SHE'S THE BOSS
As Rajiv Shah spoke at last week’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security, I thought about an image in his old office at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation before he became Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Hanging on the wall behind his desk was a photo of a child crouching in a blue wash bucket somewhere in Africa. Only her head was visible above the bucket’s rim.
Tell me about the girl, I asked.
“She’s the boss,” he replied. She, and not the wealthy and influential Bill Gates, was essentially the one they all worked for at the foundation’s global agriculture development department.
“We’re working to benefit her,” Shah said.
In presenting the guidelines to the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative, Shah effectively indicated that that little girl -- and millions of children like her, and their mothers and fathers -- was still the boss. Not the mighty president, nor the secretary of state, nor members of Congress. They all need to listen to what the Africans – particularly those Africans struggling to feed themselves – have to say about the priorities of agriculture development.
The crucial aspect of Feed the Future is that the agriculture development spending will follow country-led investment plans.
“We know even the most expert donor is limited in its ability to transform systems,” Shah said. “Country-led efforts are the ONLY way to amplify the impact of donor projects and reach real scale. For years there has been talk about country-led planning. So even I originally asked: What’s new here?”
What’s new is the emphasis on the word ONLY (capitalized by USAID in the text of Shah’s speech), and that “country-led” is no longer mere talk. The donor countries and organizations need to abandon the philosophy that they know best – the philosophy that reigned despite the years of big talk of country-led planning. Monuments to that folly litter the African countryside.
I once returned to a village in Mozambique that I had earlier visited while reporting a story for The Wall Street Journal. “What’s new?,” I asked the village elders.
“We have a new well,” they said, pointing to a shiny contraption beyond a soccer field.
As we walked to the well, the beaten path became overgrown with grass and weeds. The well pump itself was surrounded by knee-high grass.
“Doesn’t look like anyone ever uses this,” I said.
Laughter erupted. Followed by much head-shaking.
“We haven’t used the well since a few weeks after it was installed,” the headman said. It turns out the fresh ground water had quickly turned to salt water from the nearby estuary of the Indian Ocean.
“We knew that would happen,” the headman said. “But they never asked us where they should drill the well. They just put it here. We would have told them to put it on the other side of the village.”
The donors didn’t know that on the other side of the village the salt water doesn’t run into the underground water supply. They never asked. They came from richer countries, they had studied at university. They thought they knew best. But they didn’t know the local topography.
At the symposium, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf applauded the more humble instincts of Feed the Future. “What is most appealing from the Liberian perspective about these U.S. initiatives,” she said, “is that they encourage the participation of key groups including farmers, civil society organizations, especially women, and they also promote strong regulatory policies, governance and accountability.”
She would have been particularly heartened by these words of Raj Shah:
“As we know, the people who matter most aren’t the financiers, the ag ministers or the aid workers. They are the female farmers who are the undertapped solution to this problem. Women produce from 60 to 80% of the food in the countries where we work. And when women control gains in income, they are more likely to spend those gains on family needs.”
It is the women, the mothers, who know better than anyone the needs of the girl in the blue wash bucket.