Currently, one in nine people on the earth do not have enough food to lead a healthy and active life. That is some 795 million people who do not have a ready supply of nutritionally adequate and safe foods as well as the assured ability to acquire acceptable food in ways that do not resort to emergency supplies, scavenging, or stealing. Due to food insecurity, 3.1 million children die each year, and sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of hunger with one in four people being undernourished. With so much of the world's population lacking adequate nutrition, the United States has upped its developmental aid programs in the last decade, spending billions of dollars in food aid and development. One of the most notable of these policies being President Obama's Feed the Future initiative. Feed the Future seeks to reduce global poverty and hunger through numerous market, agricultural, and educational resources with farmers in 19 countries. This paper will explore the background of this policy and how it works, how it stands currently, and finally conclude with policy recommendations. While Feed the Future has demonstrated substantial improvements in the way the United States government delivers food assistance to developing nations, the policy needs to be refined as it struggles with issues of implementation and promotes unsustainable agricultural practices.
Policy Background & Mechanics
The idea that every human being is born with the inherent right to food is relatively new, occurring just within the previous century. President Franklin Roosevelt is generally credited with its first assertion in his famous 1941 speech. The “four freedoms” speech outlined freedom of speech, freedom of faith, freedom from want and freedom from fear. After World War II, many nations embraced the four freedoms, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 specifically pledges the right to food, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food…” As the UDHR began to form the basis for human rights around the globe, many Western nations (specifically the United States) vastly ramped up their assistance to developing nations—especially in food aid and agricultural development.
In 2007 and 2008, the global financial crisis was hitting more than just the United States. Globalization was leaving many nations to feel the effects of the recession as food prices spiked. With greater instability and increasing food insecurity rising around the world, more needed to be done to break the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty. Building on emergency efforts with G8 nations in 2009, the United States began a new approach to remedy the underlying causes of global food insecurity. Feed the Future became the Obama administration's cornerstone contribution to the global movement in unlocking agriculture's potential to reduce hunger, poverty, and malnutrition. This new approach centered on a comprehensive path to development: partnership with donor nations and developing countries.
Feed the Future focuses on nineteen countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Senegal, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia) based on five criteria: the country's level of need, opportunity for partnership, potential for agricultural growth, opportunity for regional synergy, and resource availability. Between efforts from other G8 nations and non-profits, USAID works to accomplish the comprehensive goals of Feed the Future as follows:
Figure 1. Policy Goals of 'Feed the Future.' (https://feedthefuture.gov/progress)
Through access to market forces and training in agricultural practices, Feed the Future hopes to fuel inclusive agriculture sector growth among farmers, and through improved nutrition and diversity of foods, it hopes to improve nutritional status among women and children.
By 2012, the United States had invested over a staggering $3.7 billion through Feed the Future to invest in these key areas of growth ($2 million more than its original goal of $3.5 billion). By 2015, the number of rural households reached by goods or services provided by Feed the Future rose from over five million in 2011 to nearly 20 million in 2014. With its impact and reach growing, Feed the Future's success grew more mixed.
Current State of Policy & Evaluation
Currently, Feed the Future has varying levels of impact in each of its focus countries from reducing childhood stunting to incorporating new agricultural methods to fueling commercial growth. Feed the Future has demonstrated substantial improvements in the way the United States government delivers food assistance to developing nations by targeting rural farmers, giving them access to competitive markets, and closing gender gaps. Few international developmental food aid policies focus on building skills, relationships, and knowledge of the individual farmer as a way to increase production and reduce poverty. According to non-profit ACDI/VOCA, if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent, possibly reducing the number of hungry people worldwide by up to 17 percent. Gender equity has a fundamental impact on preventing global food insecurity. Through the efforts of ‘Feed the Future,' that gap is narrowing to some extent in its focus countries. In Bangladesh, 39 percent of farmers who are women have adopted various fishery technologies through training initiatives that have increased their production by more than 50 percent.
While ‘Feed the Hunger' has notable strengths for accomplishing what it sets out to do, it has two problems: one being in its implementation in focus countries and the second being sustainability of agricultural practices. A key element for ensuring the successful implementation of developmental aid is the involvement of the aid beneficiaries in every step of the process. Farmers need to “own” their projects not just at the implementation stage, as is usually the case with most aid policies, but also in the setting of priorities and and the design of interventions and plans. If farmers do not feel like they fully “own” their projects, then they have less incentive to feel personally responsible for them when the aid dries up. Development must be responsive to the recipients' needs. And like most aid policies, Feed the Future struggles to implement development in ways that involve the primary change agents (farmers) along every step of the way.
For example, in a case study of Haiti conducted by Oxfam America, the study shows that Feed the Future's interventions lack responsiveness to farmers, and as a result, many farmers are leaving their projects behind. Once intervention in a community ends, farmers often resort to their old practices of farming and production that are more inefficient, wasting millions of US aid dollars as well as the time of agencies, volunteers, and various other actors who worked to put farmers on the right track in the first place. Feed the Future's goals to reduce world hunger through local farmers become short-lived. This is not a new problem for aid and development work—especially for Western programs—as larger nations tend to come into rural areas and take over without involving the community as decision makers or actors beyond the “labor-aspect” of the project. Unless Haitian farmers are involved as more than just passive actors, Feed the Future will have no lasting impact on food insecurity.
Similarly, farming is now competing with urban economic opportunities for labor in Haiti, and as urban opportunities are more competitive, machinery and technology are needed to solve some of the agricultural labor issues. The United States has distributed tractors to various Haitian farmer associations to make the farming sectors more competitive, but because the farmers find it difficult to purchase parts from the United States to keep the tractors running, the tractors go unused—yet a similar way Feed the Future is not being responsive to farmers' needs and is poorly implemented.
Another way that Feed the Future needs revaluation is in its promotion of unsustainable commercialized agricultural practices. Success in ending global hunger and achieving food security is just as much (if not more) about the model of agriculture promoted and the paradigm of agrarian change as it is the implementation of the policy. If the agricultural model presented is unsustainable, then the temporary food insecurity relief will soon be ripe with new problems. In an article for The New York Times, author Mark Bittman writes, “'Feeding the world' might as well be a marketing slogan for Big Ag, a euphemism for ‘Let's ramp up sales,' as if producing more cars would guarantee that everyone had one.”
While Feed the Future has made strides to put a dent in global food insecurity, many of the practices it promotes in developing nations are unsustainable, mimicking the big agriculture mindset and commercialized farming model instead of sustainable farming principles that are diversified and long-lasting. On the USDA's website, it references new research initiatives for wheat and legumes under Feed the Future that are clearly initiatives for genetically engineered inputs. While the nature of GMOs' may be controversial, it does not change the fact that numerous studies, like the one conducted in part by the Norwegian University of Life sciences, have said that the environmental costs of using GMOs are high. From issues of toxicity with the major use of pesticides to issues of biodiversity, the future of GMOs is uncertain. But by forgoing diversifying crops, mixing plants and animals, and replenishing the ecosystem with trees and cover crops in order to produce huge mono-crops, small landholders in developing countries will not be able to produce as many variety of foods for themselves and their families. A system where families are fed is promoted over one where families are nourished. To say nothing of the issue of rural farmers being dependent on Western corporations for their inputs when the whole goal of Feed the Future is to have independent farmers sustainably combating world hunger.
The approach that Feed the Future has taken in its member countries thus far has been one of commercial liberalization in order to enable farmers to become competitive producers in the world market. While commercial liberalization is one thing, is the emphasis on commercial farming justified? Returning to Bittman's earlier argument, the answer is no. According to the ETC Group, a research organization in Ottawa, the industrial food chain uses 70 percent of agricultural resources to provide 30 percent of the world's food, whereas what ETC calls “the peasant food web” produces the remaining 70 percent using only 30 percent of the resources. Not only is this environmentally unsustainable, but economically unsustainable as well. If Feed the Future is going to focus on agriculture as the primary means to revolutionize farmers' access to competitive markets and combat global food insecurity, then it must be revaluated to provide more sustainable farming methods.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Since the Obama administration's launch of Feed the Future, 19 target countries have improved nutritional status and agricultural growth and also narrowed gender gaps between male and female farmers. This policy has reshaped the United States' food aid approach in a variety of ways, its most notable being the way it targets the individual farmer to use agriculture to alleviate food insecurity. While Feed the Future has had a successful impact in many countries, there are two ways this policy fails and thus needs to be revaluated. One is in creating successful and lasting implementation among farmers and their communities. Because Western aid programs—Feed the Future not being much better—tend to come in and take over projects without involving community actors in the decision-making process, the community has little incentive to keep the project going once the donor nation leaves.
Feed the Future needs to become more responsive to farmers' needs, involving them in every step of intervention. There are numerous ways to do this, and the US government is already making steps towards one of them. In 2011, the Peace Corps signed onto the Feed the Future initiative, making strides towards sustainable community development. More volunteers are being sent to target countries and regions to gain grassroots knowledge of the communities where Feed the Future is implemented in order to lessen the gap between the farmer and lasting development. In order for Feed the Future to have a sustainable impact, there has to be more education and program implementation based on community-specific needs and not what donor nations (like the US) “thinks is best.” Otherwise there will be no bridge between the farmers the United States is trying to help and lasting community development, and food insecurity will not be alleviated in the slightest.
The second way Feed the Future fails is in its promotion of unsustainable industrialized agricultural practices like GM inputs, instead of fostering methods of agroecology—or at least sustainable farming methods. This is not another debate about organic versus industrialized. It's about promoting a system where small producers can make decisions based on their knowledge and experience of their farms as opposed to buying standardized and industrialized tricks in a bag. Peasant farming needs to strengthened, and Western monoculture needs to be minimized if developing farmers are going to increase the diversity of the food they produce and the nutrition their community consumes. Until these issues are revaluated and solved, Feed the Future will continue to be an insecure approach to achieving global food security.
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