There is little mail service in rural Africa, so the smallholder farmers there wouldn’t have received last week’s annual letter of U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah.  But they certainly would welcome his words.

“To put it simply,” Shah wrote, “if you care about fighting poverty, then you should care about boosting harvests.”

Boosting harvests is the smallholder farmers’ top priority, for that is their main way to eliminate the dreaded hunger season, improve household nutrition and generate income to pay school fees and better their living conditions.

For the farmers in western Kenya who I followed last year for the forthcoming book The Last Hunger Season, the planting season is now imminent.  They are waiting for the long-rains season to begin before they sow their maize seeds.  If the rains will be steady, they are anticipating good harvests, but they know that one bumper crop won’t be good enough.  They will need bumper harvest after bumper harvest to complete the transition from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, from merely farming to live to farming to make a living.  It’s a huge difference, requiring repeated success.

The USAID administrator knows this as well.  “The development community,” he said in his letter, “has to expand its focus from relief to resilience, from responding after emergencies strike to preparing communities in advance.”

Those communities need to have access to better seeds and soil nutrition, and to financing to afford them, and to extension advice to best utilize them.  And they need that year after year.  Agricultural development requires a long-term commitment, with steady budgets, rather than an ad hoc reaction to hunger emergencies.

That, of course, is the principle at the center of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative, which has become a cornerstone of USAID’s work.  And it should be at the core of any development strategy devised by the world’s leading industrial countries, known as the Group of 8, or G8, at their summit meeting in May, which President Obama will host.

It was certainly the lesson that came from last year’s hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, when 13 million people needed to be fed by the outside world.  The emergency food aid response saved countless lives, but it didn’t provide any resiliency for the future.  Food aid, it should now be eminently clear, won’t prevent the next famine.  Only agriculture development, with the goal of more plentiful and nutritious harvests, will.

From relief to resilience.  That’s the way to both save lives and reduce poverty.
 


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