On May 24th, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs* will host a conference in Washington, D.C. to reinforce the relationship between food security in the developing world and the national security of the United States.
Talking about food security used to be a discussion for donors who contributed bags of food aid as handouts, but that has changed. Now, it is more likely to be a consideration written into policy guidelines at the Departments of State and Defense as elements of their threat assessments.
The Chicago Council first made the case that agricultural development was essential to the long term interests of this country late in 2008, when it dropped a report in front of the Obama transition team that said it was time to renew America's leadership in helping the developing world grow more of its own food and become less dependent on charity.
Several months later, that policy approach earned a line in the inaugural address, when President Obama spoke directly to the poorest nations, promising "to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and to let clean waters flow." That pledge has since blossomed into a presidential initiative called Feed The Future (FTF).
Now, under the careful stewardship of Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)**, food security achieved by sustainable agriculture is a fully evolved strategic mechanism for helping to keep the United States safe. What gives it such resonance is its effect, primarily on young men, who are both angry and scared. One of the biggest reasons they're angry is that the cost of food has risen beyond their means; they're scared because they're hungry. Next to not being able to breathe, hunger is worse than anything, other than dying of thirst.
Seasoned Washington insiders recognize the linkage between agricultural development aid that improves crop productivity and the enhancements to civil stability that evolve when people are well fed. The trick is getting newcomers to the halls of Congress to make that connection. And, it's not easy to do.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the Obama administration is asking for a 40 percent increase for Feed The Future in its FY2011 State Department Foreign Ops budget request. The Continuing Resolution approved by Congress on April 11th authorized funding only for the most basic operating expenses of USAID, and left unresolved requests for funding FTF and other food security related programs. Making the case for sending money overseas will take a masterful diplomat, statesman, politician, deal doer and raconteur. Where's Benjamin Franklin when you need him?
Closely aligned with the concept that food security in the developing world enhances national security in the U.S. is the idea that the American government can't bear the entire burden of funding economic expansion everywhere. Public/private partnerships continue to grow in importance as the relationship between government institutions and the private sector becomes more evolved. And therein may exist the silver bullet that will engage even the most myopic members of Congress. We can help our factories flourish by partnering with FTF projects.
Feed The Future is focused on 20 countries, including several in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Asian subcontinent. Every one of them needs all manner of equipment, knowledge and increased capacity. They need storage bins, fertilizer, seeds, tools, tractors and milk cans.
They also need computer programs that operate on cell phones so farmers far from town can get accurate commodities prices instead of being ripped off by the guy who shows up on his motorbike and offers cents on the dollar for their crops. They need access to credit so they can borrow a little bit of money before their crop is harvested which they will then pay back after they get a fair price.
They need advice, training, and education in the three Rs; and, since many of the farmers are women, they have a different set of needs, since they also feed the children, keep the house and are built differently from men. Most men don't ever think of these things, but they can make a huge difference.
By funding Feed The Future it's highly likely that in a few years these impoverished farmers will become consumers of all sorts of American made products and services, many of them coming from the very states where Representatives and Senators are most opposed to the idea of foreign aid.
And, since the gross domestic product of many focus countries is growing faster than the GDP in the U.S., it is a good use of taxpayers' money to seed entrepreneurial growth there, in order to create jobs here. Why is it so hard for some in Congress, starting with leadership, to understand this?
So next week, at the Chicago Council's confab, some of the smartest agriculture people in the world are going to talk to each other, and to an audience of subject-matter experts who know pretty much everything about food security and partnerships.
We'll all get smarter at the margins, and it'll be good to see our colleagues again, but the message of the commenters -- not the least of whom will be Bill Gates -- has to sail over our heads, out the doors of the Ronald Reagan Building and up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Building and the Senate office buildings.
It's going to have to permeate some fairly thick marble. Not on the walls of the buildings, but in the heads of any number of Congressmen who haven't yet fully connected the links to prosperity that exist between food security, national security, economic development and job growth here in the U.S., and with our development partners throughout the world.
* I have written for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
** I have an informal affiliation with USAID.