EDITOR'S NOTE: Addressing the world's food problems should be the Obama administration's topmost aid priority, according to Catherine Bertini and Dan Glickman. Both are co-chairs of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Global Agricultural Development Project. Bertini was executive director of the World Food Program from 1992 to 2002, while Glickman was the U.S. agriculture secretary from 1995 to 2001. For the full article, please visit the Foreign Affairs magazine's Web site. A few excerpts:

It is not easy for Americans to understand the starvation that afflicts much of the developing world. Families in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia spend up to 80 percent of their incomes on food; for the average U.S. household, that would mean an annual grocery bill of $40,000. Yes, there are hungry Americans in the millions, and the U.S. food-stamp program is operating at record levels. But hunger in the United States does not put tens of thousands of infants into hospitals and require them to be hooked up to feeding tubes. Nor does it lead to stunting, wasting, and debilitating forms of malnutrition, such as kwashiorkor and marasmus.

Yet even if Americans strain to comprehend the depth of hunger that plagues much of Africa and Asia, they do care about it. They know that chronic hunger among Afghans, Congolese, or North Koreans can pose a threat to their national security.

With the Obama administration struggling to address an economic crisis at home, the question arises, how much money will be left for the world's hungry? With the growing intensity of domestic economic distress, some Americans may have little interest in even considering that question. Yet the consequences of neglect would be immense. The Obama administration should make agricultural development its number one priority for foreign aid and actively enlist support from other donors and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

A new approach

The traditional approach to development-attacking poverty and assuming that rising incomes will take care of hunger-has simply not worked well enough. Developing countries must take the battle to where the problem lives: rural farming communities that often have little connection to markets, even domestic ones, and, as a result, have not profited from traditional investments in development. Roughly 80 percent of the hungry in Africa live on small farms. In these communities, the farming is done largely by women, who have traditionally received meager support for farm inputs, few loans to buy equipment, and little education in better farming methods. Yet worldwide, women own barely two percent of the land and receive only five percent of agricultural-extension services.Targeting and adapting agricultural development assistance to female farmers, who also are primarily responsible for the nutrition of their families, is one of the most important and most neglected ways to increase rural incomes and food availability.

Meanwhile, as the West focuses on climate change and debates carbon credits and limits on industrial emissions, massive damage is being done to the environment in developing countries, where a lack of agricultural technology and infrastructure perpetuates bad farming practices. Pressure on water and land resources has even become an element in regional political conflicts, as in Darfur.

Fortunately, Africa has significant untapped land resources and fertile soil that could be developed responsibly. More land could be brought into production if farmers moved away from rain-fed, low-technology agriculture, which is is vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather, and if inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizers were delivered to small farmers. What might all this cost? Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics label current U.S. food donations a "Band-Aid." Well, if the Band-Aid alone is costing billions, what would it cost to cure the disease? The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently set the price tag at a frightening $30 billion in additional annual investments globally, almost double the entire foreign-aid budget of the United States.

That level of investment is not likely needed-and anyway, developing countries could not likely absorb it immediately if it were provided. But regardless, fear of the eventual costs should not be the primary factor in determining whether to press ahead. With the number of people living with hunger now rapidly approaching one billion, it is time for the United States to show renewed leadership-and once again be seen as an innovator. Putting agriculture back at the center of U.S. development aid should be a key element in a foreign policy that reintroduces the United States to the world.

Paved with good intentions

How did food once again become such a serious political issue? Some observers have rightly pointed out that the current global strain on food supplies is, in fact, very familiar. During the last energy crisis, in the mid-1970s, a similar price surge in food occurred; President Richard Nixon even cut off exports of soybeans to Japan. The Saudis stepped in with large cash donations to the UN food agencies, and world leaders solemnly assembled for a food summit in Rome, just as they did last June.

U.S. policy has been to treat the symptoms of hunger with food aid. Food for Peace and other such U.S. programs have carried out the single greatest humanitarian effort in history, saving tens of millions of lives and supporting child nutrition and education for the world's poor. But it is time to address the underlying causes of the disease rather than treating just the symptoms.

After spending hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign aid, any American taxpayer-especially in this economy-has the right to ask what happened to the aid sent in the past. Some of it was no doubt wasted or even stolen, but that is far from the whole explanation. The broader question remains: If the ranks of the hungry and malnourished have once again begun to swell, just what went wrong?

First, Washington has invested too little money and talent in combating the root causes of hunger. U.S. aid to agriculture in Africa has dropped 85 percent since the 1980s.

Washington was not alone in reducing funding. Other donors-and even the developing countries' governments themselves-all followed suit in neglecting agriculture. When funds were provided for agricultural development, donors often focused on stimulating investment, but hunger and malnutrition are most prevalent in rural areas where no one would likely invest to begin with.

What has distorted the picture even more is that the lion's share of public and private investment in agricultural research has been spent on temperate-climate crops, such as those grown in Europe, Japan, and North America. Much of that research is of marginal use in tropical and subtropical Africa. It has done little to help Africans cope with the growing impact that climate change and variations in rainfall have had on agricultural systems already vulnerable to cycles of drought.

Second, aid efforts have been hampered by developed countries' shortsighted trade and economic policies. The European Union, Japan, and the United States have continued trade policies and crop subsidies that have made it impossible for poor African and Asian farmers to compete.

Third, not enough was done to keep multilateral institutions such as the development banks and the fao focused effectively on hunger. Although the World Bank neglected agriculture for decades, it is now mending its ways and doubling its agricultural investment. But the FAO, despite some good work on issues such as biotechnology and technical standards for trade, has failed to deliver many successful programs and has developed a reputation with donors for poor management.

Finally, aid to end hunger has been distorted by the imposition of Western political views. In the 1980s, the political right pushed hard to reduce the role of the public sector in supplying development aid, arguing that unfettered private markets always do a better job. But this premise ignores the fact that markets in the world's most successful agricultural economies have often been anything but free of public intervention and government subsidies.

Change at home

If the United States is to lead this effort, it must first clean up its own house. It should strengthen and coordinate its aid efforts at the executive-branch level through the National Security Council, giving much increased attention to agriculture, hunger, and malnutrition as part of an overall "soft power" approach. Aid must again play a bigger part in U.S. diplomacy, and State Department staffers must become more actively engaged.

Washington should also strengthen the leadership role of USAID. The administrator of usaid should head the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President's Emergency Plan for aids Relief. And agriculture-focused staff at usaid and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should be increased, and the Peace Corps should create a special cadre devoted to agricultural development.

In the field, the United States needs to adopt different tactics in designing both agricultural-assistance projects and food-aid operations. It should strengthen research, training, and other links between the U.S. land-grant universities and historically black colleges in the United States and their counterparts in the developing world and encourage them to work on specific issues, especially communications technology in agricultural-extension work. It should better address the impact of drought and climate change on small farmers, with measures such as basic crop insurance and the innovative famine-insurance proposal based on rainfall indicators devised by the World Food Program and the World Bank. It should jettison preconceived ideological approaches to aid and show more flexibility on issues such as subsidies and GM foods. It should coordinate U.S. aid better at the country level, both internally and with international institutions and NGOs. And it should purchase more food locally to stimulate market development in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Washington also needs to start listening better to the Africans and Asians in need. This means better engaging with rural communities, and especially women, in designing local agricultural projects; partnering with developing-country governments, NGOs, and the private sector to help shape agricultural strategies; and cooperating more with regional entities in Africa, such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and its Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, the Southern African Development Community, and the African Union. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is becoming a vehicle for agricultural development partnerships between donors, developed-country institutions, and African public and private institutions and is well placed to work with the United States in promoting agricultural education, adaptive research, and extension focused on smallholder agriculture. Above all, the United States must focus on the 400 million small farmers and their families in Africa who are most vulnerable to hunger, especially the women. Since eight out of ten farmers in Africa are women, and six out of ten in Asia are women, women's unique needs must be better addressed in all U.S. aid efforts.

There are other critical policy initiatives in agricultural development that the Obama administration is unlikely to be able to undertake on its own. Reform of the fao is an obvious one, given the failure of reform efforts in the past. But the most essential one is reforming the global trade and subsidy policies that have unwittingly hurt poor farmers in the developing world.

The next green revolution

Is it realistic to expect the United States and other donor countries-which have just pledged over $3 trillion to prop up a teetering global financial structure-to suddenly pour even more funds into the task of ending global hunger? Will President Barack Obama be in a position to mount a massive aid campaign for the hungry poor in Africa and Asia when confronted with a huge, $664 billion current account deficit and declining household wealth? Official development assistance from members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development had already begun to decline before the global financial crisis, slipping from $104 billion in 2006 to $102 billion in 2007. And much of the apparent gains in development assistance in recent years have been in the form of debt forgiveness, which does little for the hungriest and poorest countries (which were never rich enough to acquire much debt).

To a degree, private megadonors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are stepping in and making up the funding shortfalls.The Gates Foundation has made agriculture a priority, with new funding for seed development, agricultural extension and education, and market development. Along with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation is the principal supporter of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which holds great promise. But the collapse in the global stock exchanges has spared few foundations, private donors, or universities. Even those donors with the best of intentions cannot give away money they do not have.

Making foreign aid, especially to the hungry and poor, a central part of the National Security Council's mandate is logical for a new administration that seems to recognize the limits of force in global politics. Doing this would also mirror recent moves at the un to break down the walls between debates on humanitarian issues and debates on political issues. Increasingly, in part because of the situation in Darfur, the un Security Council has turned to humanitarian aid when confronting political problems.

The hand that feeds

The spikes in food prices last year brought down at least one government (in Haiti) and worried many others, prompting them to impose food-export restrictions and other counterproductive measures in order to support domestic agriculture. The link between food insecurity and politics is not always straightforward: widespread hunger does not inevitably have severe political consequences, and the modern state has shown a remarkable ability to suppress political dissent even under the most appalling economic conditions. Yet there is a connection.

The relationship between hunger and political instability is often subtler. For example, there is evidence that Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan are using free food to lure hungry students into madrasahs that preach hate and extremism.There is also evidence that the Taliban are successfully recruiting in areas of Afghanistan where agriculture is failing. Hunger can make the desperately poor willing to do the bidding of any hand that feeds them.

Most important, there is a compelling moral case for President Obama to move hunger and malnutrition to the top of his list of aid priorities.No mother anywhere should have to see hunger in the eyes of her child or trade away her future for a simple meal. Reaching out to those in need will do as much for the United States as for those it helps.

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