18 May 2012

Obama’s $3bn plan to fight world hunger

More than a billion people are at risk of hunger and malnutrition in the developing world: President Obama hopes private investment will help boost agricultural production and improve food security.

Agricultural worker in Niger (Getty)

President Obama announced his new food security intiative to an audience which included African leaders, and the rock star Bono, a leading campaigner in the fight to end global hunger. His aim is to harness the private sector behind efforts by developing countries themselves to improve their agricultural production and tackle the threat of hunger and malnutrition.

“Some have asked in a time of austerity whether this new alliance is just a way for government to shift the burden onto somebody else. I want to be clear. the answer is no”, Mr Obama declared. “Even in these tough fiscal times, we will continue to make historic investments in development.”

The White House believes that joint partnerships are the best way to come up with technologies and resources on a scale large enough to tackle such an overhwleming global problem, restoring agriculture as a key priority for African nations as well as western donors. There is also an emphasis on equipping local farmers and producers with the resources and tools to improve things for themselves, as well as building on best practice.

In 2009, the G8 summit in l’Aquila in Italy promised to mobilise a total of $22bn over three years to boost agricultural investments in developing countries, but so far just half of that money is actually on the table. Despite the focus on financial turmoil back home, the White House is urging G8 leaders to make good on their own promises.

The poor didn’t get us into this situation, they didn’t cause this debt and they shouldn’t be penalised for it. Tony Hall, Alliance to End Hunger

With hundreds of millions of people to feed, the emphasis is on the private sector to help drive the neccessary change, as the US Treasury Under Secretary Lael Brainard explained: “We want the private sector to bring their savvy, their innovation and their investments. It is a huge emphasis.”

Partnership is the key

Ertharin Cousin, a former Obama administration aide who now runs the World Food Programme, said that collaboration was the key to tackling the global food crisis. Partnerships, she said, “can begin to change the face of hunger and malnutrition in the world… while also scaling up innovative solutions that address the roots of hunger.”

The US Agency for International Development is already partnering with multinational companies like WalMart, Chevron and Coca-Cola to provide the extra capacity and financial clout which it can’t supply on its own. USAID dirctor Rajiv Shah offered one example of a joint initiative that he said was already showing results on many levels.

“We are working with Pepsi in Ethiopia to create a chickpea-based product that can both be sold in their own hummus business and also be packaged and provided to children who are deeply malnourished”, he told Foreign Policy magazine. “That’s going to help 30,000 farmers in Ethiopia move out of poverty, and it will help thousands of children improve their nutrition status.”

President Obama’s initiative will also involve twenty companies from Africa alongside agribusiness giants like DuPont and Monsanto to help farmers build local markets as well as improve their productivity. It is not simply about outside intervention, though: the United States wants local people, especially women – who produce as much as 90% of Africa’s food – to drive the revolution forward.

Corporate conscience

Tony Hall, a former US ambassador to the World Food Programme who now heads the Washington-based Alliance to End World Hunger, told Channel 4 News: “Africa doesn’t produce any more food today than it did forty years ago. So we really need to do everything we can, including bringing in the private sector to help agricultural development in Africa – research, seeds, technology, fertilisers and other resources… A lot of companies in the last few years have really developed a social conscience and really want to help hungry nations and hungry people.”

The charity Save the Children welcomed President Obama’s decision to focus world attention on what it called “the injustice of chronic hunger”, but said world leaders had missed an opportunity to take even bolder steps. “Boosting agriculture and private sector involvement is crucial to food security – but it is not enough”, they said, calling on the G8 to set a concrete target to reduce chronic malnutrition and help millions of children to thrive.

Aid plus capital

Still, the Obama plan is intended to help some fifty million vulnerable people, over the next ten years: a policy for the long term, rather than an immediate fix. “It’s not about replacing aid, It’s about combining aid with private capital”, said White House international economics advisor Mike Froman.

Among the partnerships announced on Friday, the British telecoms firm Vodaphone has pledged to improve access to phone communication. The Swiss agrochemical firm Syngenta will provide packs of seed products specially designed for African farmers, while the farm equipment makers Agro Corp will invest $100 million over three years to build model farms and training centres for around 25,000 smallholders.

But it is also up to the G8 nations to look beyond their own fiscal problems to the wider issue of poverty, as Tony Hall explained. “Someone has to step up to the plate and force the issue. The poor didn’t get us into this situation, they didn’t cause this debt, and they shouldn’t be penalised for it. I think the President’s remarks show the US is willing to lead the way in making sure the rest of the G8 upholds their promises.”

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News