The Obama administration is announcing a major new initiative to boost investments in rural Africa in hopes of lifting millions out of poverty. Several African leaders are in Washington, D.C., for the announcement, which comes as President Obama hosts leaders of the Group of Eight in Maryland. Food security is a key agenda item.
Ertharin Cousin, a former Obama administration official who now runs the United Nations' World Food Programme, says the world needs to act now to avoid a crisis in the Sahel — a large swath of Africa south of the Sahara Desert. Cousin just came from there and tells harrowing stories of how a woman in Niger is trying to cope with a lean season that has come early.
"That mother is now collecting wild leaves, dried leaves, boiling them nine times so that her children can digest them. She's also collecting wild berries that, if she doesn't cook them six times, are toxic," Cousin says. "No mother should be placed into a situation where the coping strategies require them to feed potentially toxic food to keep their children's stomachs filled."
Cousin is not just appealing to world leaders to meet the emergency needs of some 9 million people in that region. She also sees it as an opportunity for them to think about long-term food security and nutrition.
"We're facing a third drought season in the Sahel — 2005, 2010, again in 2012. This is becoming a new normal because of climate change," she says. "But climate change doesn't necessarily need to mean that people go hungry, that children suffer from acute malnutrition."
The Obama administration thinks Africa is mainly suffering from a lack of investment. Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Rajiv Shah says agriculture has been neglected by big donors and African nations.
"This big new effort is really designed to address that, and it's African leaders themselves [who] are leading the way," he says.
The leaders of Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana are among those in Washington, D.C., to launch the new food security initiative, which Shah says will include several billion dollars in investments from private companies.
"To give you just one example, we are working with Pepsi in Ethiopia to create a chickpea-based product that can both be sold in their own hummus business and also be packaged and provided to children who are deeply malnourished in food aid programs," he says. "That's going to help 30,000 farmers in Ethiopia move out of poverty, and it will help thousands of children improve their nutrition status."
Shah says it's important to "partner deeply" with the private sector. Lamine Ndiaye of Oxfam is worried the U.S. is placing too much emphasis on that.
"This is good to have the private sector. We just want to make sure that the adequate environment is set for the private sector to come," he says. "The cement of the foundation is missing. That's what we are saying."
Major donors like the G-8 were supposed to help build that foundation, he says, with the $22 billion they promised to put on the table three years ago.
"Out of the $22 billion, only half of it is on the table," Ndiaye says.
USAID administrator Shah says the U.S. is keeping up its G-8 commitments, and the new public-private partnerships are adding to that.
"This is a really results-oriented effort that will attempt to move 50 million people out of poverty and hunger in the next decade," he says.
That, Shah says, is in U.S. national security interests.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.