Helping Africa Grow Its Own Food: A Declining Effort

Famines like Somalia's might be a thing of the past if farmers in the Horn of Africa could grow enough crops to protect against hunger. Making that possible would require a number of things, including international development aid to small farmers, but that's been in decline over the past 25 years. Guest host John Ydstie talks to author and Harvard Professor Robert Paarlberg about U.S. investment in farm development in Africa.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host: While food aid can fill bellies and save lives, it doesn't protect against future famines. What if farmers in the Horn of Africa could grow enough crops to protect against hunger tomorrow? Making that possible would require a number of things, including international development aid to small farmers, but that's been in decline over the past 25 years. Robert Paarlberg is a professor at Wellesley College and at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of the book "Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know." He joins us from Korea, Maine. Welcome to the program, Professor Paarlberg.

ROBERT PAARLBERG: It's a pleasure to be talking to you.

YDSTIE: When you testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about alleviating global hunger back in 2009, you said the U.S. government deserves a near-failing grade. Is that still the case?

PAARLBERG: U.S. assistance to small farmers in Africa had declined by 85 percent at a time when the number of hungry people in Africa was doubling. In FY11, we were expected to give $400 million to a new global agriculture and food security fund. That was cut to only $100 million. And now a House appropriations subcommittee has just cut the Obama administration's Feed the Future program by 18 percent.

YDSTIE: Even if we did increase aid to farmers in developing countries, aren't there other reasons beyond development for Africa's food production problems? I mean, there's conflict all over the continent, there are corrupt governments, bad weather, bad markets.

PAARLBERG: There are many countries in Africa that haven't seen any military conflict, that don't have corrupt governments, where there haven't been cycles of devastating drought, and the productivity of their farmers remains very low - below a dollar a day - and they would be making more money if the productivity were higher. But it won't be until they get access to the same things that farmers around the rest of the world have used, and that includes fertilizer, improved seeds, irrigation, basic infrastructure. I mean, part of the problem in rural Africa is that most African farmers are physically cut off from markets. Seventy percent of all people in the countryside in Africa live more than two kilometers - that's a 30-minute walk - from the nearest paved road. So, their marketing costs are so high they don't have any incentive really to invest in more productive methods.

YDSTIE: When it comes to Somalia, how can we talk about investing in agricultural development there when parts of the country are ruled by al-Shabaab?

PAARLBERG: Well, you can't start with agricultural development investments in Somalia. There's no rule of law. There's no government that you can work with. You first have to get through the short-term emergency before you can make the longer-term investments in a country like Somalia.

YDSTIE: Professor Paarlberg, if you were in charge of the purse strings, what specific kind of thing would you do right away right now in Africa?

PAARLBERG: Well, I would do two things at once: I would increase U.S. assistance to support humanitarian relief on an emergency basis in the Horn of Africa. And if the U.S. takes the lead, other rich countries will follow. The second thing I would do is fulfill the promises that were made by the United States government in 2009 at the G-8 summit in Italy. I would increase from $100 million up to $400 million a year the U.S. contribution to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Fund managed by the World Bank. And then, more important than all of that, when it comes to agriculture development assistance, I would make sure that the assistance continues. It's not the total dollar amount that matters; it's the continuity of support for governments in Africa. If they know that there will be international support over the next 10 years for investments in roads, irrigation, fertilizer, rural schools and rural clinics, they will put their own resources into those efforts and we'll finally see a transformation in the African countryside.

YDSTIE: Professor Robert Paarlberg, thanks so much for being with us.

PAARLBERG: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

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YDSTIE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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