Just two days after the FAO released its 2014 report, a bipartisan group of Members of Congress and U.S. Senators introduced legislation to authorize the U.S. government’s work in global food security begun by the Obama Administration.  The Feed the Future Initiative now partners with 19 countries where both some of the largest populations of hungry people live and whose governments have committed to addressing food security in their countries.  The effort also includes the private sector and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) working together to improve agriculture production, expand research, develop supply chains, improve nutrition, and develop trading corridors.  As a presidential initiative, the program risks coming to a close with the administration unless Congress authorizes it.  Introduction of legislation is exciting news for us at The Lugar Center, as a sustained commitment to global food security is not only one of our key issues areas at the Center, but one on which Senator Lugar, my colleagues and I led in our work at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

This week the World Food Prize and its Borlaug Dialogue take place in Des Moines, Iowa.  In addition to recognizing this year’s World Food Prize winner, Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, the event brings together smart and dedicated people – scientists, policymakers, farmers, businesses, nongovernmental organizations – from across the globe to share ideas, progress, and next steps on the common goal of sustainably feeding 9 billion people by 2050.

But I keep thinking about Niger. What is next for the people of this country in the midst of all of this positive progress on global food security?  In August, during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, The Lugar Center partnered with The German Marshall Fund to host a side event with Niger on food security.  In preparation for the event, I delved into the state of hunger in the country, its population demographics and political climate. I found some staggering statistics. 

Niger ranked dead last in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index for 2014 - 187 of 187 countries - with one of the highest population growth rates at 3.9 percent and the highest birth rate at 7.6 births per woman.  Home to 17.8 million people, nearly four million of whom are chronically hungry, its location in the Sahel region of West Africa makes it historically vulnerable to droughts and famines.  Hunger isn’t its only challenge.  Security continues to challenge Niger, land-locked in a pretty tough neighborhood in West Africa, bordering Libya to its east, Nigeria to its south – the region that’s home to the Boko Haram terrorist group -  and Mali, a country in conflict against al-Qaeda insurgents since January 2013 - to its west.  

Despite these significant hurdles, there are some incredibly positive prospects for Niger.  In 2008 the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) recognized Niger with funding through its Threshold program, enabling the country to support education for girls, anti-corruption programs and streamlining business creation.  Despite a coup that resulted in a temporary suspension of MCC’s program, the nation has rebounded to a democracy with free and fair elections, and under the leadership of President Mahamadou Issoufou, it is working to address its food security issues as well as other challenges. 

Following Senator Lugar’s introduction and President Issoufou’s speech about his food security program, 3N –Nigeriens Nourish Nigeriens, I led an expert roundtable about the program. Through 3N, Niger seeks to take full responsibility for feeding its own people, and one knowledgeable roundtable participant called 3N the best produced strategy and program in West Africa. It is truly  impressive that a country with so many challenges has elected leadership committed to democratic principles through free and fair elections and that President Issoufou and his High Commissioner for Food Security, Dr. Amadou Allahoury Diallo, have developed a comprehensive plan to feed Nigeriens and grow the country’s economy - and the hands-on commitment to see them through. 

But what’s next for Niger?  Feeding themselves is admirable goal, but other components are crucial for a country’s development – both in food security and overall economic opportunity.  Access to water, a private sector with access to thriving markets – both domestic and regional, an educated and trained workforce to name a few, are important next steps, but how will they get there? 

President Issoufou shared with us that he is working with the MCC on developing a compact that would help his country focus on these next steps.   MCC is willing to provide support for this effort, as Niger has met the agency’s strict requirements for eligibility in each of the past three years, and this partnership should proceed. 

It’s no secret that increasingly private sector investments are dwarfing all other aid flowing to developing countries. These investments can provide the vital link for building sustainable economies, and this could be the case for Niger as well. The private sector, beginning with the agriculture industry, should engage with Niger on infrastructure, technology and other opportunities to further progress on the 3N program.

As Senator Lugar has emphasized on many occasions when addressing national and food security issues, investments in food security are investments in stable populations.  And that’s what should be next for Niger. 

Lori Groves Rowley serves as the Director of Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center.