The way to an agricultural revolution in Africa has long been clear: Promote research, put the latest technology in the hands of the farmers and boost investment in rural infrastructure. It is the will that has been missing - at least until now, if we heed a rising chorus of African leaders.
Laying the responsibility for reducing hunger at the feet of the continent's leaders, Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Kayanza Peter Pinda cited an African proverb: If you yourself don't cry at the funeral of a loved one, why should anyone else? "Africa must take the bull by the horns and tackle the structural reasons for underproduction," Mr. Pinda told the African Green Revolution Forum in Accra, Ghana, this month.
Tanzania is one of several countries that intends to show the way. Last year, it launched a Farming First initiative, steering more resources into agriculture; this year, food production is doubling. Governments in Malawi, Rwanda, Ghana, Ethiopia and Mali are also emphasizing agriculture, and their harvests of maize, wheat, rice and beans are growing strongly.
Former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan exhorted his fellow Africans to follow these models. "If we believe that agriculture is important, we have to push it higher up the political agenda and keep up the pressure [so]that politicians can't continue to refuse to deal with it," said Mr. Annan, now chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which hosted the forum. "People have power. If leaders don't lead, they can be led."
International leaders outside Africa would be wise to meet this challenge as well. First, they need to make good on promises to support emerging African agriculture investment plans. Now would be the ideal time, as the UN General Assembly this week begins an assessment of progress on the Millennium Development Goals, a set of pledges to improve the lot of the world's poorest people by 2015. The first of those is to reduce poverty and hunger by half - an elusive goal, as nearly one billion people are chronically hungry.
At a summit in 2009, leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized countries pledged $22-billion (U.S.) over three years to aid agricultural development in the poorest countries. The goal is to shift aid spending from the supply of emergency food to longer-term development projects that will enable Africa's small-holder farmers not only to grow enough food to feed their families but also to become surplus producers.
Several months later, the Group of 20 called for the creation of a multidonor trust fund, administered by the World Bank, to help finance those efforts. The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program was launched in April with an initial commitment totalling $880-million from Canada, Spain, South Korea and the U.S., as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The fund moved quickly. In June, it made its first allocations, dispersing a total of more than $200-million to five of the eight countries that had submitted proposals for agricultural development projects. Since then, however, the flow of money into the fund has slowed. About two dozen countries, most of them in Africa, are expected to apply for funding from the next allocation in October, but fund managers say there may be only enough for projects in three countries.
The urgency for action on agricultural development was highlighted this month when anger and panic over bread shortages and rising prices spurred riots in Maputo, Mozambique. The tumultuous scenes portend further turbulence - unless the will is summoned, in Africa and beyond, to lead the way to food security.
Roger Thurow is Senior Fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the co-author, with Scott Kilman, of ENOUGH: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.
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