U.S. Serves Up New Food Security Effort In Africa

May 18, 2012
Originally published on May 18, 2012 2:49 pm

The Obama administration is announcing a major new initiative to boost investments in rural Africa in hopes of lifting millions out of poverty. Several African leaders are in Washington, D.C., for the announcement, which comes as President Obama hosts leaders of the Group of Eight in Maryland. Food security is a key agenda item.

Ertharin Cousin, a former Obama administration official who now runs the United Nations' World Food Programme, says the world needs to act now to avoid a crisis in the Sahel — a large swath of Africa south of the Sahara Desert. Cousin just came from there and tells harrowing stories of how a woman in Niger is trying to cope with a lean season that has come early.

"That mother is now collecting wild leaves, dried leaves, boiling them nine times so that her children can digest them. She's also collecting wild berries that, if she doesn't cook them six times, are toxic," Cousin says. "No mother should be placed into a situation where the coping strategies require them to feed potentially toxic food to keep their children's stomachs filled."

Cousin is not just appealing to world leaders to meet the emergency needs of some 9 million people in that region. She also sees it as an opportunity for them to think about long-term food security and nutrition.

"We're facing a third drought season in the Sahel — 2005, 2010, again in 2012. This is becoming a new normal because of climate change," she says. "But climate change doesn't necessarily need to mean that people go hungry, that children suffer from acute malnutrition."

The Obama administration thinks Africa is mainly suffering from a lack of investment. Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Rajiv Shah says agriculture has been neglected by big donors and African nations.

"This big new effort is really designed to address that, and it's African leaders themselves [who] are leading the way," he says.

The leaders of Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana are among those in Washington, D.C., to launch the new food security initiative, which Shah says will include several billion dollars in investments from private companies.

"To give you just one example, we are working with Pepsi in Ethiopia to create a chickpea-based product that can both be sold in their own hummus business and also be packaged and provided to children who are deeply malnourished in food aid programs," he says. "That's going to help 30,000 farmers in Ethiopia move out of poverty, and it will help thousands of children improve their nutrition status."

Shah says it's important to "partner deeply" with the private sector. Lamine Ndiaye of Oxfam is worried the U.S. is placing too much emphasis on that.

"This is good to have the private sector. We just want to make sure that the adequate environment is set for the private sector to come," he says. "The cement of the foundation is missing. That's what we are saying."

Major donors like the G-8 were supposed to help build that foundation, he says, with the $22 billion they promised to put on the table three years ago.

"Out of the $22 billion, only half of it is on the table," Ndiaye says.

USAID administrator Shah says the U.S. is keeping up its G-8 commitments, and the new public-private partnerships are adding to that.

"This is a really results-oriented effort that will attempt to move 50 million people out of poverty and hunger in the next decade," he says.

That, Shah says, is in U.S. national security interests.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. The start of this news story is familiar: millions of people in Africa face the danger of food shortages. President Obama's administration is hoping this news story moves in a different direction. Normally food aid keeps people alive but the idea here is to go even farther - to encourage investment in the African food industry.

Several African leaders and President Obama make an announcement today here in Washington. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A former Obama administration official who now runs the U.N.'s World Food Programme says the world needs to act now to avoid a crisis in the Sahel, a large swath of Africa south of the Sahara Desert. Ertharin Cousin just came back from there and tells harrowing stories of how a woman in Niger is trying to cope with the lean season that has come early.

ERTHARIN COUSIN: That mother is now collecting wild leaves, dried leaves, boiling them nine times so that her children can digest them. She's also collecting wild berries that if she doesn't cook them six times are toxic. No mother should be placed into a situation where the coping strategies require them to feed potentially toxic food to keep their children's stomach filled.

KELEMEN: Cousin is not just appealing to world leaders to meet the emergency needs of some nine million people in that region but also to see this as an opportunity to think about long-term food security and nutrition.

COUSIN: We're facing the third drought season in the Sahel. 2005, 2010, again in 2012. This is becoming a new normal because of climate change, but climate change doesn't necessarily need to mean that people go hungry, that children are - suffer from acute malnutrition.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration thinks Africa is mainly suffering from a lack of investment. The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Raj Shah, says agriculture has been neglected by big donors and African nations.

RAJIV SHAH: So this big new effort is really designed to address that, and it's the African leaders themselves that are leading the way.

KELEMEN: The leaders of Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana are among those in Washington to launch a new food security initiative, which Shah says will include several billion dollars of investments from private companies.

SHAH: To give you just one example, we're working with Pepsi in Ethiopia to create a chickpea-based product that can both be sold in their own hummus business and also be packaged and provided to children who are deeply malnourished in food aid programs. That's going to help 30,000 farmers in Ethiopia move out of poverty, and it will help thousands of children improve their nutrition status.

KELEMEN: Shah says it's important to partner deeply with the private sector. Lamine Ndiaye of Oxfam is worried the U.S. is placing too much emphasis on that.

LAMINE NDIAYE: This is good to have the private sector. We just want to make sure that the adequate environment is set for the private sector to come. The cement of the foundation is missing. That's what we're saying.

KELEMEN: And its major donors, like the Group of Eight, that were supposed to help build that foundation, he says, with the $22 billion they promised to put on the table three years ago.

NDIAYE: Out of the $22 billion, only half of it is on the table.

KELEMEN: USAID administrator Raj Shah says the U.S. is keeping up its G-8 commitments and the new public-private partnerships are adding to that.

SHAH: This is a really results-oriented effort that will attempt to move 50 million people out of poverty and hunger in the next decade.

KELEMEN: And that, he says, is in U.S. national security interests. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.