Agricultural Development Key to Ending Hunger in Africa

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In this interview with Roger Thurow, senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, he discusses the need for effective agricultural development for smallholder farmers in Africa as an important step in eradicating hunger in the region.

Name: Roger Thurow

Affiliation: Senior Fellow for global agriculture and food policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Location: Chicago, IL

Bio: Roger Thurow joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs as senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy in January 2010 after three decades at The Wall Street Journal.  He is the editor and principal contributor to the Council’s Global Food for Thought blog, part of the Global Agricultural Development Initiative. For 20 years, he served as a foreign correspondent, based in Europe and Africa.  His coverage of global affairs spanned the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid, the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the humanitarian crises of the first decade of this century – along with 10 Olympic Games.  In 2003, he and Journal colleague Scott Kilman wrote a series of stories on famine in Africa that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting.  Their reporting on humanitarian and development issues was also honored by the United Nations.  Thurow and Kilman are authors of the recent book ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.  In 2009, they were awarded Action Against Hunger’s Humanitarian Award.

Photo credit: Luther College

The Horn of Africa is currently experiencing a devastating famine. What factors contributed to this famine, and what needs to be done both in the short term and long term to help those that are suffering? 

Conflict and drought have precipitated this famine.  The long-running conflict and turmoil in Somalia has crippled agriculture activity, disrupted markets and displaced many, many people.  This has spread hunger across a wide area of the country, forcing refugees to flee into neighboring countries.  Add to this a devastating drought throughout the Horn and famine was sure to follow.

Emergency food aid has been pouring into the region, which is necessary to feed the swelling ranks of the hungry and save countless lives.  But we also need to display similar urgency in addressing the desperate need for agricultural development.  This isn’t an either/or proposition.  We must do both emergency food aid AND agriculture development.  Emergency food aid won’t prevent the next crisis; only agricultural development can.

For too many decades we have neglected the development of smallholder farmers in the developing world, particularly in Africa.  This is the “criminal neglect” that Norman Borlaug warned about in 1970 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Green Revolution.  And this neglect is a big contributing factor to the chronic hunger of so many farm families in Africa today and to the too-frequent devastation of famine.  Today, the yields of smallholder farmers in Africa lag far behind the yields of farmers in much of the rest of the world.  These smallholder farmers are the poorest and hungriest people in the world.

Hungry farmers.  That is an absurd, preposterous, obscene phrase.  It should be an oxymoron.  Instead, it is a truism in too many African countries.

In 2009, you and Scott Kilman published Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, in which you argue that decades of bad policy – not a lack of resources – have resulted in chronic hunger. Can you tell us about the work you’re doing in Kenya, and who you think is responsible for taking action to make Africa food secure? What kind of policies to we need to see? 

I’m working on a second book; it’s about a year in the life of African farmers.  In particular, I am following farmers in Kenya.  The farmers want to improve the quantity and quality of the food they grow.  So they are doing their part.  Farmers in Kenya and throughout Africa need the support of their governments, mainly by increased investments in agricultural development.  That includes research on seeds and soil, development of local seed companies, improvements in rural roads and storage facilities and more efficient markets.  Governments in the rich precincts of the world can also live up to their pledges to increase spending on agricultural development that can create the conditions for smallholders farmers to be as productive as possible.  The private sector needs to look for ways to serve these smallholder farmers.  And everybody needs to raise the clamor and make ending hunger through agricultural development the great effort of this decade.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle standing in the way of ending chronic hunger in Africa today? 

Continued neglect of smallholder farmers by governments in Africa and around the world and by the big development agencies.  Short-sighted thinking that continues to ignore the importance of long-term agricultural development.  Budget cuts that indiscriminately whack foreign aid and renege on the promises of leaders at the G8 and G20 meetings to increase spending on agricultural development.

In recent years, we’ve seen a wave of celebrities and philanthropists trying to take ending hunger into their own hands. Do you think the efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Bono and other major donors and celebrities will help end African hunger? 

All of this helps in raising the clamor, building momentum and creating a grassroots movement to end hunger through agricultural development.  Can they do it alone?  No.  It will take a united effort by the farmers of Africa and their governments, with the support of rich-world governments and foundations and private companies and development agencies, big and small.  It was this broad cooperation that allowed the Green Revolution to take hold and conquer famine in a large part of Asia.  Grassroots clamor has driven policy change and great movement on issues like debt relief and HIV/AIDS.  Now we must ask, Why Not Hunger?

With the food crises of 2007-08 and 2011, there seems to be little reason to be optimistic. Do you agree, or do you see things in sub-Saharan Africa that give you hope?

During my reporting in Africa this year I have seen the transformation that can come from agricultural development efforts like increasing access to better seeds, extension advice,  financing, and markets.  Farmers can double, triple, quadruple yields in one season.  These successes need to be sustained year after year after year.  This is vital for all of us, not just for the smallholder farmers of Africa.  It will be impossible for the world to double food production by 2050—this is the great challenge facing us if we are to keep up with the growing population and the growing prosperity of that population—without the smallholder farmers of Africa being as productive as possible.  The farmers who have so been neglected by the world are now indispensable in helping to feed the world.  We continue to ignore them at our own peril.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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