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USAID Administrator: Food Security a ‘Grand’ But ‘Achievable’ Goal

May 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama outlined Friday a private-public partnership to work on global poverty issues ahead of the Group of Eight summit in Camp David this weekend. Ray Suarez and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah discuss the initiative to lift millions out of poverty and hunger through farming partnerships.
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MARGARET WARNER: And we turn to a new plan to help hunger in sub-Saharan Africa.

Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: Food security, getting enough food to the world’s poorest people, is on the agenda this weekend as President Obama meets with other world leaders at the G8 summit in Camp David.

Across the African continent, food shortages drive instability, refugee flows, and armed conflict in places like Somalia, Kenya, Darfur, South Sudan and Ethiopia, among others.

Today, President Obama outlined a private-public partnership to work on global poverty issues and discussed plans to include four African leaders at the G8 summit. The president called lifting millions out of poverty and hunger through farming a moral obligation for both governments and businesses.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Government cannot and shouldn’t do this alone. This has to be all hands on deck.

RAY SUAREZ: The head of this country’s foreign aid agency, Dr. Rajiv Shah, unveiled the Agency for International Development’s program to bring U.S. agribusiness and Africans together to improve food productivity.

I talked with USAID Administrator Dr. Shah this afternoon.

Dr. Shah, welcome back to the program.

DR. RAJIV SHAH, administrator, United States Agency for International Development: Thank you. Thanks, Ray, for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: We have already briefly described the overall project and its objectives. But maybe you could talk a little bit more about how we’re going to accomplish that very grand goal, lifting 50 million people out of poverty in 10 years.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, it’s actually — it’s a grand goal, but it’s an achievable goal.

And we’re going to accomplish it by bringing significant public sector investment, maintaining the commitments that President Obama and others have made over the last few years to reinvest in African agriculture and African agricultural institutions.

And we’re going to achieve that goal by bringing a whole host of exciting new partners to the table, private companies in Africa that are providing seeds to small-scale farmers, companies from India or Europe that have something to offer, improving small-scale agriculture in Africa, and American firms, firms we would recognize easily that are now committing themselves to make real businesslike investments for the purpose of making sure that a smallholder farmer, often a women, in sub-Saharan Africa can produce enough food to feed herself, feed her family, go to market, extract more value from market and move her whole community out of poverty.

RAY SUAREZ: Right now, Africa is dealing with creeping deserts, less reliable rain, hotter and dryer climates. Are you sort of pushing a rock uphill with a project that leans so heavily on agriculture?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, there’s another part of this that is downhill, pushing the rock downhill.

And that is that Africa has 60 percent of the world’s remaining unused arable land. And in a world that needs to produce enough food, double food production in order to feed nine billion people by 2040, that land has got to come into production.

Africa has some of the lowest yields on the planet, crop by crop. And we know and we have seen in western Kenya you can double or triple yields relatively quickly using all local solution solutions. And then what happens is millions of people don’t need food aid during a famine or a drought. So this is a solvable problem. And there is as much of a downhill story as there is an uphill one.

RAY SUAREZ: The Saudis and the Chinese seem to be well aware of the agricultural potential of Africa. Aren’t they buying up a lot of land to produce food for their own people?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, they are. That’s why today, and what’s happening in so novel in terms of making sure that we have private sector companies involved in making investments to improve African agriculture and poverty outcomes, but also that those companies are agreeing to make investments under some common principles of transparency and responsibility.

Let’s shine sunlight on what’s happening so that everyone can see transparently where are the investments going? Who are they benefiting? How are they making sure that a young girl growing up in a rural household is getting access to nutrition so she can go to school and move on with her life in a productive way?

And there is a lot of investment going in, but unfortunately not enough of it falls under these principles of transparency. And through this new initiative, more than 45 companies are making more than $3 billion of investment commitments and doing so under these principles of transparency and responsibility for the first time.

RAY SUAREZ: You are going to roll out in Ghana, Tanzania and Ethiopia. There are more than four dozen countries in Africa. How did they get to the front of the line? Were there things they had to do first to be ready?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, absolutely.

We talked to hundreds of private sector partners. And we found that until countries really, seriously reformed access to land tenure for a small-scale farmer, so that women farmers can actually have title to their land and go to a bank and get a loan, or until they reformed the way they regulate their seed sector, so that small seed companies can start selling improved crop varieties to farmers and help them overcome drought or pest or disease, those are the types of reforms that are required for these companies to make investments.

And we have started in those countries that are most eager to make those reforms. And they have come to Washington with real commitments. They have actually come with reform commitments, where there are dates set on when those reforms will take effect over the next 18 months.

RAY SUAREZ: I want to look a little closer at Ethiopia, because unlike Ghana and Tanzania, the Democracy Index run by the Economist Intelligence Unit rates it as an authoritarian regime, rates it 118th among the 167 countries on the Earth in terms of freedom and transparency in government.

It had a tough time getting born, modern Ethiopia. And there are human rights charges against the president. Why are they getting the pilot program?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, you know, every year, the world rushes in with hundreds of millions of dollars of food aid to save and help Ethiopians who are hungry.

And during last year’s drought, that number went to more than $1 billion. And the reality is, you know, we just absolutely have to keep pushing for more transparency, more open governance, for democracy to take root, because we know that democracy and development go hand-in-hand.

But we also have to make sure that we are insisting upon improved policies so that companies can invest, so that farmers can produce more food, and so that we can banish this image of starving Ethiopian children that, you know, does, in fact, call upon our moral values and forces us to react.

By doing the work this way, we will help Ethiopia feed itself. We will help those children over time move out of poverty, and we’re engaging in a deep and meaningful dialogue to promote democracy, as we do in so many other parts of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: When you look at Africa, millions of people are working really hard every day to feed themselves, but there’s so much to be done. There’s bad roads for shipping crops regionally, bad facilities for holding on to food so it doesn’t spoil by the time somebody gets a chance to eat it, bad ship facilities for getting cash crops, things that can be sold internationally, out of the country. Ethiopia doesn’t even have a seaport anymore.

How do you figure out what to do first?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, this is a great question, because the reality is we need a lot of these things to happen simultaneously in order to unlock the value and potential of African agriculture, so it can feed itself and feed the world.

And the reality is, that’s happening. Now we have an Ethiopian commodity exchange that is helping to create a market alongside DuPont that today is making a commitment to invest real resources to reach 50,000 small-scale Ethiopian farmers with improved seed varieties that can help them and soil mapping data and other things that can help them improve their production.

In southern Tanzania, we are seeing Yara, a fertilizer company, invest in redoing the port, the African Development Bank invest in building road infrastructure, partners like USAID investing in helping farmers upgrade their skills, and companies like Tanseed, a small Tanzanian seed company, committing $11 million to help get improved seed varieties to small-scale farmers, and to do it in often small packets, because if you are farming half an acre of land or an acre of land, you don’t feed a big bag of seed. You need a small packet.

And little innovations like that can go a long way at transforming the face of hunger and poverty.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Shah, thanks for talking to us.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Thank you.