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Big Action for Small Farmers

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The season of big meetings and big talk is upon us as world leaders convene in Canada this week for the G8 and G20 summits, and again in September for the UN General Assembly and Millennium Development Goals Summit. Turning the tide on global poverty is high on the agenda. To succeed, this season of big meetings and big talk must also be a season of big action.

At this week's meeting, the Canadian government is shining the spotlight on maternal and child health. With almost 1,000 mothers dying in childbirth each day, this attention is needed and welcome.

Yet, this year's priorities must not displace last year's promises to support poor farmers - the millions of hardworking women and men who feed the developing world.

Last year, G20 countries pledged $22 billion to help poor farmers lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. After decades of decline in foreign assistance for agricultural development, this multilateral mobilization was heralded as a bold leap forward. But, as many nations have stepped up to the plate, many more are simply not delivering enough, even as the global economic crisis and rising food prices have made life even harder for the poor.

We cannot afford to lose momentum or jeopardize hard-won progress. At a time when donors and developing countries alike seek the greatest return on development dollars, supporting small farmers is one of the best tools we have to reap broad-based development rewards. Helping smallholder farmers grow more food and get it to market means higher incomes, improved nutrition, better health, and women's empowerment too. But to realize these gains, we need a commitment of resources and a commitment to results.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where agriculture represents two-thirds of all employment, governments are proving that resource commitments yield success. In 2004, African heads of state pledged 10 percent of their national budgets to achieve 6 percent annual growth in agriculture. By 2008, 20 African countries had met or exceeded that 6 percent target. In Rwanda, investment in agriculture rose by 30 percent from 2007 to 2009. The result? A 15 percent rise in agricultural production in 2008.

Among donors, the United States is leading the way with its Feed the Future initiative - a $3.5 billion commitment, over three years, to support small-scale farmers. In addition, the United States, Canada, Spain, South Korea, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are founding donors of a new global trust fund to help the world's poorest farmers. The partners have moved swiftly to make this fund operational, and this week announced that Bangladesh, Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Togo will receive the fund's first grants totaling $224 million. These investments will help transform the lives of more than two million people in rural areas by giving each country the opportunity to increase food security, raise rural incomes and reduce poverty.

To get the most from agricultural resources, poor farmers' needs must come first, guiding investment strategies and forming the yardstick for gauging results. That philosophy drives the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a foundation grantee. I met last week with Cameroonian agronomist and AGRA president Dr. Namanga Ngongi. He described how a commitment to results is paying off in Mali, where a woman-owned company called Faso Kaba - which means "home country maize" - is cultivating change by helping farmers grow their yields and incomes through better quality seed.

In 2005, when Maimouna Coulilably founded Faso Kaba, the business sold just under 10 tons of seed. Last year, with AGRA's support, sales had surged to more than 200 tons. The seeds are packaged in sizes and sold at prices small farmers can afford, and distributed in stores and through a retail network in the rural villages where farmers live. In Sanankoroba village, Bassidou Samake is one of 50 local seed-growers for Faso Kaba; he now is able to feed his family and fund his daughter's university education. Another village farmer, Able Traore, saw his harvests increase by 50 percent after using the improved seeds for just two years.

The continent has more such stories proving that agricultural progress in poor countries is not only possible, it is happening. This momentum must be sustained so success can be taken to scale. Big meetings and big talk are not enough in a world that is hungry for change. Big action -world leaders keeping their promises, and developing countries committing resources while listening ardently to the voice of the small farmer - is needed to bring big results and prosperity to the world's poor.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell is president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Development Program.