A Bangladeshi child holding up rice grains. The U.S. Agency for International Development's Feed the Future program aims for a more targeted approach with an anti-poverty stance. Photo by: IRRI images / CC BY-NC-SA

In Cameroon, unrest over rising food prices leaves scores dead. Half a world away in Pakistan, devastating floods add millions more to the ranks of the hungry and homeless. In Somalia, the worst drought in 60 years decimates staple crops in a country already besieged by strife. In recent years, the world has needed little reminder of the over one billion who suffer from chronic hunger. From his first day in office in January 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama signaled that he was listening to their plight: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish.” Later that year, the Obama administration unveiled a $3.5 billion global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future.

Alleviating hunger is not a new U.S. foreign policy priority. For over 55 years, the U.S. has provided food aid across the world. Feed the Future, however, aims to reorient Washington’s approach to food security towards targeted, country-driven investments in agricultural development that not only feed the hungry, but also help lift them out of poverty. It is widely believed that boosting agricultural productivity would create a pathway out of poverty for millions – from raising incomes of the 70 percent of Africa’s poor who engage in farming to lowering food prices for urban households who spend up to 80 percent of their income on food. According to the World Bank, growth in the agricultural sector reduces extreme poverty more than growth in any other sector.

In April 2010, the U.S. government announced that Feed the Future would support 20 focus countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (12), Asia (4), and Latin America and the Caribbean (4). The U.S. government’s criteria for selecting the focus countries included: level of need; host government commitment; potential for agricultural-led growth; and opportunity for regional partnerships. With guidance and oversight from U.S. missions, focus countries must develop country investment plans (CIPs) through an open process that engages with key stakeholders. Initially, these countries only qualify for foundational investments, which include technical support for developing their CIPs. To be eligible for larger-scale investments, they must develop technically-sound CIPs and take steps to foster a pro-growth policy environment. Four of the five focus countries that the U.S. has designated as either currently ready or close to being ready for larger-scale investments are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Alongside supporting focus countries, Feed the Future would also make complementary investments in regional programs, research and innovation, and the Global Agricultural and Food Security Program, a multi-donor trust fund.

The value chain approach is a cornerstone of Feed the Future. Administration officials have emphasized that the U.S. will work with focus countries to empower actors across the entire value chain to become self-sufficient, from promoting the use of more resilient crop varieties among farmers to providing marketing tools for sellers at the marketplace. A recent report from the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa found that, in Sub-Saharan Africa, Feed the Future value chain interventions appear to prioritize 1) agricultural input supply; 2) production and storage/processing segments; 3) the development of farmer associations; and 4) producers’ linkages to markets.

Perhaps fortunate to follow in the footsteps of the Millennium Challenge Corp. and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), two widely praised and likewise targeted, country-driven aid programs, Feed the Future has been generally well-received by the global development community. From the get-go, President Obama’s $3.5 billion commitment helped spur the rest of the donor community to pledge an additional $18.5 billion. Beyond that, Feed the Future has begun to show signs of progress. In its fiscal 2012 budget justification, the State Department reported that 17 of the 20 focus countries had already developed CIPs. But with many of these CIPs still under review even as others are just entering the implementation phase, it is far too early to tell if the initiative is delivering results. Whether or not Feed the Future realizes its full potential may depend, in part, on the following factors.


To this day, the Obama administration has yet to name a coordinator for Feed the Future. Though the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) leads the initiative, up to 18 other U.S. government agencies as well as the World Bank, which administers the Global Agricultural and Food Security Program, are also involved creating a difficult command and control environment. Most agree that for the program to be harmonized and maximized, it requires a single talented and influential coordinator. The U.S. foreign aid program has been criticized for its lack of coordination in the past.

Many have also raised questions over whether the U.S. government has enough manpower to provide the technical assistance which focus countries need as they develop and implement their CIPs. As recently as 1990, USAID employed 181 agricultural officers. At the beginning of this administration, that number was down to 22. USAID has committed to a net increase of 105 new agricultural officers by 2013 and as of March 2011, had already hired 56. These efforts are in line with USAID’s broader procurement reform strategy which prioritizes the recruitment of in-house technical staff, suggesting some movement away from the agency’s decades-long reliance on contractors. But as others point out, in spite of USAID’s new hires, it will take some time before the agency can count on a core of agricultural officers that have both technical knowhow and on-the-ground experience.

Private Sector and Civil Society Engagement

The U.S. government has made clear its intent to engage private sector partners as it moves forward on Feed the Future. Late last year, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah launched the Feed the Future Private Investment Center, a public-private partnership hub that aims to expand the agency’s existing relationships with the private sector as well as attract new partners. Both multinationals and local businesses will find a multitude of business opportunities across the value chain in Feed the Future, and can draw lessons from partnerships already in place. Recently, USAID announced a partnership with PepsiCo to improve chickpea yields for farmers in East Africa. Further up the value chain, USAID is partnering with General Mills to build the capabilities of food processors, also in Africa. And there is room for more innovation. A recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs looked favorably upon coordinated investments by multiple parties, focused on specific value chains (e.g. cocoa), as one way to scale up public-private partnerships.

On the other hand, some have expressed reservations about USAID’s efforts to foster partnerships with another key stakeholder – civil society. Before Congress, Jennifer Nazaire of the non-profit Catholic Relief Services testified that CIP discussions in Rwanda lacked robust civil society involvement. Others argue that Feed the Future still does not have a clear structure for engaging civil society at the country level. In response to these concerns, USAID has been stepping up its outreach to civil society, for instance, announcing new Feed the Future grant opportunities for non-profits earlier this year.

Legal Restrictions on Agricultural Development Assistance

Legal restrictions could, however, preclude partnerships with some private sector and civil society organizations. Enter the Bumpers Amendment, a piece of legislation from the 1980s which restricts assistance for agricultural development if it may improve the recipient country’s ability to compete with U.S. farmers. Prospective partnerships with academic institutions that perform research on new varieties of U.S. export crops (e.g. rice, soya) or growers of the same crops may be obstructed until USAID determines that their activities do not negatively impact U.S. agriculture. In April 2010, a bill that would exempt the world’s poorest countries from the Bumpers Amendment was blocked on the U.S. Senate floor. Without further legislative action, prospective partners that lack the resources to withstand a compliance process that USAID has described as “complicated “ and “time-consuming” may well opt to steer clear of competing for Feed the Future contracts that happen to involve U.S. crop exports.

Relationship with Food Aid Programs

In fiscal 2008, the ratio of food aid to agriculture development spending was about 10 to 1. During the first two years of Feed the Future, that ratio shrunk to 2 to 1. Over the longer-term, the hope is that Feed the Future will supersede America’s food aid programs, living up to the initiative’s promise of a transition “from food aid to food security.” At the moment, however, at least one food aid program operates in each of the 20 Feed the Future focus countries and the vast majority of that aid is tied, meaning that it is produced in the U.S. Furthermore, 75 percent of this food aid must also be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels. There is widespread agreement in the global development community that the way American food aid is disbursed is inefficient and, at times, counterproductive. But with U.S. agribusiness and shipping interests pointing to the thousands of American jobs that apparently rely on food aid, it is easy to see how incentive structures in Washington align against untying aid, especially food. On the one hand, the grander US food aid strategy would be better served by moving food production to developing countries. Yet on the other hand, struggling U.S. farmers, agribusinesses, and even transport companies have come to depend on the steady flow of contracts with the U.S. government. A 2008 Bush administration proposal to authorize the procurement of food from developing countries for roughly a quarter of the food aid budget was quickly quashed.


Last but never least, there’s the question of funding: just how will Feed the Future fare in these tightfisted times? President Obama’s $3.5 billion pledge from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2012 represents an additional $1.8 billion for agricultural development. As Feed the Future enters its final budget cycle, it now appears unlikely that this historic commitment will be met in full. In the April budget agreement for fiscal 2011, the initiative managed to cling to a $1.07 billion budget, well below the President’s $1.6 billion request but still above its $813 million budget in fiscal 2010. For fiscal 2012, however, the Republican-controlled House has set aside only $773 million. Some fear that support for the initiative’s multilateral component, the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, could be on the chopping block. Others suggest that Feed the Future would be forced to scrap large-scale investments in support of countries such as Tanzania and Bangladesh.

Lorenzo Piccio contributed to this report. 

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About the author

  • Pete Troilo

    Former director of global advisory and analysis, Pete managed all Devex research and analysis operations worldwide and monitors key trends in the global development business. Prior to joining Devex, Pete was a political and security risk consultant with a focus on Southeast Asia. He has also advised the U.S. government on foreign policy and led projects for the Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corp. He still consults for Devex on a project basis.