This is a good time to reassess Feed the Future. The Obama administration is winding down, and a new USAID administrator has just been confirmed. Presidential campaigns are revving up with foreign policy issues having a more prominent place. Advocates are strategizing on how best to continue U.S. leadership on food security into the next administration. Congress has been toying with authorizing bills to institutionalize the program, although action in 2016 will be difficult given a shortened legislative calendar around the electoral schedule. And, after 5 years, Feed the Future may be at a point at which a program-wide evaluation could offer improvements in approach and implementation.
Agriculture programs can take years to establish sustainability and improvements in productivity and nutrition. Related decreases in chronic hunger rates take time to trickle up for reliable country-level data. There are both missing data and lags of a couple of years where data is available. While FAO and EIU have issued annual reports this year noting that global hunger has decreased, we are as yet unable to attribute that success to Feed the Future, and in fact, most of those gains appear to be occurring in China and India.
However, many informed observers of U.S. food security efforts have noted gaps in both substance and process. Here are my ideas to refine, strengthen and re-energize.
Refine by Improving Transparency.
- Open up the Selection Process. Even though Feed the Future was clear at the outset on some broad criteria to be used to select their focus countries, the selection process was not transparently conducted by any measure. Example: we all know that Nicaragua was an initial focus country that was later dropped. We can assume to know why, but the deliberations around that decision (to select and then later to drop) were never made public.
- Make FtF Data Public. With all the hoopla on the transparency of U.S. aid funding on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, one would assume finding Feed the Future annual funding levels there would be quite easy. Go ahead and give it a shot. I will wait……Just not there, is it? We know that funding has averaged about $1billion per year, but it would be nice to have sector and country data in one easy to find place. (A new Congressional Research Service report provides useful funding data that came from CRS data requests to USAID.)
Strengthen Sustainability by Addressing Gaps.
- Identify Barriers to Private Investment. To its credit, Feed the Future has tried to incorporate public- private partnerships to a much greater degree than other U.S. aid programs. It could go much further and become a model for truly harnessing the power of private investment to motivate economic growth through the entire value chain. Business, both local and international, faces barriers to investment in the form of government policies, corruption, trade, food safety regulations, and infrastructure, to name a few of the more critical ones. These barriers need to be systematically identified in each FtF country, preferably through joint analytical teams, much like the Partnership for Growth process (an even more opaque Obama administration initiative). Results of this analysis (a sort of an Agriculture Doing Business index) should be incorporated into country strategies so that private companies can see and support the public sector’s commitment to improving the business environment.
- Build Trade Capacity. While there are some misguided calls by some developing country leaders for food independence, this is simply impossible. No country can grow all its food, largely because of differences in geography, seasons, soil types, etc. The goal must be to create productive food systems that ensure that all people have access to safe, affordable, and nutritious food from both domestic and international sources. This requires that global and regional trade systems work. It helps when trade agreements address agriculture issues. It also helps if countries are willing to harmonize food safety regulations and requirements and to address differences in attitudes toward certain types of agriculture inputs. More ideas can be found in the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Global Agricultural Development Initiative report.
- Build Human and Institutional Capacity. The thriving agriculture system of the United States was founded on public and private investments in education, research and extension. Today’s food insecure countries lack strong agriculture universities, scientists, extension agents, and research facilities. The international system of research centers – the Cooperative Group for International Agriculture Research, or CGIAR – does fantastic work, but it is not a substitute for the type of local research that responds to local needs. There needs to be a much stronger network of U.S. universities and CGIAR working in partnership with researchers in Africa and Asia, as noted in a recent op ed by Senator Lugar, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, and former USAID administrator Peter McPherson. And, we need to resuscitate U.S. aid programs that help educate agricultural scientists and build the capacity of universities in food insecure countries.
- Live up to Whole of Government Rhetoric. Feed the Future was hailed from the beginning as a whole of government effort that would tap into the full range of expertise across government agencies. This has been an uneven process and one that could get bumpier. At the very least, we need a whole of government food security budget so we know who is doing what. Then we need to better articulate which agencies are best suited for their areas of expertise and resource levels.
- Begin the Graduation Process. Some Feed the Future countries, especially those newly or soon to be middle incomers, should be able to sustain their agriculture sectors on their own, perhaps needing some simple technical assistance from the United States or innovative educational partnerships. An announcement of which countries should be able to graduate and a time table for doing so would re-energize the initiative. The criteria for graduation should be clear with the understanding that this is a graduation from Feed the Future and that it does not affect other types of U.S. assistance.
- Start a New Selection Process. Based on some of the recommendations made above, a new selection process should be transparent and based on joint analysis. Selecting new countries must go hand in hand with graduating. New countries should not be added until we have evidence that the program was able to successfully graduate some.
Dr. Connie Veillette is a Senior Fellow in global food security and aid effectiveness at The Lugar Center.