When participants in the CWS-sponsored CROP Hunger Walk in Arlington, Va. stepped off from Arlington Forest United Methodist Church last month, among the walkers was the head of the federal bureau charged with leading the effort to implement President Obama’s global food security initiative.
Paul Weisenfeld, who heads USAID’s Bureau for Food Security didn’t just walk, he also spoke to participants about his agency’s response to the Horn of Africa crisis and about the need to invest in food security through efforts like the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative.
As described by government officials, the initiative is “a multi-billion dollar international effort led by USAID to develop the agricultural sectors of a number of countries throughout the developing world.
“Along with partners and stakeholders, the BFS will address the needs of smallholder farmers and agribusinesses; support women to deliver lasting economic growth; build on research, innovation, and private sector-led growth; and increase investments in agricultural development and nutrition, while maintaining our support for humanitarian food assistance.”
Recently CWS’s Chris Herlinger interviewed Weisenfeld.
Q: Why is there a need for alliances between agencies like CWS and USAID?
A: When you think about the challenges we face in feeding the world, the problems are huge. There was a time, during the 1960s, with the advent of the “Green Revolution” that people felt we had solved the problem of food security forever. But we’ve seen famines since and under-nutrition is still a problem. So this is a situation where we can’t do it alone, when we need the help of partners like CWS.
Q: Why does hunger still exist in the world?
A: One of those who has thought deeply about this is (the Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner) Amartya Sen, who has written extensively on governance and how that relates to this problem. If we see what is unfolding now in the Horn of Africa, we see Kenya and Ethiopia, two countries with established governments and experiencing drought – but not a famine. But in Somalia, a nation without a functioning government, you have a drought and a famine. Why is that? In a famine situation, there is obviously some outside stimulant, like a drought or major disease, that has a negative effect on food security. But the question is how do a country’s social and political systems respond to that stimulant? In Kenya and Ethiopia, the governments are able to step up and do something about it. Not so in Somalia.
Q: There are plenty of criticisms made of US food policies, some of them made before the recent initiatives that stress the need for countries not to be dependent on “food aid.” How do you respond to critics?
A: Part of the origin of the U.S. food aid system initiated after World War II was the idea of using surplus U.S. grain to feed people overseas. We’re on a path of being more nuanced and responsive to specific needs. Our efforts through Feed the Future recognize the importance of providing food aid and other humanitarian assistance during crises to save lives and protect livelihoods. They also integrate nutrition interventions to ensure that our investments lead both to improved agriculture and better health. When there is an immediate problem and a shortage of food, the United States will ship food, but we want our response to be as tailored to specific needs of hungry people as we can. In instances where there are food security needs but food is available in an affected country or region, we will explore options to provide cash or vouchers for people to buy locally available food, which also helps support local economies.
Q: And that is the way of the future?
A: It is – food security is key, and that has long been recognized by leaders in countries, like India, where there were once famines. A situation like we have in the Horn of Africa doesn’t have to be that way. Countries can emerge out of hunger and poverty. The knowledge is there. But that is also why partnerships are important – it is important that partners like CWS raise awareness on the issue of hunger and keep vigilant.
Q: And CROP Hunger Walks are a part of that process?
A: Yes. It was a great opportunity, participating in that walk – it was my first experience with one — and there was a sense of people learning and valuing the experience. Right now, in society, there is a lot more awareness than there ever has been about the issues of food and hunger.
Q: Is there a way for people to become aware of and interested in the issues of development beyond the crisis of an emergency?
A: I think there is, and perhaps it is by highlighting how issues are connected and intertwined. For instance, there is currently some discussion about how under-nutrition can have additional consequences for patients with HIV/AIDS. When people are undernourished, their immune systems are compromised and their defenses are down. Research suggests this can make it more difficult for medicines – including HIV drugs –to be effective. We’ve seen some countries, like Malawi, start to show real success in improving lives by addressing HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment needs in tandem with efforts to boost food security and improve nutrition.
Q: Right now, many US citizens are not thinking about life beyond our borders, given the economic pressures in our own country. How do you respond to those concerns? Should we still be “internationalists”?
A: Yes. Domestic issues obviously take a lot of space because they are so important to our day –to-day lives, but I think we need to be constantly aware that issues are connected, both here at home and abroad. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and we know that instability in one place in the world can affect our country, and disrupt our own economy. By contrast, stability helps us as a country. Three countries that once received U.S. foreign assistance, including food aid and agricultural development assistance — Mexico, South Korea and Brazil — are now among the top 10 importers of U.S. products. By what we do now, we can create stability around the world and help build the markets of tomorrow. But the key point is: we can make a difference now and address the root causes of hunger and poverty.