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.

 


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