Commentary: As U.S. Budgets Tighten, an Effective Investment for U.S. Foreign Assistance

Fri, 02/18/2011

Two years ago, rapidly escalating food prices made it more difficult for poor people in many countries to buy enough food to meet their needs. The price spike of 2008 brought the total number of hungry people to more than 1 billion and triggered food riots in some of the world’s major cities. Governments around the world began to wonder how to address this in a way that was comprehensive enough to eliminate the complex causes of poverty and hunger – and help avert future food crises. 

The Obama administration’s response to this challenge is Feed the Future, an innovative program designed to significantly reduce chronic hunger globally. The initiative combines current hunger relief and nutrition programs while coordinating these efforts with other donors, countries and private sector partners. But even as food prices creep up once again, Feed the Future is likely to be scrutinized by legislators as they react to President Obama’s 2012 budget released Feb. 14. United States legislators are considering cuts to Feed the Future before it can pay dividends for the world’s poor and hungry. 

What policymakers need to know is that Feed the Future is intended to use funds more efficiently and sustainably. The program draws on the expertise and experience of multiple U.S. agencies and departments to design well-conceived, coordinated programs with a laser-sharp focus on the ultimate goal: the permanent reduction of chronic hunger. Unlike past efforts that focused U.S. dollars solely on providing assistance in the aftermath of food-related emergencies, Feed the Future plans to use a range of development tools to strengthen rural livelihoods as the foundation of durable, prosperous economies.

Twenty countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean were selected in 2010 to launch the initiative. Under the leadership of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Feed the Future puts solutions in the hands of these focus country governments. They are responsible for identifying the needs and priorities of local civil society organizations, farmers’ associations and corporations; and they must develop their own national strategies to promote agriculture-led economic growth, improve nutrition programs and create national emergency response plans. USAID has promoted this country-led process so that improvements to food security are sustainable long after donors leave.

An important component of Feed the Future is its recognition that women play critical roles in producing food and feeding their families. However, women don’t have the same access as men to agricultural opportunities and often are exposed to greater risks. Feed the Future promotes inclusive economic growth that levels the playing field for women and girls. It’s a smart approach, as research has shown repeatedly that income in the hands of women has a positive ripple effect for their children, families and communities.

With the official launch of Feed the Future approaching its first anniversary in May, many of the focus countries are reaching a critical point where planning will be translated into implementation. That means we’ll begin to see infrastructure projects breaking ground and extension services being revived to get farmers the best training possible. We will see women depositing income from the sale of their crops into mobile banking accounts and children being fed with vegetables from kitchen gardens. Most importantly, we will see countries begin to pull themselves out of poverty so that over time, U.S. investments are no longer needed.

None of this will be possible if drastic reductions in federal funding for foreign assistance become a reality. Such a dramatic decline could ultimately cost the U.S. more in the long run. Numerous international bodies, including the World Bank and the World Food Programme, recently reported that staple food prices are rising dangerously again. Without investing in agricultural development and other solutions to hunger and poverty, we could recreate the circumstances that led to the launch of Feed the Future – rapidly escalating food prices that pushed millions into poverty and encouraged food riots around the world.

In a time when all of us need to do more with less, Feed the Future is an example of smart investments focused on results. U.S. assistance through Feed the Future will lay the groundwork for economic growth and stability in critical regions around the world. If the U.S. is to “win the future,” in the words of President Obama, lawmakers need to protect investments in Feed the Future now, to plant the seeds of global prosperity.  

David Kauck is ICRW’s Senior Gender and Agriculture Specialist

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