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US Support of Farmers in Hungry Countries Gets Passing Grade

Obama administration wins praise for focusing global attention on agriculture in the developing world

A farmer separates grains from weeds of barley in Lalitpur, near Kathmandu, April 26, 2011.
A farmer separates grains from weeds of barley in Lalitpur, near Kathmandu, April 26, 2011.

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A new report card gives the United States a B-minus for its support of farmers in hungry countries.

When U.S. President Barack Obama came to office, he said he would make it a priority to improve agriculture in the developing world. Noting the instability that can stem from hunger and poverty, administration officials often link food security to national security.

The Chicago Council for Global Affairs, which issued the report card, assessed U.S. agricultural development aid efforts on a scale from "A" for excellent to "F" for failing.

"These grades are pretty good. The glass is not half empty. The glass is half full," says Dan Glickman, co-chair of the council who is also a former U.S. agriculture secretary.

Glickman finds good and bad news in the report which was presented at a Washington, D.C., conference this week.

Good news

In the past two years, the Obama administration has won praise for helping focus global attention on agriculture in the developing world. The administration has pledged $3.5 billion to support farmers in developing countries and helped to orchestrate a $22-billion commitment from other industrialized countries.

That marked a turnaround after decades in which the U.S. government joined other major donors in steadily shrinking support for agriculture.

"So, we start from the spot of not having done much at all to now having an aggressive, active program, and that having happened only in a very short period of time," says former U.N. World Food Program head Catherine Bertini, co-chair of the Chicago Council group.

In that short time, the report notes that support has grown substantially for agricultural research and education in developing countries and for building essential infrastructure that will catalyze economic growth. Positive changes at the agencies responsible for agricultural development were noted with the report card's highest grade: a B-plus.

Glickman says overall, the progress on agricultural development has been substantial. "The attention to this issue that has been received over the last two years has been unprecedented in this country. And there is an opportunity to demonstrate real results and permanently reduce the incidence of global poverty."

Bad News

However, the report says the bad news is that the U.S. government is not taking full advantage of the opportunity.

Support for agricultural research and education received B-minus grades. The report says farmer education efforts are improving, but deserve a bigger push. And while U.S. universities have increased their work in developing countries, support for those countries' own research institutions is a weak point.

The low point on the report card is a "D" grade for policies that hurt farmers in other countries, including support for maize-based ethanol and other biofuels.

The Obama administration's head of agricultural development, Julie Howard, says the report provides valuable oversight. However, she also adds, "I personally think the report is missing a central achievement over the last three to four years. And that is looking at, how do we do this in a more country-driven way?"

Howard says, rather than letting donors drive the agenda as they often have, the U.S. initiative responds to priorities and plans the countries themselves produce.

"Our efforts will be sustainable if our country partners lead the way and say, 'This is what we want to do and how can you help us do those things?'"

Those efforts will also be sustainable, she adds, by involving the private sector more than previous development aid typically has. She says when private businesses have an incentive to get involved, development aid projects are more likely to spark real economic growth.

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