Speaking on a panel earlier this year, I was outlining the gathering momentum in the fight against hunger: The push of the Obama administration to create Feed the Future, the commitments of the G8 and G20 leaders to increase support for agriculture development, the greater involvement of philanthropists, corporations, universities and humanitarian agencies.
“We are at a moment of great opportunity,” I said.
Tom Arnold, head of the Irish humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide, wisely interjected: “Potential opportunity.” The word “potential” came out of his mouth underlined and bold-faced.
Tom was absolutely right. The momentum was still too shaky, the commitments too unfulfilled, that adding a tone of wariness to the hope was not only prudent but necessary. Potential also summed up the high stakes involved: the forces were gathering for an historic strike against hunger, and we mustn’t let this opportunity pass.
Now comes another sobering reminder of the tenuous potential. This time from some of the governments themselves, in a letter to their fellow rich world partners:
“Today, we are deeply concerned by the lack of new pledges and faltering momentum,” wrote the finance ministers of Canada, South Korea and Spain as well as U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The letter is dated Oct. 18 and addressed to “Dear G-20 Colleagues.”
Their deep concern is that the newly established multi-donor trust fund, called the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, is starved for funds. Those four countries, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, provided the seed money for the fund, hoping that it would attract contributions from other donors. The fund was launched in April and moved quickly to allocate $224 million to help finance agriculture projects in five developing countries.
Momentum was building. But suddenly it began losing steam. New donors remained on the sideline. The letter, penned with the usual diplomatic courtesies but also with a certain foreboding, points out what we’ve written before:
“On October 1, 2010, twenty-one countries, from Africa to Asia to Latin America and the Middle East, applied for financing. Total requests amount to nearly $1 billion and currently the fund has $130 million in available resources. Many of these countries, especially in Africa, have developed national agriculture strategies and are committing their own resources to agriculture. As we approach the G-20 Leaders Summit in Seoul, we need new donors to come forward to ensure that these developing countries will not be turned away. The fund’s public and private sector arms need additional pledges.”
That G-20 leaders summit in Seoul is set for Nov. 7 and 8. And those leaders will fail one-sixth of the world’s population (the one billion chronically hungry people) if they don’t step up and do what they said they would do.
The letter reminds them of their intentions:
“A year ago at the G-20 Leaders Summit in Pittsburgh, we committed to establishing a multilateral mechanism to address the threats of global food insecurity. Narrowing the development gap is integral to the G-20’s broader objective of achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth and ensuring a more robust and resilient global economy.
“To advance this vision, the United States, Canada, Spain, the Republic of Korea, and the Gates Foundation launched the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) in April of this year. This fund has delivered rapid assistance, allocating $224 million to developing countries to enable small farmers to grow and earn more. At a time when food prices remain volatile, this fund is building the resilience of low-income economies. And with financial resources constrained at home, this fund is leveraging public and private resources for a common purpose.
“This fund represents a new model of global cooperation: it involves traditional and non-traditional donors; its governance structure includes developing countries and civil society organizations; and it leverages the expertise of all of the multilateral development banks and UN organizations. It is results-oriented and competitive, prioritizing those countries that are demonstrating leadership in improving the lives of their citizens.
“The recently announced private sector facility of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program also targets an important agriculture financing gap in developing countries. By providing innovative financing to small and medium-sized agribusiness companies and farmers, the facility will raise farm productivity, improve access to markets, and mitigate risks of food price volatility in developing countries. The private sector facility is expected to become operational in the coming months and each dollar contributed is likely to leverage three times that amount from the private sector.”
The fund is emerging as a test case of the political will of the richer countries to actually act on their rhetoric. In establishing the fund, the G-20 established the way. Where, now, is the will?
The U.S. administration should keep this letter nearby for a post-election mailing blitz. It should be addressed to all the members of the new Congress, reminding them of the U.S. commitment to Feed the Future and the global agriculture and food security fund -- $3.5 billion over three years. That is a small sum, even in these days of very tight budgets, particularly in light of the big challenge to feed an ever-hungrier planet. But before the current Congress went off electioneering, appropriations committees in both the Senate and the House were slashing away at the president’s request.
The final paragraph of the letter could remain essentially as is:
“Progress on food security depends on all of us fulfilling our promises. We call on our colleagues…to join us in this effort to help the world’s most vulnerable populations and, in the process, take an important step towards creating a more prosperous and secure world for all.”