As we have heard during this week’s international conference in Washington, D.C., there has been wondrous progress on the AIDS treatment front since President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) nearly a decade ago.
At that time, there were only about 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa receiving the life-saving drug therapy. By last year, thanks to the work of a global alliance attacking AIDS, that number had soared to an estimated 6.2 million. There is much work still to be done; barely half the people in need of treatment in Africa are receiving it, and there were still more than 300,000 pediatric HIV infections last year. But the progress spurred by PEPFAR over the past decade is a remarkable achievement; it stands as a cornerstone of America’s global health programs and a pillar of the nation’s foreign policy.
Now there is another presidential initiative that holds the potential of achieving another set of remarkable results in Africa. President Barack Obama’s Feed the Future initiative seeks to end hunger through increasing investment in agricultural development, particularly for the vast legion of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
The farmer fell to his knees, landing hard on the parched soil, and raised his arms to heaven.
“God, have mercy on us,” he prayed, opening his palms to his field. “Provide us with the rain, for when it rains enough, the dirt will easily break. And the seeds will germinate and push up through the soil. Hear my prayer, dear God.”
An American farmer this summer? It certainly could be, as the worst drought in decades chokes the U.S. farm belt.
But this particular prayer came from Francis Wanjala Mamati, a Kenyan farmer whose worries mounted by the day as drought spread across his country and all of East Africa. I remember it clearly, for it was on my birthday in March of 2011. An intense sun, shimmering in a clear blue sky, scorched everything below. The temperature was nearing 100 degrees. And Francis, one of the farmers I portray in The Last Hunger Season, was about to begin turning the soil with his jembe, his hoe, in anticipation of the start of the rainy season. He knew his work would be wasted if the rains didn’t come -- and come in a hurry.
With the London Olympics approaching, it is time that we dusted off the old Nike slogan – Just Do It – and apply it to the agricultural development front.
We have just finished up a dazzling run of high-level summit meetings that focused global attention on the need to end hunger – and increase the planet’s food production, a benefit to all of us – through agricultural development. It started with the Chicago Council on Global Affair’s symposium on food security and nutrition, continued through the G8 and G20 summits and then finished with the Rio Plus 20 gathering. There was much talk and plenty of lofty rhetoric. We reaped a bumper harvest of high-minded resolutions. This was all accompanied, and followed, by earnest analysis of what it all means and much hand-wringing that it wasn’t enough.
This doubling of food production will need to happen on roughly the same amount of land, with less water, growing demand for biofuels, and changing climate patterns—and it will need to come from smallholder farmers. Roger says, “The grand irony is that smallholder farmers have been so neglected over the past decades by international development policies, their own countries, governments in the rich world, and the world’s agricultural industry. They have gone from being too poor, too remote and too insignificant… to indispensable in the fight against hunger.”
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