November-December 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 8

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Dealing with World Hunger

by Sada Aksartova, ASA Congressional Fellow

Recent spikes in oil and food prices, compounded by the global economic recession, have increased the already large number of chronically hungry people globally by more than 150 million. As a result, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that there are now over one billion undernourished people worldwide. And according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, in 2007 and 2008 food protests and riots occurred in more than 50 countries, with some countries experiencing multiple occurrences and a high degree of violence, including the overthrow of Haiti’s prime minister. These events created new urgency in domestic and international efforts to deal with global hunger (or food insecurity in policy parlance).

On the international front, the United Nations (UN) convened several high-level meetings to mobilize the wealthy countries to aid the world’s hungry and to help reach the first Millennium Development Goal of halving global hunger by 2015. Hunger featured prominently on the agenda of the G-20 summit in April and the G-8 summit in July 2009.

A Policy Priority

In the United States, policymakers at the highest levels of government have made global hunger a priority. In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama pledged to work alongside the people of poor nations "to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds." Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, linked food insecurity and political instability to potential threats to the United States in his February 2009 testimony to Congress. On her second day at the State Department, Hillary Clinton addressed a UN summit on hunger and has since taken a lead in crafting a new U.S. policy to reduce global food insecurity, which is expected to be announced later this year. Judging by the U.S. pledges at the G-20 and G-8 summits, the Obama administration will likely focus on increasing assistance—from the United States, multilaterals, and other bilateral donors—for agricultural development and de-emphasizing food aid.

Food aid has, for several decades, been the donor countries’ principal tool for dealing with global food insecurity. Food aid, or donations in the form of food or cash to purchase food, is primarily provided to people suffering from hunger and starvation in emergencies, either natural (the South Asian tsunami) or man-made (Zimbabwe). The UN World Food Programme, the main international food aid agency, reaches about 100 million annually. The United States, the largest bilateral donor of food aid, reaches another 50 million.

What sets the United States apart is its insistence on providing U.S.-grown commodities and shipping them on U.S.-flag vessels. By contrast, most other donors have, in recent years, switched to providing cash on the grounds that the cost and delivery of food grown closer to where hunger crises occur is more effective, in terms of how many people can be fed and how quickly they can be fed, than shipping wheat or beans grown in Canada or Western Europe. In fact, a 2007 study by the Government Accountability Office (where I currently have a placement as ASA’s congressional fellow) found that the United States spends 65 cents of every food aid dollar on logistics, distribution, and transportation and only 35 cents on actual commodities. It is safe to surmise that, compared to food aid from Canada and Western Europe, U.S. food aid is more deeply entangled in domestic agricultural and shipping interests. Put another way, U.S. food aid presents a familiar domestic politics problem: Those few who benefit from and are committed to it exert stong influence on the Senate and House agricultural committees, which control food aid authorizations.

Focusing on Agricultural Development

It is therefore unlikely that the U.S. food aid policy will soon undergo a dramatic change. Instead, both the executive and the legislative branches of the U.S. government are shifting focus from feeding people in emergencies to addressing deeper causes of hunger, such as the ability of the poor and the hungry to grow food. This shift is taking place in the context of the newly found international consensus that agricultural development in countries most afflicted with food insecurity has long been neglected both by donors and host governments. The consensus arrived with the 2008 World Development Report titled Agriculture for Development. Its authors found that despite 75 percent of the world’s poor living in rural areas, a mere 4 percent of official development assistance goes to agriculture in developing countries, and that even in sub-Saharan Africa, a region heavily reliant on agriculture for overall growth, public spending for farming constitutes only 4 percent of total government spending. In 2008, the United States spent close to $3 billion on food aid and less than $500 million on agricultural assistance to developing countries. The Obama administration has pledged to double U.S. agricultural assistance beginning in 2010. And in July 2009, at the first ever G-8 summit devoted to farming, the leaders of the world’s major economies promised to raise $20 billion over the next three years for food and agricultural aid to the world’s most impoverished countries.

Although policymakers in the legislative branch have also embraced the idea that an increase in agricultural assistance is critical to reducing global hunger, they are concerned with the U.S. government’s ability to effectively implement food security programs. Hence, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced bills that call for an increase in funding for agricultural development as well as for a more effective coordination of multiple and fragmented U.S. hunger-related activities around the world. Their concerns are well-founded. More than 10 different departments and agencies of the U.S. government fund global food security programs broadly defined, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, Departments of State, Agriculture, Defense, the Treasury, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps, and others. Crafting a meaningful new policy to reduce global hunger will require focusing on the U.S. government’s ability to implement it.

These are certainly interesting times for those following the twin issues of development and global hunger. For the first time there is a president in the White House who has personal knowledge of and emotional bonds to developing countries. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, is a long-time advocate for women and children (who are disproportionately affected by hunger in the United States and in poor countries) and has stated her interest in putting development and food security at the center of U.S. foreign policy. It remains to be seen if together they can make U.S. foreign and domestic policy more conducive to reducing the toll of hunger and malnutrition on many millions of lives around the world. logo


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