Feed to lead

The Times’ editorial series on food diplomacy explores the possibility that the United States could improve its global image and enhance national security by launching “a high-profile food diplomacy initiative planned, funded and executed for the purpose of improving national security through humanitarian means.” So far the series has examined the political need for more effective food aid, the history of food diplomacy and the potential consequences of inaction.

What would such an initiative look like? We asked experts on food aid to sketch out a food diplomacy plan, and we’d like to know what your ideas are. Our comments are open for input, and you can email us at

The silver lining in the Midwest floods | Sowing for the future | Assist effectively to lead | Even al Qaeda supporters can be won over | We get more benefit from long-term programs

The silver lining in the Midwest floods
Josh Ruxin
July 2, 2008

Can Midwest flooding have a global impact? Watching the news and checking on analysts’ websites offers a quick answer. The cresting Mississippi flooded farms throughout Iowa, Illinois and Missouri: the heartland of American corn production. Right now, a significant portion of the U.S. corn crop is failing, and while that is terrible news for farmers and U.S. consumers, it could actually be good news, especially for the world’s poorest.

A generation ago, American corn fed the world and pushed other nations to expand productivity and thereby lower the cost to low-income consumers. It also interrupted local market mechanisms by providing subsidized corn meal and oil in countries that could have produced it on their own. Now, much of American corn is genetically modified and increasingly earmarked for uses that include plastics and, of course, fuels (more than 25% was used last year for ethanol production; this year, the number could go higher). What’s left provides grain for food and animal feeds. It’s more profitable for farmers to grow corn for fuel and plastic, and if current trends continue, less and less of America’s crop will be available for human consumption. In addition, the failure of corn crops has also caused several U.S. ethanol plants to go offline in recent weeks — there simply isn’t enough corn to go around.

Dwindling supplies and rising costs don’t help the urban poor of the world’s developing nations. From Calcutta to the Caribbean, poorly paid factory workers and day laborers find themselves unable to afford the rising cost of food. Their salaries remain depressed while their food bills have come to dominate their expenditures. Prices for basic staples such as sugar and flour have risen from 60% to 200%. Price spikes like that cause tempers to flare: For the first time in recent memory there have been food riots around the globe. Just a decade ago, green revolution interventions seemed destined to ensure something closer to dining hall food fights — the ultimate expression of inexpensive food — rather than hundreds of millions living on the edge of hunger. In that context, these floods provide a potent demonstration of just how interconnected people and economies have become. Even more, they point the way to new opportunities for local agriculture.

The world’s poorest farmers may benefit from the food shortage by opening the door to local markets that did not exist a few months ago. Here in Rwanda, where most people survive on less than a dollar per day, the poorest farmers are relatively unaffected by the twin crises of rising food and fuel prices. These farmers grow their subsistence crops without costly petroleum-based inputs such as herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers (which have risen in price by as much as 235%). As such, they are insulated from the rising costs with which American farmers must contend.

Further, using natural and locally available alternatives allows poor farmers to farm organically. This is important when you consider that organic and niche agriculture is a growth sector here in Rwanda. A new organic pomegranate cooperative in Rwanda has begun growing chilies and chickpeas, sought-after, high-value crops on international markets.

Rwanda’s subsistence farmers don’t have to move their food very far to get it to market, so fuel inputs are less important. Rather than shipping their maize around the world as U.S. farmers have done in the past, they need only move their crops a few miles to reach customers, providing a lower-cost alternative to the food available from the global market.

The current rise in fuel and food prices will continue, no doubt influenced by the terrible floods we’ve witnessed. This is already jolting many nations out of a complacency resulting from years of dependence on cheap American imports. It is remarkable that a local agriculture renaissance, providing cheaper alternatives to imported foods while enriching local farmers, has resulted from the food and fuel crisis. The possibility that it could also help drive local economies is nothing short of miraculous, but it is at hand.

Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and other nations with transparency, low levels of corruption, and a modern approach to agriculture that’s free from backward-glancing policies such as subsidies and tariffs, are ready to serve as examples. They can show their neighbors in Africa how to go forward without U.S. food imports and build not only self sufficiency, but prosperity as well.

Josh Ruxin, assistant clinical professor of public health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, is director of the Access Project, a public health initiative in Rwanda.

Sowing for the future
Kofi A. Annan and John J. Danilovich
June 25, 2008

World leaders gathered earlier this month in Rome to discuss the global food crisis, rightly focusing on going beyond addressing the immediate needs of the world’s hungry to promoting sustainable, country-sourced strategies for food security and agricultural development.

While emergency food relief to alleviate hunger needs urgent attention, it should not be confused with a sustainable solution. Today’s crisis demonstrates that you cannot reap what you have neglected to sow. Rather than making investments for long-term productivity and sustainability, agriculture has gone largely ignored in most poor countries for far too long.

As a result, the world’s poor are facing an incredible hardship. The alarming doubling of food prices in just the last three years has precipitated food riots and instability in more than a dozen countries, and remains a serious concern in others. The situation is especially acute in Africa, where food production per capita continues to decline and poverty remains entrenched. The food crisis is a clear call to action.

In poor countries severely hamstrung by insufficient resources, this requires creative solutions to develop their agriculture sectors. Three out of every four of the world’s poor live in rural areas, so a viable agriculture sector is their surest pathway to effective livelihoods and to improved food security in urban areas as well. We believe this involves four key ingredients.

Sustainable agricultural development starts with a country’s own vision for change. From the outset, developing countries need to articulate a homegrown strategy for development, forged from the political will to transform the lives of their rural and urban poor. Committed to revitalizing African agriculture, African countries have already taken ownership of this challenge and charted the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program under the auspices of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. National governments have set goals to improve their agricultural production, food security, and trade balance, which they are striving to meet.

Countries need to create environments that enable growth. This means investing in people and infrastructure, spurring innovation and entrepreneurship, and facilitating trade and investment. For agricultural development, this means land and policy reforms, agricultural research, education and training, stronger agricultural extensions systems, efficient public service delivery and access to credit for agricultural producers. Special attention must be paid to women, who make up the majority of farmers throughout Africa and in many other parts of the developing world.

Countries on this path need the constructive help of partners. Whether country-to-country, donor-to-country, or public-to-private, more can be accomplished working collaboratively than alone. For example, both the U.S. Government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa are among the largest investors in Africa’s agricultural and rural sectors. Consider that more than half of MCC’s program budget is invested in agricultural development, amounting to $1.7 billion in just Africa alone.

Nevertheless, our resources are dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem. By teaming up, MCC and AGRA are maximizing funding and leveraging resources to achieve greater results. We are supporting African partner countries in their efforts to plan, coordinate, and implement programs to stimulate agricultural and food-system productivity.

A comprehensive package of agricultural investments can alleviate bottlenecks throughout the entire agricultural supply chain. Through national efforts and expanding partnerships, further investments can be made in new or improved crop varieties, appropriate fertilizers, farming practices, and soil health — all without environmental harm or biodiversity loss. Basic infrastructure — irrigation and water systems, utilities, storage facilities, and farm-to-market roads — is also essential for growth. Eliminating bottlenecks in these ways increases agricultural productivity and supports food-system development, bringing a sustainable balance to food supply and prices for the long term.

Together, these ingredients create a strong foundation for lasting agricultural economic growth by increasing food availability, creating jobs, and generating income for the rural poor. Urbanites also benefit by having reliable access to affordable food supplies. Now is the time for partners and donors, large and small, to partner with the public and private sectors in Africa to ensure that the poor can enjoy the comfortable shade of agricultural progress from the seeds we sow today. Such practical steps could have helped avert the current food crisis, and offer a plan of action to avoid recurrent food crises.

Kofi Annan is chairman of The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. John J. Danilovich is chief executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Corporation and a former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica and Brazil.

Assist effectively to lead
Lael Brainard and Noam Unger
June 16, 2008

In the face of what may be the biggest setback to food security and thereby to global development in recent history, America’s weak and fragmented foreign assistance infrastructure is not up to the task of responding effectively. With food security — a foundational component of development — taking a major hit in low-income countries worldwide, the U.S. should be at the forefront of the response effort in terms of short-term relief and longer-term investments in agricultural productivity.

The response must be broad in scope, helping to address issues stemming from the impact of bio-fuel and land-use policies to climate change to the rising middle class in Asia that is demanding higher-input foods. On global development matters the U.S. has historically shown leadership in confronting problems, but we are unprepared to meet the new challenges posed by the 21st century. In particular, with 50 separate government units sharing responsibility for aid planning and delivery in the executive branch, and with a morass of 50 objectives ranging from narcotics eradication to biodiversity preservation, our aid system suffers from untenable levels of incoherence and fragmentation that undercut our efforts to lead abroad.

To address the global food crisis strategically and systemically requires a long-term perspective in conjunction with appropriate levels of professional technical capacity, but the U.S. government lacks an agency with the clout to make such investments. The 2006 bipartisan Task Force on Transforming Foreign Assistance in the 21st Century, a study led by the Brookings Institution, found that America’s aspirations and aid dollars will continue to exceed our impact on the ground unless and until we refocus our foreign assistance strategy, modernize our aid infrastructure, and build our operational civilian capabilities.

Large-scale humanitarian efforts and the demands of post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a faster rate of expansion of foreign aid dollars in the last seven years than at any point since the Cold War. But instead of truly modernizing our Cold War era aid apparatus, the Bush Administration has responded to each new global challenge by creating new ad hoc institutional arrangements alongside the old ones, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the President’s Malaria Initiative, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and a new foreign assistance office at the State Department. Meanwhile, by default rather than design, our over-burdened Defense Department is taking on a growing role, now accounting for one-fifth of U.S. Official Development Assistance.

The incoming administration that will inherit the full political and social impacts of the present food crisis should take a different approach. In creating a Department of Global Development our government could fundamentally overhaul our outdated system. Elevating development to independent Cabinet-level status alongside diplomacy and defense would provide this critical mission with the unified voice of a high-level official who would have the ownership and accountability to devise and implement coherent strategies. This would not only boost U.S. standing in the world in terms of its symbolic value, but it would also be the best way to insure against the subordination of long-term investments in democratization, development and poverty alleviation to short-term political objectives.

As favorable opinions of the U.S. have suffered in recent years — an issue reflected in commentary on these pages — we must refashion the image we present to the world by retooling the way we seek to influence it. Our consciences, our hearts, and our faith demand that we tackle deprivation because it is the right thing to do. But our assistance does more than help the poor gain access to shelter, medicine, sustenance, education, and opportunity, and it certainly does more than make Americans feel good: it also makes the world feel good about America. When the United States leads in helping lift the lives of the poor, we enhance our own influence and authority in the world community — building support for U.S. interests in other areas.

Lael Brainard is vice president and director of Brookings Global Economy and Development program. She also holds the Bernard L. Schwartz Chair in International Economics at Brookings. Noam Unger is Senior Manager of the Foreign Aid Reform Project at Brookings.

Even al Qaeda supporters can be won over
Ken Ballen
June 11, 2008

The relationship of American national security to popular support for terrorists and views of the United States is the key to our future national security. A new study just released by the Rand Corporation and funded by the U.S. Department of Defense agrees. Rand finds that the success of both al Qaeda and the Taliban in re-establishing themselves in Pakistan is in large measure dependent on their popular support.

More than just in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Rand study also found that governments with high levels of popularity were successful in defeating insurgencies, while unpopular governments lost most of the time.

Not only is the popular support of al Qaeda and the Taliban fueled in part by anti-American sentiments, the ability of the Pakistani government to cooperate with the United States against these groups is constrained by widespread anti-American feelings among the people of Pakistan. The Pakistani government’s effectiveness against al Qaeda and the Taliban would unquestionably be strengthened if the staunchly anti-American views inside Pakistan could be lessened.

In two recent nationwide surveys of Pakistan, we found that more than six out of every ten Pakistanis — even those who have a favorable view toward Bin Laden and al Qaeda — said their opinion of the United States would significantly improve if the U.S. increased educational, medical and humanitarian aid to Pakistanis, as well as the number of visas to work or study in the U.S.

The fact that a mere 10% of al Qaeda and Bin Laden supporters would not change their view with new American humanitarian policies shows both the softness of support for al Qaeda and the power that direct American aid to ordinary Pakistanis has to fundamentally change perceptions.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, the Indonesian government, buoyed by popular support, is now winning decisively against the terrorists — with important assistance from the United States. There are a number of factors responsible, from public revulsion over innocent civilian deaths to increased democratic participation. But the change in public opinion toward the U.S. among Indonesians after American tsunami aid — a change we have documented has been largely sustained — has given the Indonesian government the necessary space to cooperate successfully with the U.S. in shutting down the terrorists.

The Pew data, similar to what we found, only asked overall opinions, reflecting the pervasive and deep unpopularity of the U.S. war on terror throughout the Muslim world. The point is that our questions went further and also uncovered an equally profound ability of direct American humanitarian aid to change perceptions over a sustained period of time.

Terror Free Tomorrow, the non-profit polling organization I lead, has conducted some 30 nationwide public opinion surveys over the past four years in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere.

What our surveys uncovered is that the U.S. would witness dramatic improvements in the view of the United States among the overwhelming majority of Muslims, including those who express support for al Qaeda and Bin Laden, if we demonstrate respect and caring for people in their daily lives through practical, relatively achievable steps — such as increasing direct humanitarian assistance (medical, education, food), visas and better trade terms.

And change in perceptions can make a very real difference in combating terrorists and insurgents on the ground — as Rand and the Department of Defense have also concluded.

Ken Ballen is the president of Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion.

We get more benefit from long-term programs
Mauro De Lorenzo
June 9, 2008

Feeding the hungry is the archetype of humanitarian action, and the United States is the world’s largest supplier of food aid. But you would never know by reading the polls. The main riddle of U.S. public diplomacy is why we derive so little political benefit from our humanitarian efforts abroad. Indeed, we sometimes feel disliked by our allies and clients almost as much as by our enemies.

In Latin America or Africa, this is exasperating. In Muslim countries, however, the failure goes to the heart of our central national security challenge. We are missing an opportunity in the current global food crisis to “win friends and confound enemies”. We should give more food and be less shy about taking credit for our generosity.

Two images make the case: The success of American disaster relief in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami and in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and the idea that the popularity of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood is built on their efficient welfare programs.

There is truth in both images, but I think they should lead us to different conclusions.

One-off humanitarian efforts, no matter how well-marketed, will not lead to durable gains in favorability for the United States. The data from the multi-year Pew Global Attitudes Survey paint a much more ambiguous picture than the Terror Free Tomorrow poll that the L.A. Times editorial on food diplomacy cites. In Pakistan, for example, favorable views of the United States rose from 23% in 2005 to 27% in 2006, when memory of the U.S. earthquake response was fresh, but then collapsed to 15% in 2007. Indonesia recorded a 38% favorability share in 2005 after Navy ships became the symbol of rescue for the people of Aceh, but fell to 30% in 2006 and 29% in 2007.

This is not a failure of marketing, though we could certainly do that better. It is psychology. What is salient and remembered is what just happened. That is the difference between our crisis-based aid tools, and the private welfare programs that undergird the political power of Islamist parties like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Our efforts are a bright starburst that rapidly fades; their programs are sustained year-after-year, built into the social fabric of neighborhoods and villages.

Islamist parties derive political benefits from their aid programs because families are dependent on them, and there are no alternatives. The U.S. derives few benefits because our efforts are “gifts” that may or may not be repeated.

With this understanding, I think there are many targeted efforts the United States could undertake using food, health care, and plain old cash to weaken the power of Islamist social welfare networks. We can attempt to disrupt them, but we can also inundate them with competition, giving citizens more choices. The right measure of success is a slackening in support for Islamists, not an increase in support for the United States.

But here is the deeper question: What relationship is there, if any, between favorability polls and U.S. national security? The U.S. has low favorability ratings among the populations of allies, such as Germany, France, Turkey, or South Korea, none of which are seen as security threats. And the increased U.S. favorability in Pakistan in 2005-6 did not translate into gains against Al-Qaeda in the Tribal Areas.

If we measure our national security by asking how much people like us, and build our policy around getting those numbers up, are we missing the point? Are we safer?

Mauro De Lorenzo is a resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, specializing in foreign and defense policy studies.

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