cape Verde.  Two more countries are close behind (Senegal and Sierra Leone).  And six are at least halfway there (Mali, Tanzania, Gambia, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda).  Seven countries, though, are seriously off track, spending less than 5% on agriculture; six of them actually lowered their agriculture spending.  The resulting funding gaps of the proposed agricultural development plans in these 19 countries amounted to a $4.4 billion budget shortfall in 2011.

ONE exhorts African leaders to “act with urgency” to fill the gaps in partnership with donors.

As for the donors, their actions also need to match their pledges.  Meeting at L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009, the world’s leading industrial countries, known as the G8, pledged $22 billion over three years to support sustainable agriculture and food security in the developing world.  In 2012, at their Camp David summit, the G8 leaders launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a partnership between the governments and private companies to accelerate investments in agriculture with the ambitious goal of lifting 50 million people out of poverty over 10 years.

The ONE report found that these G8 countries may have, in words and intentions, met their $22 billion pledges, but only half of the money has been dispersed and is working on the ground.

When the benefits do reach the fields, progress is remarkable.  “Sub-Saharan African agriculture could, and should, be thriving,” the report concludes.  “Unblocking Africa’s agriculture potential would also unlock its development.”

To accelerate the success, ONE suggests the agriculture development plans need more transparency and greater consultation with civic organizations, particularly farming groups and women’s organizations.  They need a clearer focus on women farmers, who do most of the smallholder farming in many countries.  And they need a stronger emphasis on improving nutrition as well as production.

This year, ONE says, “is a turning point.”  The decade-old commitments to improve African agriculture need to be renewed and bolstered and put into action.  Or the days of negligence could begin again.

Surely, no one wants that – not the Africans who depend on agriculture to drive their economies nor the rest of the world that needs African farmers to be as productive as possible to meet the great challenge of feeding a growing global population.

The hunger season in Africa has gone on far too long.

This was originally posted on Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists blog.