Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire - From Aids To Agriculture

As we have heard during this week’s international conference in Washington, D.C., there has been wondrous progress on the AIDS treatment front since President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) nearly a decade ago.

At that time, there were only about 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa receiving the life-saving drug therapy.  By last year, thanks to the work of a global alliance attacking AIDS, that number had soared to an estimated 6.2 million.  There is much work still to be done; barely half the people in need of treatment in Africa are receiving it, and there were still more than 300,000 pediatric HIV infections last year.  But the progress spurred by PEPFAR over the past decade is a remarkable achievement; it stands as a cornerstone of America’s global health programs and a pillar of the nation’s foreign policy.

Now there is another presidential initiative that holds the potential of achieving another set of remarkable results in Africa.  President Barack Obama’s Feed the Future initiative seeks to end hunger through increasing investment in agricultural development, particularly for the vast legion of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Because of the neglect of agricultural development over the past four decades, these farmers are woefully behind, producing only one-tenth to one-quarter the yields of farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the rich world.  They are often unable to grow enough to feed their families throughout the year.  As a result, they and their children endure the misery of an annual hunger season.  Hungry farmers – what a horrible oxymoron.

Feed the Future aims to reverse this neglect by boosting investment in agricultural development on a wide front – African governments and donor countries, the private sector and philanthropic foundations and humanitarian agencies – and across a broad range of endeavors, from seed research to crop storage.  Promises to do so have been made from the G8 countries and from the G20 assembly and from a chorus of CEOs.  President Obama has called for an “all hands on deck” effort.

Particularly critical is fostering smallholder farmer access to the essential elements of farming that for so long have been beyond their reach: better quality seeds, soil nutrients, training, financing, improved storage facilities.  Just as access to treatment has been critical in the fight against AIDS, so is access to these basics of agriculture critical to conquering hunger.  Just as with the “Lazarus effect” of AIDS medication, these farming innovations can transform lives from barely surviving to robustly thriving.  ONE’s appropriately named Thrive campaign calls on African leaders, donor governments and the private sector to implement smart agriculture and nutrition plans that can move tens of millions of smallholder farm families out of extreme poverty and hunger.

Central to this movement is that Feed the Future and U.S. leadership to end hunger through agricultural development become a cornerstone of American policy no matter who is in the White House or which party controls Congress.  Here, PEPFAR’s path to a unity of purpose is instructive.

After President Bush announced his initiative in early 2003, it was embraced and authorized by Congress in an unusual display of bipartisan support.  When the president signed into law the United States Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act of 2003, it was hailed as the largest commitment by any nation to an international health initiative.  In 2008, with another burst of political unity, PEPFAR was reauthorized by Congress.  And the Obama administration has continued to make it a centerpiece of the nation’s development work.

Feed the Future is worthy of similar bipartisan support and unity of purpose.  It can stand alongside PEPFAR as an example of what America does in the face of crisis and great need.  There would be no political bickering over agricultural development spending, no calls from budget cutters (as can be heard now) to eliminate the program.  It is that important to improving vast numbers of lives in the developing world.  And it is that important to all our lives as well, as demands increase on the world food supply, be they from a growing global population or from extreme weather conditions ruining harvests from Indiana to India.  It is very clear: If the smallholder farmers of Africa succeed, so might we all.

Then another international conference can convene in Washington to hail the progress on agricultural development: the number of rural families who moved from dire poverty, the decrease in stunting from malnutrition, the emergence of food powers in Africa.  The last hunger season would finally be at hand.



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