U.S. International Development Plans Hurting Feed the Future's Policy Initiatives

At the Feed the Future Research Forum in June, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah urged over 300 researchers and government officials to develop a few big breakthrough ideas that could anchor the Feed the Future initiative. Shah, without a doubt, wants to make Feed the Future the signature program of his agency, especially given that the 2008 global food crisis has brought food security back into the spotlight.

Yet Shah’s suggestion, if ambitious, was misguided. To my ears, “big ideas” translates to highly technical solutions that divorce food production from both local people and the environment. After hearing Shah’s speech, I remembered that the Green Revolution’s packaging of crop technologies — high-yielding varieties, fertilizers, and irrigation — proved to be inequitable in India. Only the largest farmers and those with access to irrigation were allowed access to the Green Revolution technologies, while the smallest farmers were left behind.

Thus, I worry that Feed the Future — which is focused primarily on sub-Saharan Africa — may contribute to similarly unjust outcomes in Africa if the initiative embraces highly technological approaches. Shah may be overemphasizing “big ideas” at the expense of a focus on local contexts. For example, the development of crop varieties aimed at a particular stress, be it drought, flood, or heat, doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of hungry people, because those crops may not be adaptable to certain environments. Shah’s rhetoric is rooted in the constraints under which USAID operates: Its need to produce short-term results, and its inclusion of U.S. agribusiness as one of the beneficiaries of international development policy.

This raises two key questions that will ultimately determine the success of Feed the Future: How can the incentive structures operating within the United States government become more closely aligned with the interests of the world’s poorest? Can USAID’s focus on producing short-term results be reconciled with their intended beneficiaries’ need for environmentally sustainable and socially equitable agricultural systems?

Those questions point towards the need for a focus on food systems centered around nutritional objectives, rural livelihoods, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. Indeed, concern about the multi-functionality of agriculture was precisely emphasized by the International Assessment of Agriculture Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) — considered to be the most comprehensive review of the current global agriculture situation. 

The U.S.government’s refusal to endorse IAASTD raises serious questions about Washington’s approach to tackling food insecurity. I suspect that this refusal is based on the reality that the strategies embraced by IAASTD may pose a threat to U.S. economic interests, namely the large seed and agrochemical companies that U.S. government believes should be beneficiaries of U.S. international development policies.

Let me be clear, I am not calling into question USAID’s commitment to addressing world hunger. The people working on Feed the Future are as devoted to ending hunger as USAID’s critics are. Rather, our food aid efforts have an institutional problem concerning incentive structures, and we must meet the challenge of aligning U.S. international development policy with the needs of rural communities in developing countries.

These are two tremendously complex issues whose solutions lie beyond any one individual’s, even Administrator Shah’s, control. However, they are critical to the U.S. role in global food security.

Photo Credit: eutrophication&hypoxia