TOPICS > Politics

President Jimmy Carter

September 19, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Helping African nations feed their own people is among the many projects and causes Mr. Carter has taken up since leaving the White House. We’ll talk to him after this background from Charles Krause. 

CHARLES KRAUSE: In 1984, famine in Ethiopia and several other African countries forced the world to focus its attention on the potential for mass starvation across the continent. International organizations came to the rescue with food and other humanitarian assistance, but their aid was only a short-term remedy.

In 1986, the Japanese-based Sasakawa Africa Association and the Carter Center joined forces in an effort to make Africa self-sufficient by the end of the century. The program they created is called Sasakawa-Global 2000, or S-G 2000. Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug heads the program which helps African nations produce their own food.

NORMAN BORLAUG: The potential is there, but the potential, you cannot eat potential. You have got to have reality: grain and food to eat–to relieve human misery. Otherwise, we will have worse and worse chaos.

CHARLES KRAUSE: The program, which began in Ghana, has now spread to 11 other African countries. It brings together political leaders, as well as scientific and agricultural experts from across the continent. Former President Jimmy Carter has taken an active interest. Among other things, he’s worked to encourage government leaders in Africa to give higher priority to agriculture, and in 1995, he traveled to Ethiopia to inaugurate a workshop program there.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Now, 40,000 families in Ethiopia are following your example. Soon, there will be 400,000.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Three years ago, Ethiopia harvested 5.4 million tons of grain, far below the country’s needs. By last year, the harvest had grown to 11.7 million tons, a record. Today, the S-G 2000 program includes more than 400,000 Ethiopian farmers, and yields have continued to grow.

As a result, Ethiopia exported its first shipment of grain last January, nearly one million tons, to neighboring Kenya. Other nations have found similar success with intensified cultivation and improved seed varieties, resulting in new prosperity, which has allowed some farmers in some countries to provide their families with eat more nutritious food and send their children to school.

But African still faces immense food production problems. And its growing population has made the situation even worse. Last year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization projected that Africa will need to increase its food production by 300 percent by the year 2050 just to keep up with population growth.

With that in mind, President Carter returned to Africa last month. InEthiopia, he met with government leaders and toured farms in several different provinces to see the new crops and the new farming methods that his program has made possible.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: President Carter joins us now from Atlanta. Thank you very much for being with us, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: It’s a pleasure, thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The harvest in Ethiopia has more than doubled. How was that accomplished?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think this is a vivid proof of the ability and eagerness and innovation and dedication of the African farmers, on the one hand, and particularly a few enlightened leaders in Africa to take advantage of a few basic principles of good seed and planting in rows so the land won’t wash away and using a moderate amount of fertilizer.

So a few years ago my wife and I went out in the field with the president of Ethiopia, for instance, Meles Zenawi, and now there are more than 450,000 farmers in Ethiopia that have at least tripled their production of basic food grains. This has gone on in 11 other nations in Africa. So I think this is a very vivid proof that if we just give the Africans a chance, they will help themselves.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mentioned the rows and the fertilizer. Tell us some more about what happens at the farmer’s level and the village level.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, in many cases in Africa the land has been in the past parceled out like two acres per family. The family goes in there and cuts around all the trees, the big trees, to kill them. They burn the bushes. They go in with a pointed stick and plant corn here and there and there, and then they hoe around the corn stalks when they come up. The wind and rain wash the topsoil away and the next year they go to a different field. It’s called slash and burn.

We require the farmers, if they go into our program, to plant their crops in a contour row. They can plant about four times as many stalks of corn say per acre. We recommend a moderate amount of fertilizer just to sustain the fertility of their soil, and we also encourage them to control the weeds. So it’s very simple technology, but it’s something that plays a vital role. The next year they plant the same land.

And so instead of the land washing away and becoming non-productive, it becomes increasingly productive over a period of time. And this has meant that with very simple efforts the farmers can triple at least their production the first year. And it’s the kind of program that’s attractive obviously to all their neighbors, and we sometimes have to kind of fight off volunteers to join the program.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. President, this is–these simple methods have been known for a long time, and USAID and other people have tried to teach them. But until now in Ethiopia this hasn’t happened. Why is this working now? What’s changed?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Two or three things. One is I go into the country and I negotiate a written agreement called a memorandum of understanding with the president of the nation.

And we also require that his minister of agriculture, also his minister of education, health, transportation, and finance, become involved. So the whole top level of the government is involved in this program. We start out with only 40 farmers the first year in a country, scattered all about the country, but their neighbors can watch and see how much benefit they derive from using these simple principles.

And it’s really a matter of one African farmer letting another one see the advantages. We only send in one foreigner to the country, a very low cost. And we require the government as part of the contract to furnish several hundred extension workers whom we train. Then these extension workers go on the bicycle from one farm to another to get the farmers to do the right thing. And we even make them pay for the bicycles.

We don’t give away anything. We also tell the leaders of the nation that we will only be in there five years. At the end of five years we’re pulling our foreign adviser out, sending him to another country. You have to be on your own at the end of this five-year period. We’ll help them a little bit for three more years.

So it’s a matter of demanding from the very beginning the full involvement not only of the farmers out in the field but also the President and all of his ministers and also let them know that they’ve got to be self-sufficient themselves; they can’t rely permanently on Japanese financing or advice from Dr. Volog or supports from the Carter Center.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I wondered about that. Once you do pull out, who pays for the fertilizer and the other inputs that are being used? I know now that there are loans available, is that right?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes. For instance, in Ethiopia, we got a very good loan from the World Bank to help provide for some of the fertilizer, but we don’t give that away.

The farmer has to pay for his or her own fertilizer and seed. But if they’ve been producing say five bags of grain per year on their land and now they can produce fifteen bags of grain per year, which is a normal expectation, it only takes two of those bags of grain to pay the full cost of superior seed and fertilizer, which they probably have never used before.

So it’s a very wonderful advantage for the farmers, and it’s self-sustaining in that the governments, when they see what a great this thing is, how popular it makes them, and how their land can now export grain, instead of having to buy it all the time, then it’s very–there’s a very great eagerness in the government–national banks and even in private banks to provide these very small but very vital loans to the farmers.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Look ahead a bit. Hunger is still a major problem. Population is growing. Do you see these methods and other methods that are being used now keeping up with the growing population, and dealing with the continuing hunger? What do you see ahead in Africa as a whole now?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, the fearsome growth in population, which has been about 3 percent in many of the poorest countries, is also something that can be changed.

We have found that the best way to reduce population growth rate is to teach mothers–quite often they’re the farmers I’m talking about–how to let their children survive with the immunization and eradication of disease like Guinea Worm and River Blindness, which we work on, and once the family realizes that their kids might live, they have a lot fewer children.

We also teach the mothers to keep their child on breast feeding for a much longer period than they have habitually done. And we have now have a maize crop, a corn crop, that we called quality protein maize. It has all the food elements necessary for the survival of a baby.

All the corn, for instance, we grow in the United States lacks two crucial amino acids. Our quality protein maize now being produced in Africa has all the food components that are necessary.

I think that to reduce population growth and to let the farmers in Africa know that they can increase the production of their own food grain and not depend on gifts from other nations is the key to success in the future. It’s not going to be easy, but it can be accomplished.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But at this point, are you more hopeful than you were before this particular project started?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes. You know, in 1985 and ‘86 when we were contemplating this project, we had some hopes that it might be partially successful, but we never dreamed that we would have at this point 12 countries involved, 600,000 farmers involved, and that the farmers could habitually double or triple their production of grains. It’s just been a success beyond our wildest expectations.

And now I think it’s accurate to say that the USAID program and the World Bank and others have looked with great favor over what we are doing in the Sasakawa-Global 2000 program.

So it’s been a great success. It also gives us a way to understand other problems in those countries because our people, who have confidence in us, are out in the field, in the villages, learning how not only to grow a lot more corn or wheat or sorghum or millet or teff–in the case of Ethiopia and Eritrea–but also how to store it and in a way that protects the grain produced from destruction by moisture and rodents and insects.

And instead of selling or dumping their grain at harvest time, when a lot of grain is available and the price is lowest, these farmers are now saving their grain four, five, or six months and selling it sometimes at three times the price level that they could get at harvest time. So the entire thing is a process that ties together and is creating incredible excitement, as some of you saw, in Ethiopia and these 11 other nations. We hope to expand it to other countries in the future, by the way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. President, two other topics I’d like to move on to now. First, on the topic of campaign finance reform. Where do you stand on the need for campaign finance reform?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I think one of the most distressing and disgusting developments that I’ve seen in Washington, in our nation in the last few years has been the abuse of this campaign finance situation. The laws have been ignored; they have been circumvented by loopholes and technicalities, and I think have brought disgrace and embarrassment on our government, both on the Republican and the Democratic side, both in the Congress and in the White House.

I think that now I don’t see much inclination on the part of leading Democrats or Republicans to actually modify these laws, but it’s one of the most seriously damaging factors not only in the integrity of our government and its competence in the view of the people, but there’s a disillusionment and a distrust that has permeated our government. So I don’t think there’s any priority that’s greater than to have full disclosure of all the facts, to answer to all the allegations of our finance abuse and then a corrective action through congressional law passed and signed by the President.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. President, you think it’s possible for those in Congress and for the President, people who are involved in campaign finance, gathering campaign finances for campaigns all the time, do you think it’s possible for them to do the reforms that would be necessary if they turn their mind to it?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Of course, it is. Because I ran in ancient days back in 1976 against Gerald Ford and later against President Reagan. We had an absolute limit that was never violated, so far as I know, of a $1,000 contribution per person. We financed a general election campaign fund out of about $26 million total.

They came from the $1 per person check-off on income tax returns. I think that kind of a basis plus a change in the law that I would advocate to provide free television advertisement for campaigners for both Congress positions and presidency would be very helpful.

There is no European nation, there is no nation in Latin America, there’s no nation even in the former Soviet Union that requires candidates who are qualified to pay for their own television commercials. This–ours is almost the only nation on earth that requires this. And this is one of the keys–causes of the cheating that has embarrassed our government.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And President Carter, finally, on your fellow Atlantan Ted Turner’s dramatic gesture last night to donate $1 billion to the UN to poor people’s and refugee programs in the UN, what was your reaction to that?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I discussed this with Ted Turner at the Atlanta Braves Baseball Game Friday night, and he told he was contemplating doing it. And we had a discussion about this through most of the game. I think it’s one of the most remarkable and innovative and generous things that I’ve ever seen and among wealthy people in our world.

To give this much money is extraordinary, of course, but also to channel it, not into the administrative costs of the United Nations, which is certainly–need to be reformed–but specifically through an independent foundation into the actual programs of the United Nations that bring about great benefits to people; I would say peace, human rights, democracy, the alleviation of suffering through the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and others, this is the way that I understand from Ted Turner that the money will be spent. So I think that this is the kind of dramatic gesture that I hope will be emulated by people who have great wealth, as does Ted Turner.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, President Carter, thanks so much for being with us.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks.