This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its annual Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 21st. For more information on the symposium, click hereFollow @GlobalAgDev and use #globalag on twitter to join the conversation. 

Ten years after the Ethiopian famine of 2003, when international food aid rushed in to feed 14 million people, another World Food Program (WFP) tent has been erected on an open field.  But this isn’t a scene of food distribution.  It is a scene of food purchase.

The action happens on the grounds of the Sidama Elto Farmers’ Cooperative Union in Awassa, Ethiopia. Sidama Elto is one of 16 cooperative unions in Ethiopia that have signed forward contracts with the WFP for the purchase of more than 28,000 metric tons of maize grown by their smallholder farmer members.  The maize, which is part of 112,000 tons of food the WFP purchased in Ethiopia last year, will be used for WFP relief distributions in the country.  Ten years ago, many of those farmers and their families were receiving food aid from the WFP.

One of the major lessons in agricultural development over the past decade is this: Markets Matter.  The 2003 famine tragically, and incomprehensibly, followed two years of bumper harvests in Ethiopia.  The surplus production overwhelmed the country’s weak and inefficient markets.  There were no export channels; the domestic market’s ability to absorb the harvests was crippled by woeful infrastructure.  The food piled up on farms and prices collapsed, upwards of 80% in some areas.  Farmers lost incentive to plant the next year.  Then the drought hit, and feast turned to famine.  The markets had failed before the weather did.

That gobsmacking turnaround triggered a reversal of the neglect of agricultural development that had set in since the 1980s, as I noted in my TedxChange talk last month.  In the past decade, science and research geared toward improving the work of smallholder farmers (who produce the majority of the food grown in the developing world) have been reinvigorated; so too have trade and business efforts accelerated to provide greater market incentives and opportunities for the farmers.  Prior to 2003, boosting agricultural production – growing more food -- was the primary focus and developing markets was considered to be a “second-generation problem.”  Now, markets share top billing with production, as it should; markets provide incentive to produce more.

In Ethiopia, it started with the creation of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange in the wake of the famine.  Now, the mantra spreads, in radio dramas, government pronouncements, business negotiations: If you grow it, someone will buy it. 

The WFP’s partnership with Sidama Elto is part of its Purchase for Progress (P4P) program, which uses the WFP’s purchasing power to create markets for smallholder farmers.  Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and implemented in collaboration with the government of Ethiopia through the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), P4P works with the farmers to improve the quality of their crops and the post-harvest handling.  Simiret Simeno, deputy manager of Sidama Elto, says that for the first time its 13,000 farmer members see that better quality can bring better prices.  And they can also see their contribution to healthier communities, as one of the markets is an expanding network of school feeding programs supplied by locally grown crops rather than food being shipped in from abroad.

The ultimate goal of the WFP purchases is to demonstrate to commercial buyers that smallholder farmers can reliably produce high-quality food worthy of their business.  Sustainable success here could also bear witness to the potential impact of President Obama’s proposed food aid reform, which would allow for nearly half of the U.S. food aid budget to be used to buy food nearer to the hunger crises – providing markets for smallholder farmers -- rather than shipping it all the way from American farms (as has been the U.S. policy for decades).

These public-private ventures bring both maturity and modernization to markets that hadn’t changed much for centuries.  Working with local banks and donor governments, P4P has introduced forward contracts to participating cooperatives and smallholder farmers.  The ATA has also been crafting links between farmers and commercial buyers of several crops, like teff, barley, sesame and chickpeas.

Above all, says Khalid Bomba, the chief executive officer of ATA, “Smallholder farmers need confidence that there will be buyers for what they grow.”

And confidence that the misery of 2003 – the misery of failed markets -- won’t happen again.

 
 
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.

 
 
Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire

Forward with feeding the future!

Four more years, that’s what we got last night.  Four more years to solidify American leadership in ending hunger through agricultural development.  Four more years to make President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative a permanent part of American policy no matter the political makeup in Congress and the White House.  That was the President’s promise to the world’s poorest when he spoke at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security in May.

“We can unleash the change that reduces hunger and malnutrition,” President Obama proclaimed then.  “We can spark the kind of economic growth that lifts people and nations out of poverty.  This is the new commitment that we’re making, and I pledge to you today that this will remain a priority as long as I am the United States president.”

He continued: “We’ll stay focused on clear goals: boosting farmers’ incomes and over the next decade helping 50 million men, women and children lift themselves out of poverty.”

We must hold him to it.

It will take great resolve and plenty of clamor-raising.  For forward also lies the fiscal cliff.  Budget cuts to corral the rampaging deficit will be necessary.  And that will mean increasing pressure to whack away at foreign aid and investments in development.  The White House will need to rouse a strong defense to protect Feed the Future.

The best way to do this is to make global food security a shared goal, embraced by both Democrat and Republican, to remove it from the partisan realm, to project it not as an Obama initiative but as an American initiative.  Because agricultural development is what America does, and does best.  Eliminating hunger was at the heart of two of America’s greatest diplomatic and development achievements: the Marshall Plan, which secured the peace after World War II by aiding the European recovery, and the Green Revolution, which conquered famine in many parts of the developing world.

Last night in his victory speech, President Obama spoke about a generous and compassionate America.  Feed the Future is the face of this America to hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.

So forward with feeding the future.  Forward with securing the global food supply to meet the demands of a growing population.  Forward with creating the conditions for all the world’s farmers to be as productive as possible.  Forward with vastly improving the planet’s nutrition.  Forward with ending child stunting.  Forward with banishing the shameful oxymoron “hungry farmers.”

Forward to a world with no hunger season.

 
 
Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire -
Friday, September 09, 2011

REMEMBERING THE POST-9/11 PROMISES TO RAISE FOREIGN AID

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

Amid the remembrances of 9/11, let us also flash back to Sept. 20, 2001, when President Bush addressed a joint session of Congress.  He asked a question he believed many Americans were asking: “Why do they hate us?”

He went on to provide some ready answers: “They hate what we see right here in this chamber – a democratically elected government.  They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

But after the shock of September 11, the President and the nation also understood that fear and misery in poor countries could create a toxic environment for resentment and terrorism.  Politicians from both parties emphasized that America needed to emphasize its generosity and goodwill throughout the world.  The crafting of post-9/11 public policy began to reflect this.  Reducing poverty in the developing world became a prime pillar of U.S. foreign policy.


In November 2001, the U.S. took the lead in launching a new round of world trade talks in Doha, Qatar, designed to bring the poorest countries more fully into the global trading system.  This was dubbed the “development round."

A few months later, in March 2002, the U.S. was at the front of the line at a conference in Monterrey, Mexico, called the Summit on Financing for Development.  The world’s richest countries pledged billions of dollars in fresh aid to spur economic development in the poorest countries.  This was called the “Monterrey Consensus.”  The Doha-Monterrey strategy was to deliver a one-two punch to poverty: open trade, increase aid.

As we described in the book, ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty:

President Bush arrived at Monterrey pledging a 50% increase in American foreign aid over three years and talking about linking greater contributions to developing nations with better democratic performance and economic freedom.  “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror,” he told his fellow leaders.  “We fight against poverty because opportunity is a fundamental right to human dignity.  We fight against poverty because faith requires it and conscience demands it.”  He also said in Monterrey, “To be serious about fighting poverty, we must be serious about expanding trade."

Unfortunately, two months later, much of that sentiment was already shifting in reverse.  Congress passed and President Bush signed a profound piece of legislation that was a hallmark of domestic politics but that reverberated mightily around the world.  The 2002 Farm Bill.

With a flourish of his pen, the President increased the subsidies the U.S. government paid to American farmers and, in turn, increased the poverty of millions of other farmers in the developing world, especially in Africa, whose governments couldn’t afford to pay similar subsidies and, in fact, had long been specifically directed by the policies of the World Bank and other institutions not to subsidize their farmers.

That piece of legislation, that Farm Bill, undermined the efforts of the development round of the trade talks.  It undercut the spending pledges at Monterrey.  It exacerbated the uneven plowing fields of international agriculture, making it harder for African farmers to compete.  It spread hunger and poverty.

Now, 10 years later, the immediate post 9/11 sensitivities to reducing poverty around the world seem to have totally vanished in the dark clouds of the debt crisis and the budget cutting fervor.  Instead of increasing spending to reduce poverty, many in Congress are determined to slash it.  Instead of building up the United States Agency for International Development and its new Feed the Future program – which would enhance America’s standing abroad by leading an international push to end hunger through agriculture development -- many want to cut its funding.

The mood of showcasing and spreading America’s generosity and goodwill around the world has deteriorated into a drive to diminish those efforts.  Any programs with the label “foreign” aid are particularly big targets.  Many Republicans seem to have closed their ears, and their minds, to those post-9/11 words of the most recent Republican President making the case for a big increase in foreign aid: “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.”

The Monterrey Consensus to increase development spending has been shattered and replaced by an effort to build a consensus to cut back foreign aid.

The emotional anniversary of 9/11 arrives as Congress is returning to take up the 2012 budget and to continue work on crafting a new Farm Bill.  As we remember September 11, it would be right to also resurrect our better instincts to generously and aggressively attack global poverty.