The United States government took a bold step forward last week in addressing the horrifying upward spiral in the number of people throughout the world who go hungry, and, because they are hungry, they suffer from stunted growth, find it difficult to learn, spend every day of their lives just trying to grow enough food to eat, and often die of starvation.
The Feed The Future initiative that was introduced by Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator of USAID is committed to forging bonds with those governments of developing countries which have pledged to make hard choices and to take action. Unlike past colonial domination this initiative has been designed for host countries to own the program. Decisions will be made from the ground up. Results will rule.
Funding from Feed The Future should improve nutrition, farming techniques and the infrastructure necessary to transport crops from farm to market. It should improve one more thing also: The lives of women. Women are the beasts of burden in developing countries where they represent as much as 80% of the farmers who produce almost all the food that is planted and raised even though they are almost completely stopped out of the credit markets and only rarely own the land on which they produce the food. Dr. Shah says they are the "untapped solution" to the problem.
Certainly, there are a lot of reasons citizens of the world can't get enough to eat. In the United States, as elsewhere, hunger often accompanies being poor; but not always. One of the biggest reasons people are hungry in the developing world is the result of decisions made in the 1970s by the "rich" nations that convinced themselves food surpluses, along with the improved ability of developing countries to grow their own food, allowed western countries to replace agricultural development with economic development.
It was a big mistake. People left their farms to take up residence in cities where economic aid was stimulating job growth. Working for a living wage allowed them to buy their food. That worked until it didn't. The surpluses ran out, Mother Nature intervened, and economic cycles left millions of city dwellers unemployed, penniless and not knowing where their next meal would come from.
Unfortunately, the dramatic reduction in agricultural development aid dried up food production which had been essential historically to offset some of constant threat of widespread famine. Food aid substituted for actually growing food locally when not enough food was grown locally. The narcotic effect of food aid cannot be overstated. It lets politicians off the hook, it gives humanitarians a valid purpose in life, it provides jobs for aid groups which are skilled at raising money and delivering food to people who are starving. It saves lives one day at a time.
Successive western administrations kicked the can down the road. The number of chronically hungry people grew into the high hundred millions and in 2009 it crossed the billion belly mark. As the number of hungry people soared food aid has struggled to keep up.
Then, in 2008, the Obama transitioners explored fresh policy initiatives with which their new administration could make its mark. They decided to revive agricultural development aid which the new president revealed in the Inaugural Address when he said "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish"
Underlying that one line of text was a substantive and compelling study conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that made the case for renewed American leadership in agricultural development. In a collaborative effort Republicans and Democrats in both houses joined with the State Department, USAID, and the Department of Agriculture to develop Feed the Future. It is an example of American government at its finest.
The buzz around Washington, DC these days among the hunger fighting crowd is that this time maybe it's time. The endemic issue of hunger finally may be granted a seat at the adult's table. Referring to Feed The Future as having come into its own time, however, does a disservice to the billion people at the bottom of the pyramid who must fight every day to overcome the gnawing grip of terrible hunger.
Today this exciting initiative exists only in the minds of well-meaning people who wait for its implementation. But today about 25,000 people throughout the world died of starvation, also waiting. Tomorrow another 25,000 will die and the same thing will happen every day until Rajiv Shah can hoist the first sack of seeds onto the first truck that will drive to a wharf where it will be loaded onto a dry bulk shipper that will sail to a foreign port from which it will be driven deep into the bush and parceled out to women who will stoop low to the ground to plant them.
One growing season later crops will be harvested and women will feed their families; children first -- with their daughters receiving a full portion -- then any elderly and sick living with them, then their husbands, then they will feed themselves. On that day fewer than 25,000 people will die of starvation. Then it will be time.