24 March 2009

Africa: Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Calls for Development Czar

Washington, DC — Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has called for appointment of a development czar to oversee U.S. foreign aid and challenged the Obama administration to spend more to alleviate hunger worldwide, especially in Africa.

Glickman, in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 24, said the amount of funding needed to feed the malnourished in Africa is "a drop in the bucket" compared to government funds devoted to stanching the current economic crisis. He challenged the U.S. government -- the world's leader in food assistance -- to allocate at least $340 million in 2010 and more thereafter toward infrastructure, agricultural research and education in poor countries.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democrat and chairman of the committee, said that one in seven people goes hungry every day in the world, a fact that constitutes "one of the great moral challenges the world faces today." Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the panel, echoed Kerry's support for an enhanced foreign assistance budget that tackles global agricultural development, which would improve crop yields.

Although the administration has not announced plans in any detail on agricultural development, Lugar read from a letter to him from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Combating hunger is a top priority for this administration and for me, personally," Clinton said in her letter. "During my confirmation testimony, I called for a move away from reacting to food crises in an ad hoc fashion, toward making food security a priority in our development programs."

Clinton's letter also states her intention to seek additional funds in the fiscal year 2010 budget to achieve those goals. President Obama has stated he intends to pursue the United Nations' goal to halve global poverty by 2015.

Lugar and Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania are co-authors of a bill, the Global Food Security Act, which aims to update the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 by allocating about $10 billion over five years to promote food security and improve responses to food crises.

In their March 24 testimony, Glickman and his associates from the Chicago Initiative on Global Agricultural Development endorsed the Lugar-Casey bill and delivered an unflattering depiction of the U.S. government's past commitment to agricultural development in Africa.

Official U.S. development assistance to African nations has declined by 85 percent in real dollars (dollars minus the effect of inflation) since 1988, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Robert Paarlberg, a professor at Wellesley College and Harvard University, summed up his view of the U.S. government's historic commitment this way: In regard to food aid, particularly in the response to the worldwide food price spikes of 2008, the government gets a grade of B+ (superior, plus). But, he said, "the larger and the longer-term challenge is to address persistent malnutrition that afflicts nearly 1 billion people in the developing world." In this area, Paarlberg gives the United States a grade of F (failing).

The Reverend David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, called into question the government's entire model for administering development assistance. Echoing sentiments expressed in a report from Glickman's Chicago group, Beckmann -- an Episcopal priest -- said, "We hope Congress will pull several aid agencies together in one accountable agency, focus it clearly on development and poverty reduction, and allow it to be responsive to local needs and priorities."

"To coordinate this, we need someone in the White House who is in charge," said Glickman, referring to the idea of one official with focused responsibility on development issues -- a development czar. His group testified that a development czar must have administrative and operational control over one superagency. The agency would combine and focus the development efforts of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other government entities working in development.

In terms of agricultural research and educational exchanges, Catherine Bertini, former head of the World Food Programme, said the United States "has fallen back dramatically" in recent years on its commitments. Once, said Bertini, the United States gave hundreds of scholarships to foreign students wanting to study agriculture and science at U.S. universities, but today, only 42 are available. At its height, agricultural extension workers -- specialists from U.S. universities, government and the private sector -- trained 15,000 individuals from other countries in one year in modern agricultural methods. The number trained today is just 1,000.

Kerry questioned the witnesses on promoting the use of nitrogen fertilizers and biotech seeds during a perceived organic produce movement.

"This is virtually impossible -- to get to the yields we are talking about without taking seriously seed and fertilizer," said Lugar, also a farmer, who called on leaders in the European Union to act as role models and drop their exclusion of genetically modified seeds. As evidence of the world's shifting use toward biotechnology, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, in its 2008 annual report, found that 13.3 million farmers in 25 countries planted 125 million hectares of biotech crops in 2008. Egypt, Burkina Faso and South Africa are the only African nations to cultivate biotech crops.

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