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Obama's Food Security Initiative in Africa

Interviewee: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Stephanie Hanson, Associate Director and Coordinating Editor, CFR.org
August 12, 2009

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At the G8 Summit in July, President Barack Obama  announced a multibillion dollar initiative to assist with agriculture development and food security in Africa. CFR Senior Fellow Laurie A. Garrett says that it's not clear if or when Congress will appropriate funding for the initiative, given all its other legislative priorities, including health care reform. She does believe, however, that the initiative's promise to end tied food aid, the practice of exporting U.S. food to developing countries for aid instead of buying food on local markets, is possible in the current political climate. Many details of the new policy have yet to emerge, but Garrett recommends that it focus on how to assist women because they are responsible for doing most of the agriculture work in Africa. "Men do not see dignity in agricultural work because it's women's work, and therefore the whole notion of large-scale loans to big farm operations, akin to how we have brought cost efficiency to farming in America, is a very tough sell," she says.

The United States promised $3.5 billion for agriculture development at the recent G8 Summit. Where do you think this money is going to come from?

It's not clear, because so far Congress has shown no appetite for appropriating that money. The president made a promise but it would be most embarrassing if he would be unable to keep the promise. Congress has so much on its plate, they're desperate to get rid of  health reform and all of the financial crisis voting and get that out of the way. This is something so trivial on that radar screen, I don't even know when it might come out of  a committee for a formal vote, unless somebody simply tags it on to a larger bill.

A cornerstone of the G8 agreement is ending tied food aid. This is something that you've written about in depth. Do you think that ending this policy is politically viable?

"[I]t's not just farmers that are involved in tied aid, it's U.S. transport mechanisms. That's really where the major cost is in terms of U.S. taxpayer dollars that people think are getting to poor people in foreign countries."

Two years ago I would have said it was hopeless, because the farm state vote was so locked against any notion of untying food aid. But once [Sen.] Richard Lugar [R-IN]--who is one of the bravest politicians on the planet--started to become a real voice for reform of how we do foreign assistance and in particular why we should stop dumping U.S. agricultural products on the marketplaces of poor countries, once he stepped up to the plate hope began to emerge. Lugar's leadership on this issue has been fundamental, absolutely critical, and it has changed the whole ball game. Farmers are not having trouble selling their products, [except for] certain products like dairy, but that's not affected in any way by what we're dealing with here. In general, farmers are not having a hard time selling their grain; the problem has been finding ways to get the transport industry out of the picture. It's not just farmers that are involved in tied aid, it's U.S. transport mechanisms. That's really where the major cost is in terms of U.S. taxpayer dollars that people think are getting to poor people in foreign countries. But actually [this money is] getting into the hands of very large American companies using the farm aid tie to basically bill the American people for the cost of shipping U.S. corn, and wheat, and rice, and so on, overseas.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Kenya talking up this new agriculture development initiative and he's focusing a lot on how the United States can provide technical assistance to help African agriculture development. Part of this, it's been said, would be partnering with organizations in Africa, some of which seem to have very little capacity actually. How do you see this proposal working on the ground?

It's no surprise that the countries that have the hardest time producing enough food to feed not only their own but also to become a source of export revenue are countries where farm work is traditionally women's work. Therefore it is undervalued, it is treated as lowly beast of burden work, and most of the women are doing this work using tools that our ancestors used a million years ago, or at least many hundreds of thousands of years ago, such as a tiny handheld hoe or small handheld ploughs. In Africa, having a beast of burden (as might be the case for her counterpart in Southeast Asia), an oxen, or some kind of animal to help, is not even available. The women are the beasts of burden themselves. So part of the problem in developing the agricultural sector in Africa in almost every single African culture is dealing with the fact that you're going to, first of all, disemploy women in the process. Secondly, men do not see dignity in agricultural work because it's women's work, and therefore the whole notion of large-scale loans to big farm operations, akin to how we have brought cost efficiency to farming in America, is a very tough sell. You will see isolated cases all over Africa of men who have caught on and recognized the profits inherent in say a giant coffee plantation, the type of operation akin to what the colonial folks had a hundred years ago in the same place; but this is not food. This is entirely production for export. What you don't see are efficient, large-scale methods of raising food.

We still have relatively few details about this initiative at this point, so if you were to advise the shaping of the details of the policy, what are one or two things that you would insist upon including?

The most fundamental thing you have to deal with is that it's women's work. Instead of doing a model that will end up disemploying and disenfranchising women even further, getting them even further away from having any cash in their pockets, and sort of seeking to cultivate men in a new kind of business model. The real cue is to try to figure out ways to bring women into the profit model and to reinforce [agriculture] as women's work but women's work with real money, where women are valued and where they earn real livings and they build real businesses. If that's possible, then I think we're on the road here to not only solving the agricultural problem but also these huge gender inequity issues that are driving the HIV/AIDS pandemic, child and maternal mortality problems, and basically are fundamental to the exploitation of women all over the world.

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