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A Sea Change in Food Aid?

World leaders are promising radical changes for food aid to the poorest countries. But can they deliver?

Every so often, the world's leaders come together to talk about the scourge of hunger. In 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously told the World Food Congress: "We have the means, we have the capacity, to wipe hunger and poverty from the face of the Earth in our lifetime. We need only the will." Since 2000, the U.N's Millennium Development Goals have called for the world to halve the proportion of people suffering from hunger by 2015. Other forums have birthed equally ambitious targets.

Yet, in the rarified world of high-level meetings, hunger fades in and out of focus. Most of the time the issue gets lost in a haze of a thousand intractable problems, even as the tragedy of hunger remains a daily reality for hundreds of millions. It's not that we don't produce enough food -- the world's farmers produce around 2,800 calories per person per day. But in this age of food abundance, and in spite of an abundance of lofty political promises, more than one billion people are now chronically hungry.

At the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, leaders again met to strike out this blight. They made two big pledges. First, they promised $20 billion for global agricultural development and hunger alleviation. Second, more importantly, they proposed a long-overdue change in focus from short-term food aid and disaster relief to a more comprehensive and long-term approach.

It is easy to be cynical about these new commitments. But the G-8's summit statement on food security provides some real cause for optimism. It promises substantially more than an uncritical rehashing of failed efforts from the past. If implemented properly, the G-8's pledge could well represent a sea change in food aid and, ultimately, human development.

There are problems with the G-8 statement, certainly, many of them having to do with the $20 billion figure. It is an impressive amount on its face, but spread over three years, it amount to a less impressive-sounding $6.7 billion a year. Weighed against the trillions poured into fiscal stimulus and the propping up of failing banks, it loses even more luster.

Additionally, thanks to the statement's opacity, it is unclear whether the $20 billion represents a rededication of existing funds or a new injection of additional cash. Foreign aid for agricultural development currently stands at $5 billion a year (an inflation-adjusted drop of 75 percent since the 1980s). If the G-8 pledge adds an additional $6.7 billion, the change is massive. But it if simply adds $1.7 billion to raise it to $6.7 billion, we should not expect significant policy changes.

Finally, there is the serious question of whether this pledged money will ever be disbursed. The countries that support this pledge -- the G-8 countries plus Brazil, Spain, and a handful of others -- face significant pressures to focus on domestic economic affairs. And some members of the G-8 have a shaky record on follow-through even in the flushest of years.

These are very real concerns. But still, the G-8 statement, in moving away from the status quo policy solutions which have failed for decades, holds the promise of transformative change.

This is because the G-8 announcement shifts away from the same three hackneyed funding points that have defined food aid for the last 40 years: the need for food and short-term financial aid to stem acute hunger; the need for investment in and deployment of high technology to boost crop yields; and the need for freer markets.

For too long, international food aid has focused too intently on emergency aid, which, while essential in times of crisis, does nothing to address chronic malnourishment. Rather, emergency food aid has served as a massive boon for rich-country agricultural interests. Subsidized food from rich countries heads to poor nations under the guise of largesse. It alleviates short-term suffering but floods the region with cheap staples which hurt local farmers. The G-8 pledge plans to devote more money to things like loans for farming equipment and drought insurance, though details remain few and far between. Still, the pledge suggests a welcome change of heart -- particularly from the United States, once the worst offender.

Another promising departure is a shift in focus on the principal aims of agricultural development. Hunger has been treated in recent years as a mostly technical problem, with higher crop yields the ultimate goal. But, as Amartya Sen and others have noted for two decades, hunger stems not from lack of food, but from a lack of access to food. Too strict a focus on the technical goal of higher yields has meant a tragic neglect of hunger's social, economic, and political roots.

The G-8 announcement finally appears to take this insight seriously. It stresses the need for agricultural planning not by international agencies, but by individual countries and producers. It focuses on governance and the protection of farmers. Most importantly, the G-8 statement recognizes that poor countries and poor people are best served when they develop the capacity to grow their own food. Crop yields matter, but sensible production and distribution systems matter more.

Finally, in recent years, too many international development efforts have adhered slavishly to a hypocritical form of market fundamentalism: Rich countries push for the opening of poor-country markets to their inputs and products, while they institute wide-ranging protections for their own agricultural sectors.

The United States and the European Union have been the chief architects of this shell game, via disastrous agricultural subsidies and tariffs. This hypocrisy has devastated agriculture throughout the developing world. It recently caused the collapse of the latest iteration of the Doha trade talks. By calling in the G-8 statement for a swift resumption of those discussions, perhaps rich-country leaders are finally signaling that those subsidy programs will be revisited.

There are no guarantees that the G-8's efforts will succeed where so many others have failed. But in its best possible reading, the G-8 pledge indicates the beginnings of a welcome set of revisions to the pursuit of agricultural development. Such a change is essential, and long past due.

MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images

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