WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday said the United States has a "moral imperative" to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition in Africa despite shrinking national budgets around the world.
Obama announced $3 billion in private sector pledges to help boost agriculture and food production in Africa. He said the U.S. and other donor nations would continue to make "historic investments" in development, though he offered no new American government pledges.
"Some have asked in a time of austerity, whether this new alliance is just a way for governments to shift the burden on to somebody else," Obama said of the private sector commitments. "I want to be clear, the answer is no."
Obama's announcement in Washington kicked off four days of international summitry. World leaders are gathering at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains, later in the day for a summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations. Obama heads to Chicago on Saturday evening for NATO meetings.
While much of the G-8 meetings will focus on Europe's mounting economic troubles, leaders will also hold a session on food security in Africa. Obama invited the heads of four African nation – Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania – to attend the meeting.
Obama said that even as G-8 leaders dealt with Europe's pressing fiscal challenges, he felt it was "also important, also critical, to focus on the urgent challenge that confronts some 1 billion men, women and children around the world: the injustice of chronic hunger."
The White House said the private sector pledges, along with commitments from donor countries to work with African nations on food security programs, could raise 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years.
InterAction, an alliance of non-governmental organizations, welcomed the private sector pledges, but said they must not be a substitute for governments meeting their previous food security obligations. And the international organization Oxfam said the funds were a "nice complement at best, a deflection at worst."
Obama championed a food security initiative at the 2009 G-8 summit that resulted in $22 billion in government-backed pledges. The pledge period for L'Aquila Food Security Initiative ends later this year, and some humanitarian groups say much of the promised money has not been dispersed.
The president urged wealthy nations to make good on their pledges.
"We must do what we say. No empty promises," Obama said.
The G-8 will release an accountability report this weekend detailing how much of the $22 billion is still on the sidelines. Administration officials say the U.S. is on track to fulfill its $3.5 billion pledge.
Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, sought to put the problem of food security in Africa in personal terms. Some of his relatives in Kenya live in villages where hunger is sometimes a reality, he said.
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