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Obama turns to corporations to feed the hungry when governments fail

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement from the White House Briefing Room after a congressional "super committee" on Monday failed to reach a deal on reducing federal government deficit in Washington November 21, 2011.


With many G8 governments failing to keep their promises on fighting hunger in the developing world, U.S. President Barack Obama has turned to big multinational corporations to fill the financial gap.

Mr. Obama's new scheme, touting $3-billion in food projects by 45 companies such as Pepsi and DuPont, is an attempt to harness the private sector to find innovative solutions to the hunger crisis in Africa and elsewhere.

The coalition of companies, dubbed the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, will work on everything from seed technology and irrigation projects to farm financing and infrastructure. It aims to lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next decade.

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But critics say it is a meagre sum of money for a massive problem, and the wrong approach to fixing African agriculture. And because of its long-term nature – with some projects spread over 10 years – the corporate money is unlikely to be helpful for immediate crises such as the devastating droughts in the Sahel region of West Africa, where 14 million people are suffering food shortages, and in the Horn of Africa, where nine million people need food.

Mr. Obama's announcement was the kickoff of a weekend of international summitry, including the G8 summit at the Camp David presidential retreat near Washington. Food security will be high on the G8 agenda.

"When tens of thousands of children die from the agony of starvation, as in Somalia, that sends us a message we've still got a lot of work to do," Mr. Obama said in a speech on Friday to a symposium on global food security in Washington.

"It's unacceptable," he said. "It's an outrage. It's an affront to who we are."

Senior U.S. officials were defensive about the corporate involvement, insisting that it wasn't an attempt to offload the hunger crisis onto the private sector. But the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, acknowledged there will be fears of "a multinational takeover of African agriculture."

Mr. Obama denied he was dumping the problem into the laps of business. "I know some have asked, in a time of austerity, whether this New Alliance is just a way for governments to shift the burden onto somebody else," he said. "I want to be clear: The answer is no."

But the most recent G8 pledge on fighting hunger, announced at a summit in 2009, is still far from fulfilled. About $22-billion was pledged for food and agriculture, yet only about 58 per cent of that amount has been spent so far, according to U.S. estimates. Moreover, some of the spending was on traditional food handouts, rather than the long-term projects that were promised.

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Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, said the $3-billion corporate plan is a small amount of money for a world where nearly a billion people are chronically hungry.

"We don't see a lot new in this," he said. "We're quite concerned that it's a shrinking response to a growing problem."

Mr. Obama's emphasis on multinational corporations is the wrong focus, since most of Africa's food is produced by small farmers, especially women, Mr. Fox noted.

"If you want to make progress where the needs are greatest, it's not in industrial agriculture or high-tech solutions."

The G8 has invited the leaders of four African countries – Tanzania, Ethiopia, Benin and Ghana – to join its summit this weekend. Human-rights activists have questioned the inclusion of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, noting that his authoritarian government has jailed dissidents and banned media access to hunger zones.

"The [Ethiopian]government routinely downplays the extent of the crisis by denying journalists access to sensitive areas and censoring independent news coverage," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a letter to Mr. Obama.

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