05/25/2011 03:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2011

Building a Better World: Supporting Farming Families

Money invested in agricultural development pays off. Just ask Odetta Mukanyiko, a Rwandan farmer who recently quadrupled her income through a World Food Program-sponsored initiative. Odetta, a 38-year-old single mother of two, spent much of the last two decades scratching out a living on a small plot of land in eastern Rwanda. She and her family ate what she grew and sold whatever she had left over to local traders paying rock bottom prices. She made less than one dollar a day.

But a year ago, Odetta's life began to change when she started working with the World Food Program's (WFP) Purchase for Progress initiative (P4P), a groundbreaking effort to transform the way the WFP sources its food aid and connects small farmers to reliable markets. Odetta borrowed money, expanded her plot, and planted more than she ever had before. She sold all of her crops to the WFP and in one year, quadrupled her income. With this extra money, Odetta adopted two children, built herself a larger home, and is now able to pay for food, school fees and health insurance for all four of her children.

Odetta's story is a powerful example of how smallholder farmers, given the tools, can change their own lives and lift themselves out of poverty. Her story is similar to many other smallholder farmers around the world who have benefitted from agricultural development initiatives like P4P. With their hard work and greater access to resources and opportunities, smallholder farmers can finally gain traction to become more self sufficient.

Bill Gates shared Odetta's story with a group of political, business, and development leaders in Washington, D.C. today to make the point that investments in agricultural development work. He spoke at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs symposium to call on the United States and other countries to fund agricultural development for poor farming families.

Supporting farming families makes sense on many fronts. It not only helps farmers like Odetta become self-sufficient, but it helps increase the prosperity and stability of countries in the developing world, and is a critical part of helping feed a growing population. It can even have direct financial returns for the United States. And it allows us as Americans to fulfill our national belief that we can and should help build a better world.

And now is a particularly exciting time because after decades of neglect, agricultural development is back on the global agenda.

U.S. leadership helped secure $22 billion in commitments from the G8/G20. The United States pledged $3.5 billion to support its "Feed the Future" Initiative. And African countries themselves are championing small farmers by pledging a full 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture.

But, of course, plans can change and priorities can shift. The economic turmoil over the past few years poses a threat to the significant progress we've made. And that threat is very real: to date, only about half of the G8/G20's $22 billion in pledges have been disbursed or are on track to be disbursed.

Yet, what most Americans don't realize is that less than one percent of the federal budget is allocated to development programs. And that these programs now are smarter and better than in the past.

As we struggle with budgets and priorities, looking for the right investments becomes even more important. Agricultural development has a return on investment well worth it. Just ask Odetta.

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