Bill Gates Supports Foreign Food Aid Fix

May 15, 2013 06:03 AM

He also talks about his support for AGRA and challenges of world population growth in Senate briefing.

During last week’s world hunger briefing, Bill Gates was asked for his opinion on the Obama Administration’s proposal to streamline the federal government’s food aid program. The administration wants to buy food for emergency assistance locally instead of shipping it from the United Sates. It says the package of reforms could help feed an additional 2 to 4 million people.

While Gates didn’t give the proposal a thumbs up or down, he did speak of the need to continually improve foreign aid programs. He also supported cash-based aid, which he said was less disruptive to emerging economies and could more quickly help people in need.

Bill Gates, of course, is the founder of Microsoft. He also runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major supporter of foreign agricultural aid programs. Here’s what he said in a Q&A session about foreign aid reform, the challenges posed by a growing world population, and his organization’s support of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa).

Could you comment on the Obama administration’s proposal to change the Food for Peace program by buying food locally instead of shipping it from the United States? The administration says the proposal could feed an additional 2 to 4 million people.

"Our foundation has chosen to put lots of money into these agricultural issues because I think they are highly impactful. So we’re often visiting other sources of capital and saying, ‘Please keep your food aid strong.’

"The big attack on foreign aid is that it isn’t efficiently used. So wherever we find a case where we can be significantly more efficient, we owe it to ourselves, if possible, to take that opportunity.

"The thing that’s really understated in terms of having some portion (of aid) move to a cash-based approach is not just the effectiveness in terms of dollars per person served. But when you are dealing with acute food issues, getting the food there late is extremely damaging to young children.

"During the first 1,000 days, if you don’t get the appropriate nutrition, your brain development never recovers. No matter what you invest in the education of that kid, they are not going to achieve their potential.

"So cash-based aid—first of all it buoys nearby markets to buy locally. It also gets the food aid into the place that you are interested in much more quickly. And it is much easier to stop aid once the acute situation is dealt with.

"If farmers come back in and try to sell at market prices, you are actually doing damage to those markets. And it’s always a very tough thing, but if you have a 50-week lead time (for food aid delivery), it’s very hard to tune these things to not actually damage some of these markets.

"So I think in some ways the numbers understate the benefit of some portion of aid being cash-based."

Right now we have 3.5 billion people living in cities, 3.5 billion living in rural area. We’re split 50-50. But in 37 years, we’re supposed to be 70% urban. Are our policies keeping up with that demographic shift and what does it mean for the diets of children?

"Well, you are absolutely right that the net population gain is essentially going to be in slums in poor countries. Rich countries will see a net decrease, and rural areas will see a slight net decrease. So cities in poorer countries, overwhelmingly slums, are where you’ll have the population increase.

"When you think about food and nutrition issues, there are some unique things in that urban environment. The lack of sanitation is way more problematic there. That’s why you see very high rates of diarrhea and diarrheal deaths in urban areas. It’s one disease that’s worse, even after decades of work. Malaria is much worse as you get out into the rural areas.

"What do you want to do about this? Well, all of the productivity things that we talk about here are beneficial to both populations. The most difficult thing is still getting enough food, and there’s a huge budget distortion taking place in a lot of these countries where they have to subsidize food. They get on a treadmill doing that, and they are not investing in productivity. They are not investing in education and infrastructure because food prices are very high. That’s sort of an extreme case but not the only one about subsidization.

"So any productivity we achieve is good. If we do it with small holders, then it’s win-win. That is—it’s cash income to them, and it brings down the prices and (improves) supply.

"Malnutrition is a little bit different in the two sectors. It’s worse in the rural areas because variety is much worse there. So things like the supplemental feed for a 1,000 days tends to be of more impact to rural areas. You need to pay attention to sanitation and toilets in the cities. But you are still going to have 3 billion in the rural areas, and they will on average be poorer than the urban population."

Could you please comment on AGRA—what you are trying to do with it, and its importance to Africa? It would seem quite important to global food security.

"The Rockefeller Foundation not only funded the Green Revolution, but they stayed in agriculture and built up a lot of expertise in Africa. When we were getting into agriculture, we partnered with them to create the Africa Green Revolution Association, or AGRA.

"It’s led by Kofi Annan. It’s got a great staff that’s been improving over the years, getting more donors involved. It’s basically a partner of national governments to help them with agriculture policies. It has had a huge activity around soil quality, going out and doing soil maps, and helping people better understand soil nutrients. You have lots of different soil conditions that are a huge problem in Africa.

"A seed program is the other big thing. A lot of African governments decided that they would monopolize seed production, or put up complex regulatory barriers to getting varieties of seeds out. Countries like Kenya, and now Ethiopia, have allowed new small seed producers to come in, and whether it’s unique varieties of staple crops or vegetables and fruits, the variety is great. If you have a nutrition goal as well as an economic goal, that variety—even if it (accounts for) a small percentage of the crop—can be pretty important.

"AGRA is on the ground. It has got 10 countries that it’s primarily working with. It is not working with some of the toughest. It’s not doing much in, say, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) or Maldives, or Central African Republic. But it is in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ethiopia—a lot of countries.

"Ethiopia is really amazing because they’ve really embraced the whole reform thing and have hired a great person to run what’s called The Agriculture Transformation Agency there. So they, off a low basis, have the biggest productivity increases over the last three years. "

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