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.



The End of Karaoke Diplomacy?

The short, tragic history of ASEAN's silliest tradition.

The annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is held to coordinate action on such weighty topics as democracy, economic integration, and climate change. But since 1995, every diplomat worth his or her salt has known that the real reason everyone attends ASEAN is for the infamous skit in which the pan-Pacific power elite get to ham it up, summer-camp style. But don't think it's all fun and games. When national pride and diplomatic standing are at stake, skits are serious business. Here's a brief history of the tasteless tradition.

1995: The skit's origins are shrouded in mystery, but the earliest press reports come from 14 years ago in Brunei when the U.S. delegation, led by then Secretary of State Warren Christopher, sang a parody of "This Land Is Your Land" with the lyrics altered to "reflect Asia's political and economic peculiarities," according to Reuters. The event was closed to the press, but reporters caught a glimpse of Under Secretary of State Joan Spero on her way to the banquet "wearing a pink silk outfit and carrying a ukulele, and other U.S. officials wore grass skirts."

1997: Madeleine Albright made her debut at the ASEAN farewell dinner in Malaysia with "Don't Cry for Me, ASEANies," complete with a black dress and what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "blood-red" lipstick. "Some countries might sue me for libel," the U.S. secretary of state crooned. "In others I'd risk house arrest/But I confess to having said that/ASEAN men are Asia's sexiest!" Meanwhile, the Australians karaoked the Men at Work classic "Down Under," and the Burmese foreign minister performed a traditional dance with his wife and daughter. The Europeans -- seeming a bit out of their element -- stumbled through "Frère Jacques."

1998: Russia and the United States stole the show in the Philippines with a "West Side Story" spoof, reported the Associated Press (AP). Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov joined Albright in a duet (sample lyrics: "I just met a girl named Madeleine Albright/And suddenly I find, she thinks she'll change my mind/For free"), and members of both delegations appeared onstage dressed as the Jets and the Sharks. The Indians, meanwhile, attempted to downplay their country's recent nuclear tests. "Why such fuss over a few crackers in the Thar?/They weren't as loud as Nevada."

1999: Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura knocked 'em dead with a martial-arts display costarring two aides, reported the AP. The minister limped offstage faking pain when one aide kicked his boss in the shin. The Philippine and Thai ministers channeled Frank Sinatra with a rendition of "My Way." Russia performed alone with a "patriotic jingle." And though Albright was a no-show, she prerecorded an apology and had a male "clone" stand in for her. The cross-dressing clone, and six other U.S. officials, poked fun at host Singapore's draconian litter laws with a reworked "Home on the Range": "So we're meeting once more/Here in old Singapore/Where they said that I couldn't chew gum."

2000: European representatives riffed on Abba with "Knowing Me, Knowing EU," while Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer rocked out to "Mambo No. 5" in a hot-pink shirt and gave a not-so-subtle nod to Albright, reported AFP: "Downer ... had the assembled diplomats in stitches as he lewdly air-groped Albright ... singing, 'A little bit of Madeleine in my hand.'" Albright herself arrived in a tuxedo jacket and submitted her final performance as ASEAN's sweetheart with a rendition of American entertainer Bob Hope's "Thanks for the Memories."

2001: Jaswant Singh, external affairs minister of India, parodied the Eagles with "Hotel California," reported the Japan Economic Newswire: "There's plenty of room in the Hotel Aseana, but only for Korea-Japan-China." New U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a risqué ASEAN debut by teaming up with Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka for the country-western classic "El Paso." Vietnam vet Powell played a cowboy who falls in love -- and shared an onstage smooch -- with a Vietnamese woman played by Tanaka.

2002: Seeking to top his previous performance, which failed to go over too well with his wife, Powell went meta by spoofing himself and even brought U.S. President George W. Bush into the act by video. "Onstage in Brunei, Powell convened a mock staff meeting in which he shuns discussion of the Middle East and South Asia to talk about 'something even more important' -- the upcoming ASEAN dinner skit," the AFP reported. In the skit, Powell's wife appeared by telephone. "Do not embarrass the family again that way and definitely no rolling on the floor with any foreign ministers," she said. By video, Bush claimed the Russian delegation had been practicing their skit for the past 12 months, telling Powell, "I want you and your staff to be better than the Russians this year. Got it?"

2004: Powell raised the bar again by dressing up as a construction worker and performing "YMCA." Unfortunately for him, video of the performance leaked to the press, about which the retired general was said to be livid. Welcome to the YouTube era, Mr. Secretary.

2005: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov donned a Darth Vader suit and waved a plastic lightsaber in a fit of tackiness while singing to Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" in front of a map showing the United States as "East Asia." Then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick (filling in for his apparently skit-averse boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) chose the now-tired cowboy routine as his aides stood "stiffly by," reported AFP.

2006: Japanese Foreign Minister (and future Prime Minister) Taro Aso, broke out his Humphrey Bogart impression, the Chinese delegation formed a choir, and South Korea's then foreign minister Ban Ki-moon "strutted the stage in green sequins," according to the New York Times. Rice played a solemn Brahms piece, and the Canadians reenacted that year's Zinedine Zidane World Cup head butt during a mock ASEAN-Canada soccer match. To complement Aso's Bogart, the Japanese delegation arrived dressed as frogs, fish, Power Rangers, and "mutant lobsters."

2007: Aso returned as a samurai leading "a group exercise. As he gyrated on stage, ASEAN's name appeared on a huge screen in the backdrop," the AP reported. Lavrov lampooned ASEAN's image as a talking shop when his skit had him asking why it was necessary to fly halfway around the world for some "blah blah blah."

2008: Notorious killjoy Singapore cut out the skits at ASEAN amid suggestions, including by ASEAN's secretary-general, that the song-and-dance numbers were getting too competitive. Sadly, the world won't get to see if Hillary Clinton can top her predecessors.