28 May 2010

Feeding the Future, Digesting the Past

Last week USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah launched the Feed the Future initiative.

The website says:

"Feed the Future (FTF), the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, renews our commitment to invest in sustainably reducing hunger and poverty. President Obama's pledge of at least $3.5 billion for agricultural development and food security over three years helped to leverage and align more than $18.5 billion from other donors in support of a common approach to achieve sustainable food security. This common approach builds upon the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action – agreements that embody the international commitment to increase efforts in harmonization, alignment, and managing aid for results."

So, what's new?

In Shah's speech (in which he highlights malnutrition much more highly than the website does) we get some clues

* 4 Principles: (1) country owned and country led plans, (2) increase agricultural business investments, (3) more creative partnerships with large scale food buyers, and (4) use of regional investments to implement regional trade and investment corridors.

* A serious commitment to "focusing on women in everything we do", including a focus on nutrition in the first 1000 days of a child's life (see earlier blog on Hillary Clinton's speech)

* prospective evaluations, i.e. doing baselines at the start "with a focus on measuring women's incomes, rates of child malnutrition and agricultural production".

This sounds promising, but the devil is all in the details of course.

The Administration needs to learn from history, recent and distant.


On country owned and country led, we know from the PRSP experience that the donor reporting timelines do not often coincide with the real time it takes for this kind of national ownership to bed down beyond high level office holders

On getting agriculture and nutrition to work together, we know this will take strong leadership and deliberate incentives and is not a natural fit

On prioritising women, great, but make it something that women can say no to, avoid generating responsibility without authority and be mindful of burdens that women might take on and the unintended consequences that may follow (e.g. violence against women)

On private sector involvement, this will work best if there are citizen-engaged institutions that help shape and assess that involvement

On assessing efforts, great, but in reality, baselines are not terribly well incentivised and are often seen as a donor requirement rather than a way of learning how to improve. For more on these themes, see the excellent Future Agricultures Consortium for more on these and related issues

What does distant histrory tell us?

A recent paper by Ha-Joon Chang on the lessons from the experiences of the now rich countries should be standard reading for the FTF team.

Some key observations from the paper:

* the history of agricultural policy in today's rich countries offers many lessons for how the state can intervene productively to boost agriculture today (state-funded agricultural research was heavily promoted in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the US in the mid to late 1800s; Japan and Sweden were pioneers in agricultural extension; state funded rural credit systems were developed in Norway, France and Denmark)

* Many of these historical interventions go beyond the standard stereotypical dichotomies of public sector=bad and private sector=good. It is the imaginative combinations of public and private that drove agricultural productivity in the now rich countries: there are few blue prints, the successful could develop context specific blends of institutional and policy innovations

* The now-rich countries shamelessly copied and learned from one another, always experimenting.

* National food security was a big motivator of this innovation. In a world of perfect markets, national food security would not depend so much on national food production, but many of the most food insecure countries today are poorly served by markets and have little room for error if markets, even when working well, generate fluctuations in prices.

I am hopeful about Feeding the Future, but only if it can learn by digesting the past.

No comments: