Friday, June 24, 2011  Roger Thurow

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership:

Someone noticed that God had blessed Nigeria with so much: oil, agriculture, natural resources, industrious people.  Why, God was asked, do you favor this country so greatly?  “Just wait,” God replied.  “Wait until you see the leaders I will give them.”

This is why, in one of the world’s leading oil-producing countries, people line up to fill their cars with gas.  “We have everything to be a great country,” the ambassador noted in a speech at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs Friday.  “Nigeria’s problem has been, pure and simple, leadership.”

Leadership has also been a problem in the fight against hunger.  Namely, the lack of political will to make ending hunger through agriculture development a top priority of every government.  The old maxim of success – where’s there a will, there’s a way – has been stood on its head in the fight against hunger.  We’ve long known the way, but we’ve been missing the will to get it done.

So it was notable this week that the World Food Prize, which honors great achievement in the fight against hunger, announced that this year’s recipients of the award are two leaders who mustered the political will: John Kufuor, the former president of Ghana, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil.

Under the leadership of their former presidents, Ghana and Brazil are two rare countries on track to exceed the first United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting in half extreme hunger before 2015. Kufuor prioritized agriculture development, and Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to make huge gains against hunger.  According to the World Food Prize, Ghana’s poverty rate has fallen from nearly 52% in 1991 to about 26% in 2008; about one-third of the population was hungry and malnourished in 1990, but by 2004 that shameful measure was less than one-tenth.

Lula da Silva summoned his entire government to get behind his Zero Hunger program, which harnessed agriculture development to boost rural incomes, widen access to food for the poor, and increase primary school enrollment.

The World Food Prize has mainly honored scientists and humanitarians in its 25 years. 
The scientific breakthroughs are vital, but they don’t go very far without the political will to make sure those discoveries get into the hands of the farmers they are supposed to help.  Today, all over Africa, new seed varieties that could greatly enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers are being kept out of the fields by political mismanagement and stubborn bureaucracies.

Similarly, the political will that has recently been mustered by the U.S. government and a few other countries to reverse the neglect of agriculture development over the past three decades is being challenged by small-minded efforts to whack back such aid and investment for the sake of fiscal austerity.  And the G20 took the initiative this week to convene a summit of agriculture ministers to address food price volatility and the challenge of increasing food production and quality but then pulled its punches in delivering the political will necessary to tackle issues like regulation of commodities’ derivatives markets, biofuel subsidies and putting up new money to fulfill commitments to increase agriculture development spending.

Back at the Chicago Council lunch, the Nigerian ambassador said his new government was serious about deepening its agriculture cooperation with the U.S. to further the country’s ability to feed itself.  He and his long-suffering countrymen know better than most that an absence of leadership and political will is no laughing matter.



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