7 Reasons Why We Can End Hunger in Our Lifetime

Published: Sun 22 Oct 2006 12:45 AM
Seven Reasons Why We Can End Hunger in Our Lifetime
Josette Sheeran, Under Secretary for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs
Remarks at the World Food Prize Symposium
Des Moines, Iowa
October 19, 2006
I am very honored to be here at the 20th annual World Food Prize ceremony and symposium – and in the great state of Iowa. What a warm welcome. There is something special in the water here, to have produced not only many of the world's best farmers, but John Ruan and Norman Borlaug. And it's where Ambassador Quinn grew up.
This prestigious award puts a global spotlight on the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.
I am especially humbled to be in the presence of so many people who in a tangible and measurable way have made the world better and safer for hundreds of millions of people.
I also want to pay tribute to the 2006 Laureates: their project – transforming central Brazil's infertile land into productive cropland – is an excellent example of the productive relationship between Brazil and the United States as we combine our scientific talent to find new ways to combat global hunger and poverty.
It would be easy with all the challenges in the world today – nuclear proliferation, sectarian and religious conflict, terrorism and deadly diseases – to be pessimistic about our chances to make a dent in reducing hunger in the world today.
Yet I would like to outline for you seven reasons why we should be optimistic that we can end chronic hunger in our lifetimes, fulfilling the vision of Dr. Borlaug, Ghandi and others.
I know that the outcome is far from assured. But every once in a while, circumstances align, opportunities open and what once seemed an impossible dream can be realized.
A generation before us John F. Kennedy inspired this nation to reach for the far off heavens and just eight years after his challenge, man walked on the moon.
As recently as 1967, 20 million people annually contracted smallpox. Of those sickened each year, more than 2 million died a horrific death and millions more were left disfigured. That year the World Health Organization launched the Intensified Smallpox Eradication Program. It was a global effort – and it worked. Just 13 years later, in 1980 smallpox was declared the first disease eradicated from the earth. And today we were reminded of the successful eradication of rinderpest, a terrible cattle disease.
Mahatma Gandhi inspired hundreds of millions of his countrymen to stand up without violence to a seemingly invincible empire and was able to win independence for India. Nelson Mandela's refusal to bow to the stubbornly entrenched injustices of apartheid ended that practice and opened a new chapter in the history of South Africa and humanity.
I don't want to sound naïve. There will no doubt always be hungry people. Natural disasters, conflicts and wars can disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands in just seconds. We will always need to respond to these emergencies and feed the hungry. And it is critical that we fully develop and fully fund the means to meet hunger emergencies.
But as the examples listed above portray, sometimes a perfect storm of positive factors come together – a good idea, dedicated people, scientific breakthroughs, new-found resources, political resolve and moral indignation – and we can make major advances in relatively short periods of time.
In his book "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell calls this type of change a "social epidemic," where change can be contagious and spread quickly through the world. "Things can happen all at once, and little changes can make a huge difference," Gladwell says in his book. "That's a little bit counterintuitive. I'm saying, don't be surprised. This is the way social epidemics work."
Have we reached the tipping point in our fight against chronic hunger? Can we end forever the haunting pictures of gaunt mothers holding dying babies at their shriveled breasts or hollow-eyed children with swollen bellies and matchstick limbs? I believe we can.
Can we build a world where every child can strive to realize their potential, freed from the blight of under-nutrition and stunting? I believe we can.
I'd like to now outline seven reasons that, when taken together, create an historic opportunity – a tipping point, if you will – to banish chronic hunger in our lifetime.
Reason #1: Focus. In September 2000 at the United Nations Millennium Summit the world's nations came together in an unprecedented way to share a unified focus on achieving eight measurable goals by 2015. The first goal is to halve the number of people living in poverty and who suffer from hunger, as poverty and hunger are linked at their core.
Progress has been made – especially in Asia and in parts of Latin America. In fact Chile is the first nation to halve absolute poverty and has achieved that goal well before the deadline. In the last 20 years China alone has lifted more than 400 million people out of poverty.
The most pressing challenge lies in sub-Saharan Africa where the poverty rate has dropped overall, but the number of people living in extreme poverty has increased by 140 million since 2000.
And we have yet to reverse the hunger curve. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people in Africa are currently undernourished and more than a third of all the world's undernourished people reside in sub-Saharan Africa. The World Food Program estimates that there are more than 852 million undernourished people in the world – 400 million of whom are children.
Although the measuring stick shows that we still have a long way to go, I am hopeful because the Millennium Development Goals offer much more than a statistical mandate.
Albert Einstein once said that genius is focus. And these clear goals – forged with the support of all nations – provide the mandate to rally developing and developed nations alike.
The challenge is – can we translate that mandate into strategic action plans, starting with those nations whose leaders have the vision and will to knock down barriers? I say yes.
Can the array of stakeholders – including the FAO, the World Bank, UNICEF, UNDP, the World Food Program, IFAD, the International Food Policy Research Institute, NGOs, Foundations and the private sector – come together around the leadership of individuals such as Dr. Swaminathan, co-chair of the UN Millennium task force on hunger in support of such strategies? I say yes.
In the United States we answered the call of the MDGs by creating a new type of cooperative assistance program through the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The MCC distributes substantial grants – hundreds of millions at a time – to nations that score high on good governance and investing in their people and offer strategic plans to meet the Millennium Development Goals.
Since its inauguration in 2002, nearly $2 billion has been distributed to more than 20 nations. MCC eligible nations include countries like Mozambique, Malawi and Burkina Faso who are using their self-designed MCC programs to meet the multi-faceted challenges of food insecurity – from rural education to the critical development of roads and infrastructure to policy reform.
And as of this week, Mali's MCC Compact is before the Board for approval - $460 million plan designed by the people of Mali to address food security, poverty and economic growth. Congratulations Ambassador Diop – here today with us. MCC gives these nations a critical mass of resources to design their own strategy to break the cycle of hunger and poverty in their countries. It is critical that MCC continue to work closely with other stakeholders.
This global focus on hunger is being amplified by the press and in popular culture. Hunger has been a cover story this year in Time and Newsweek. The Wall Street Journal has raised the bar on coverage. Last year's Live 8 concerts helped activate a new generation of young people. More than 1 billion tuned in via the Internet alone. The combined power of the press, the Internet and the youth of today can be another force multiplier for halving hunger by 2015.
Reason #2: Technical and Policy Revolution The theme of this symposium is whether we can expand and "evergreen" the Green Revolution. Can the single greatest period of food production in human history now transform the face of hunger in Africa? To answer, I quote from Dr. Borlaug:
"Using proven agricultural techniques, Africa could easily double or triple the yields of its crops. It has the potential to not only feed its own people, but to become a dynamic agricultural exporter within a few decades."
New technology must be supported by good economic and agricultural policies. As Dr. Joachim Von Braun, director general of IFPRI has stated so clearly, "progressive policy action" is the key to increasing food supply and food security. The World Bank's revolutionary "Doing Business" report each year measures every nation against the dozens of specific micro-economic policy levers that must be functioning for job creation and economic success. Enlightened leaders are using this as a strategic guide for action.
Can we take the same targeted action for agriculture? I say yes.
Can we use technologies – cell phones, computers – as a force multiplier for agricultural education, extension programs, best practices, weather forecasts, commodity market information? It is already happening. Now even the poorest farmer can potentially access the most up-to-date agricultural knowledge.
Reason # 3: Private Sector Speaking of the press and information technology, we've all seen the recent headlines. Private philanthropy is entering the cause of addressing – and eradicating – the root causes of hunger at an unprecedented level.
And there is great potential in the partnership. These private-public partnerships are another critical factor in transforming the field of agricultural development – and the face of hunger.
One of the most exciting initiatives is the announcement that the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations – champions of addressing food insecurity for over half a century – are joining forces in an "Alliance for a Green Revolution." The initiative will funnel $150 million over 5 years to jumpstart Afrca's Green Revolution.
They will fund the development of more robust disease-and drought-resistant seeds to enhance distribution networks and fund university-level training for African crop scientists.
But the partnership with the private sector brings more than money to the table. It brings new levels of efficiency, expertise, results-based management, including scalability and measurability.
The United States has made public-private partnerships an important component of its aid strategy. Under USAID's Global Development Alliance initiative, more than 1,400 organizations, including international and local businesses, private foundations, NGOs, and governments are partners in 97 countries in the developing world.
Reason # 4: Ownership - at the individual, village and country level The most powerful factor to ending hunger is when individuals, families and communities empowered with the tools to feed themselves. Again and again we have seen how determined individuals can – and do – better the lives of many. Wangari Maathai, a brave woman and environmental activist, overcame resistance in her native Kenya to plant millions of trees. She was able to salvage ravaged forestland, protecting the climate and even food security. For her work, in 2004 she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
When I spoke to her at the 2005 Clinton Global Initiative, she was impassioned in her belief that Africa will only transform when people are empowered at the village level and their inherent wisdom respected by those intervening to help solve problems.
Over the last eight months, I've had the chance to travel to more than a dozen nations all over the world as part of Secretary General Kofi Annan's High-Level UN Panel looking at coherence in development and humanitarian assistance. We have asked the critical question – how can all UN agencies, funds and programs develop and support a strategic, country-level approach to the MDGs?
In talking to people – whether villagers in the Pakistan mountains rebuilding from the earthquake or farmers in Haiti fighting the advanced erosion of soil - or Presidents and Prime Ministers in Africa or Latin America – I have met people who know exactly what they need to move from poverty to self-reliance.
In Jabori, Pakistan, I was invited into the village midwife's home. It was made from UN tents and scavenged doors and windows from the earthquake rubble.
When I asked her what she needed most, she one clear wish: "We lost our village buffalo in the earthquake. A buffalo can meet the nutritional needs of pregnant women and children with its milk alone. We can have warm clothes from the wool. That is my top wish."
In Africa, I see a new generation of leaders who are stepping forward to help transform their nations. In 2003, African leaders at the Maputo African Union Summit pledged to devote 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture and undertake critical reforms. The New Partnership for Africa's Development, or NEPAD implementing the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Plan – aimed at achieving annual 6 percent economic growth.
Donor countries are working closely to support this effort and we are seeing some success. For instance, Mali, Ghana and Mozambique have increased the proportion of their budget dedicated to agriculture. And Malawi is integrating famine-prone hunger hot-spots into the framework. Peter McPherson's group The Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa has also done tremendous work on this front.
Trade and regional integration also offers great promise. NEPAD has recognized that agriculture is critical to Africa's economic growth. According to IFPRI, removal of barriers in the non-agriculture sector which distort agricultural trade, would increase total agricultural exports from Africa by 19 percent and trade within Africa would jump by more than 50 percent. COMESA has done tremendous work in realizing these benefits. The Doha development round would not have launched without the leadership of a handful of African trade ministers showing leadership at its inception.
I also have to point to China's success in reform of their agricultural sector. Agriculture has been a huge contributing factor as they've transformed themselves into one of the world's fastest growing economies. China has become so efficient in producing food that they feed 22 percent of the world's population using only 7 percent of the world's land. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, food consumption per person has increased 50 percent with very few of its more than 1.3 billion people going hungry.
But all the gains in technology and policy knowledge are powerless to save lives unless implemented. Good leaders can – and must – demonstrate to other nations the power of good governance to change a nation's destiny.
Reason # 5. Women. The empowerment of women can be the ultimate force multiplier as the world struggles to feed a quickly growing population. As UN Secretary-General Kori Annan and laureate Catherine Bertini always remind us – study after study demonstrates that educating girls is the most powerful development tool we know.
According to FAO estimates, women produce more than 50 percent of the food grown worldwide. This includes between 30-40 percent in South America, 60 percent in Asia and 80 percent in Africa. This is a largely untapped resource in the fight against hunger because women are too often excluded from access to capital, to tools and seeds and to education. Women farmers now onloy have access to five percewnt of all the world's agricultural services.
But a recent World Bank study found that if women received the same education as men, farm yields could rise by as much as 22 percent.
I am encouraged because we now have a clear global focus on this issue. The empowerment of women and gender equality is the 3rd Millennium Development Goal.
There are a number of programs that show how educating women farmers directly results in improved yields and higher family incomes.
UNESCO has developed a literacy project aimed at middle-aged rural women who have little or no education. They developed a literacy class using easy to use illustrated books to teach about farm techniques.
In one project in Yunnan province – one of the poorest in China – a woman went through the class and diversified her crops to include flowers, which she was able to sell in the market. She was so successful that 100 families in the village are now following her lead.
UNICEF and the World Food Program have also partnered in a program to end child hunger and malnutrition. This joint initiative focuses both on helping children under five have sufficient nutrients to prevent stunting and other diseases and also women so they can have healthy, full birth-weight babies – breaking the mother-child cycle of malnutrition.
One of the outcomes of the UN High Level Panel will be a strengthened and enhanced women's empowerment and gender equality organization that can develop model programs in the field to ensure women receive the education and resources they need to improve agricultural productivity and ensure gender expertise is integrated into all UN programs.
Reason # 6: Micro-credit. I was very excited to hear last week that 1994 Food Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunis won the Nobel Peace prize for his work with micro-lending and his founding of the Grameen Bank. His goal was to empower the world's poorest people to enable them to lift themselves out of poverty through access to financial information and micro-loans.
His loans – which often were only a few dollars and rarely more than $100 – usually went to women to help them buy tools or seeds, sewing machines or unprocessed grains that they could then hand process for a profit. Since Grameen Bank's formation in Bangladesh in 1997, they have created a micro-finance network that reaches 2.2 million families in 22 countries.
Another example is the work that the nonprofit A Self-help Assistance Program (ASAP Africa) is doing in Zimbabwe. They began a financial literacy and saving club project in 2002 where they taught rural people about micro-finance and helped them organize pooled funding where neighbors could take out small loans or invest in joint projects.
>From its modest start, the organization now has more than 10,500 savings club members – 85 percent of whom are women – who have created new income for themselves. Most importantly they are teaching about micro-finance in schools in these rural villages and more than 700 children are members of the savings club.
Reason #7: You. Finally, the most important reason that can truly fuel this tipping point, launching an "ending hunger epidemic," is the people in this room today and the thousands of other front line warriors around the world doing battle in this important cause.
You are the leaders and innovators; you inspire and show by example. You understand the many causes of hunger and work daily on the solutions.
To rid the world of chronic hunger takes the dedication, commitment, and hard work of the humanitarians in this room who understand food aid: the scientists who have developed improved seed, the economists and the agronomists who understand developing world crops and their markets, the anthropologists who understand how to work with communities while introducing new practices, the courageous frontline hunger troops that deliver food to the malnourished no matter the challenge, the leaders who focus attention and resources, the policy makers who bring about policy change for the hungry in their nations, private sector expertise, and of course, foundations and NGOs who mobilize funds, donors, and workers.
Working all together, all of you are the force multipliers in the quest to end chronic hunger. It is seeing you all together in this room today, sharing ideas and discussing new ideas, that assures me that chronic hunger will be a thing we read about only in history books.
Dr. Borlaug, Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Thurow said today: "You taught us to increase food production and the world didn't follow through." I say that today can be a tipping point to achieving your dream of eradicating hunger for all time.
Released on October 19, 2006

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