Aid groups question Group of 8 plan to fight African hunger

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A plan to improve agriculture in poor countries through private investment won a tepid welcome Friday from humanitarian agencies, which said the Group of 8 major industrialized nations should stick to its previous commitment to donate $7.3 billion a year.

The G-8's New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition announced Friday to fight global hunger calls on multinational corporations to invest $3 billion in agriculture in developing countries, mainly in Africa. But aid agencies questioned whether the money would reach the small farms that grow most of the continent's food.

With more than half Africa’s population living on $1.25 a day and a quarter suffering chronic hunger, fostering a “green revolution” across the continent is seen as the way to lift populations out of poverty and to provide adequate nutrition.

But global climate change has hit hard in many African countries, making some farm areas marginal and forcing food prices up. Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, increasing the intense pressure on food resources.

Gregory Adams, spokesman for the humanitarian and advocacy organization Oxfam, said one of the key reasons for the lack of agricultural growth in African countries in recent decades has been a systematic government failure to invest in rural roads and other infrastructure that would enable farmers to increase production and get their goods to market.

Oxfam also argues that climate change and food wastage in both developing and developed nations contributes to the sharp increases in global food prices that have left many people hungry.

At a 2009 meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, the G-8 promised to provide $22 billion for agricultural development in poor countries over three years. With just months to go in that  agreement, around 44% of the money has been disbursed.

But aid groups question the new focus on private investment to deliver the next phase of agricultural development.

"Where is the sustained commitment from the G-8?" Adams asked. "This problem was caused by several decades of public disinvestment in agricultural development. You don’t solve it in three years.

“We want to see the G-8 give a commitment commensurate with the scale and level of the problem," he said. "We’d like to see leaders double down on their commitments at L’Aquila and continue the $7.3 billion a year for the next three years.”

But Kenya’s Calestous Juma, director of Harvard’s Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project, said the lowered funding commitment was at least honest. “There’s been a huge gap between public commitments by Western donors and actual delivery. I’d prefer they underplayed and delivered than overplayed and not delivered.”

Some agencies questioned whether the shift to private investment signaled that European Union governments, facing financial crises of their own, were backing away from promises to end hunger in the developing world.

But Juma said the investment pledges by large multinational corporations was a significant vote of confidence in the future of African agriculture.

“They would not be interested in making a commitment if they didn’t believe it has a future,” he said in a phone interview. “That level of commitment by foreign firms also helps to get African leaders to think about complementary investments in energy, transport, irrigation and communications. This is the role that the African public sector can play.”

It would also encourage African businesses to invest in agriculture.

The barriers to a “green revolution” in Africa, are myriad: lack of access to improved seeds, fertilizer, irrigation and markets; lack of storage and refrigeration; poor transportation and infrastructure; and insufficient bank finance.

The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, told journalists Friday that boosting food production through private investment would raise 50 million people out of poverty and hunger in the next 10 years.

The alliance announced Friday will include G-8 and African leaders, aid agencies and multinational companies such as Unilever, Diageo and Vodafone. The role that farmers will play was less clear, said Adams.

The central objective is to encourage small-scale farmers to increase their output and their capacity to get goods to market.

“In partnership with Africa’s people and leaders, our goals are to increase responsible domestic and foreign private investments in African agriculture, take innovations that can enhance agricultural productivity to scale, and reduce the risk borne by vulnerable economies and communities,” said a White House statement on the initiative Friday. “We recognize and will act upon the critical role played by smallholder farmers, especially women, in transforming agriculture and building thriving economies.”

In addition to pledges of $3 billion from the private sector, the alliance would seek another $1.2 billion over the next three years from donors -- a far cry from the $7.3 billion annually humanitarian agencies were calling for.

Adams said African countries faced vastly different challenges among themselves and compared to the rest of the world in fostering a green revolution. He cautioned against drawing analogies with the Asian and Latin American green revolutions that spurred economic growth in past decades.

“We have a different global market and a different climate, and new technologies and solutions," he said. "A green revolution in Africa is going to look different to what it looked like 40 or 50 years ago.”

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-- Robyn Dixon

 
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