In the morning, eight-year-old Jorge Luis Hernandez has a small bowl of rice before going to work picking coffee beans near his home in the mountains of El Salvador. While attending school in the afternoon, he eats a meal of rice, beans, and tortillas, provided by the World Food Program (WFP). It’s his only full meal of the day. “Of course I am happy when I eat,” he says. “When I’m hungry, my stomach hurts, I don’t feel like playing, I don’t feel like doing anything.”
Jorge Luis Hernandez is not alone. Rising food prices in the United States have strained the budgets of many families. For poor people in developing countries, such increases have been devastating. WFP estimates that, as a result of skyrocketing prices, an average family meal in rural El Salvador today has 40 percent fewer calories than it did in May 2006. Worldwide, it is estimated the food crisis has pushed an additional 130 million people into poverty. Nearly 1 billion people do not know where their next meal will come from.
The food emergency of the past two years imperils decades of dramatic progress made against hunger and poverty. Since 1980, the percentage of people in the developing world living in extreme poverty has fallen from 50 to 25 percent. The percentage of undernourished people in the world declined from 28 to about 18 percent. But the worldwide food crisis threatens to undo that progress. More alarming still, the crisis could become permanent.
While it is true that prices for agricultural commodities are lower now than they were a year ago, they remain higher than they have been in decades, squeezing millions of people who already spend up to 80 percent of their income on food. Faced with the higher prices, poor people have to make difficult decisions. They limit the amount of food they consume, forgo meals, and reduce other expenditures such as health care or sending their children to school. The poorest people are coping by shifting to one meal a day and by eating famine foods: roots, grass, mud cakes.
So far, the world has dealt with this crisis primarily by increasing food aid. But while direct food aid saves lives in the short term, it can also feed a cycle of aid dependency and dampen prospects for long-term self-sufficiency.
To address the underlying conditions that drove prices up so dramatically, agriculture ministers from the Group of Eight (G8) countries, joined by their counterparts in China, India, Mexico, and Brazil, gathered in April. Their conclusion: Without immediate interventions in agriculture, the present food crisis could become structural in only a few decades. This would have serious consequences for the security and stability of world politics. The ministers issued a call to world leaders to put agriculture and food security at the center of the international agenda. To avert a permanent food shortage, they warned, global agricultural production must double by 2050. If new investments are made in global agriculture, the current crisis could be transformed into an opportunity for the world’s poorest people.
Three-quarters of the world’s hungry people live in rural areas in developing countries. They rely on agriculture for their livelihood. Greater agricultural production in these regions, particularly in Africa and Asia, could lead many families toward self-sufficiency and these poorer countries toward greater abundance. But most farmers there do not have the capacity to respond to the present crisis by simply planting more. For decades, bilateral and multilateral donors did not invest enough of their aid in agriculture. Too little was done to improve the necessary physical and technical infrastructure—rural transportation networks, storage facilities, irrigation systems, appropriate farming tools, agriculture extension services, and improved seed varieties. Support for agriculture as part of U.S. official development assistance has also declined. It was $8 billion in 1984; now it is less than half that amount. But even in 1984, foreign assistance neglected investments in agriculture development, instead favoring rapid, short-term responses to humanitarian crises and perceived national-security threats.
Still, there is ample proof that large gains can be made in the fight against hunger and poverty through agricultural development. Vietnam, for instance, has had a tremendous growth spurt since the early 1990s. Extreme poverty declined from 58 percent of the population in 1993 to 16 percent in 2006. Vietnam’s progress is due to a combination of economic reforms and technological innovations in its agricultural sector. Farmers responded, and from 1993 to 2006, per capita food production grew at 3.8 percent per year, a growth rate equaled or surpassed by only five countries in the world.
The Obama administration has signaled a commitment to long-term investments in international agricultural development. Shortly before the G8 agriculture ministers’ meeting in April, President Barack Obama asked Congress to double assistance for agriculture in developing countries to $1 billion, in addition to nearly $448 million for countries affected by the food and financial crisis. In Congress, attention to global agriculture development has been growing as well. The bipartisan Global Food Security Act, which authorizes additional resources for agriculture and rural development, unanimously passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April.
Increasing food production alone, however, will not provide global food security. It must be coupled with trade policies that reinforce, rather than undercut, financial commitments to agriculture in places threatened by food insecurity. Farmers in developing countries could increase their earnings if they did not have to compete with subsidized crops from the United States and other industrialized countries. More could work their way out of poverty if rich countries fully opened their markets to agricultural exports from developing countries. The U.S. government applies the highest trade barriers to imports from the poorest countries—often the very same countries that receive U.S. development assistance. For example, in 2006, Bangladesh received $80 million in U.S. assistance, while the United States collected $487 million in tariffs on imports from Bangladesh.
Years of dwindling investments for agriculture and inconsistent trade policies reflect flaws in the overall system of U.S. development assistance. Our nation’s global development policies are still driven by the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. Programs are scattered across twelve departments, twenty-five different agencies, and nearly sixty government offices. A more efficient foreign-assistance system—with better coordination, accountability, and clarity—would allow people to get help faster and more effectively.
This year Congress and the administration should reframe foreign assistance to make it more effective in reducing poverty. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives as a first step toward a new Foreign Assistance Act—one that would help confront today’s world food emergency with twenty-first-century solutions. In a time of economic hardship here and abroad, it is even more urgent that we use aid dollars well and direct more of our foreign assistance to programs that will help hungry people climb out of poverty.