12/17/2010 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Keeping Promises and Delivering Hope to Poor Farmers and Their Families

Two days, 150 organizations, 300 speakers, 7,000 delegates, a bazillion ideas. The European Development Days conference I attended in Brussels earlier this month was a smorgasbord for dialogue on international development. The agenda was wide-ranging, the pace dynamic, the participants engaged. And one clear theme emerged: When it comes to international development assistance, developed nations must hold fast to their pledges--even when confronted with painful budget constraints at home.

This message was especially powerful given the climate surrounding the conference. Europeans are struggling to defuse a credit crisis that has ravaged Greece and Ireland. Austerity measures have prompted strikes across the continent. Unemployment in the euro zone recently hit a 12-year high.

Yet, polling indicates that 9 out of 10 Europeans support helping developing countries, and 64 percent want to keep the promise to increase aid to 0.7 percent of GDP by 2015. In fact, 14 percent would like to see aid boosted even more.

As Polish development minister Krzysztof Stanowski told me, when it comes to helping those in need to help themselves, Poland's people feel a sense of solidarity.

In the UK, even as Prime Minister David Cameron's government is reducing the budget deficit, he is sticking to Britain's promise to provide 0.7 percent of its income in aid by 2013.

Why this solidarity and sustained commitment to aid? Because Europeans understand that combating global poverty is core to their values and their interests simultaneously, alleviating human suffering while helping promote stability, environmental stewardship, and peace.

While some European countries and the European Commission have recognized the importance of agricultural development in the "aid equation," more needs to be done. And it's encouraging that Europe has made agricultural development one of the four pillars in its high-impact anti-poverty strategy -- an approach the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shares.

Three-quarters of people who live in extreme poverty live in rural areas, and most rely on agriculture for their food and income. If these small farmers can boost their yields and get their surplus to market, they can feed their families, raise their incomes, and improve their quality of life.

There are many reasons for optimism, including the growing initiative of African countries themselves, as well as innovative partnerships that are putting solidarity into practice. One great example is a program run by the World Food Programme, Purchase for Progress (P4P), which links the world's single largest purchaser of food for humanitarian operations to poor, small-scale farmers.

P4P was launched in 2008 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, and the government of Belgium. Since then, the European Commission and the governments of Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg, the United States, and Saudi Arabia have joined as donors. Pilots are running in 20 countries -- half in Sub-Saharan Africa --where P4P has contracted more than 100,000 metric tons of food from small farmers.

P4P gives farmers access to reliable markets and the chance to sell their surplus at competitive prices, and more. Through partners, they are trained in things like pest and disease control, how to calculate production costs, and food processing techniques that add value to crops. And the beauty of P4P is that it's designed to move beyond solely supplying the World Food Programme, and is working now to connect small farmers to other local and regional food markets. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says P4P "is one of the best programmes that we have going in the country."

The more smallholder farmers can improve their productivity, and access markets, the more they can help their own communities and countries grow and prosper. In other words, spending on agricultural development now can mean decreasing the need for foreign assistance in the future.