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Obama talks of using nutrition as development tool in Africa

2013_0628_WH_ObamasSenegal
President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and member of the first family are welcomed in Yoff, Senegal. (White House)


President Barack Obama declared today in Dakar, Senegal, that his Feed the Future agricultural development program and the G-8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition that he launched have had major successes, but there were questions about whether Obama has had an impact on the continent where his father was born.

After visiting a food technology exhibit, Obama told reporters that a progress report on Feed the Future released today would show that the program had “already helped 7 million small farmers harness new techniques,” according to a transcript released by the White House.

He also said the farmers boosted the value of their goods that they sell by more than $100 million, and that means higher incomes for farmers and more opportunities for farmers.” (See accompanying story.)

Obama also announced that the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which began with Ghana, Ethiopia and Tanzania, had already added Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Benin, Malawi, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso and that Senegal will join this year.

“Rather than the old models of simply delivering food aid, the New Alliance takes an innovative approach,” Obama said. “African countries are in the lead — identifying their priorities, devising their own plans, because they know their countries best.”

“It also means that these programs are far more likely to be sustainable,” he said. “Companies large and small, from Africa but also from around the world, have pledged to invest in these plans. And there are companies here today making new commitments, bringing total investments in these efforts to $3.7 billion.

“So what we’re doing is we’re taking the private funds that are being leveraged, and combining those with the aid funds that are being provided not just by the United States but some of our other partner countries and, as a consequence, we’re getting a much bigger [bang] for the buck.”

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama
Obama, who has since flown to South Africa and will also visit Tanzania, said that Feed the Future and the Alliance projects would be part of a “Power Africa” theme of his trip.

“Using nutrition issues as an economic development tool,” Obama said, “creates the kind of critical mass where, in a country like Senegal or Tanzania, where maybe 70 percent of the people are involved in agriculture, you can see each one of those small farmers suddenly increasing their income by 20 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent. That then becomes the basis for a nascent middle class in those countries; that in turn can help create local manufacturers, local consumer goods. And eventually, these then become export markets for the United States.”

“Everything we do,” Obama added,” is designed to make sure that Africa is not viewed as a dependent, as a charity case, but is instead viewed as a partner; that instead of chronically receiving aid, it is starting to get involved in trade, get involved in production, and over time is going to be able to feed itself, house itself, and produce its own goods. And that’s what Africa wants.”

Amidst questions about whether President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton had done more for Africa, Obama pointed out the increased private sector investment, but acknowledged “some of this is driven by necessity.”

“Given the budget constraints, for us to try to get the kind of money that President Bush was able to get out of the Republican House for massively scaled new foreign aid programs is very difficult,” Obama said. “We could do even more with more resources. But if we’re working smarter, the amount of good that we can bring about over the next decade is tremendous.”

Asked whether China and other countries are getting ahead of the United States in Africa, Obama said, “I think it’s a good thing that China and India and Turkey and some of these other countries — Brazil — are paying a lot of attention to Africa. This is not a zero-sum game. This is not the Cold War. You’ve got one global market, and if countries that are now entering into middle-income status see Africa as a big opportunity for them that can potentially help Africa.”

“What we have going for us, though, is our values, our approach to development, our approach to democracy remains one that is greatly preferable to a country like Senegal,” he added.

“In my discussions, a lot of people are pleased that China is involved in Africa. On the other hand, they recognize that China’s primary interest is being able to obtain access for natural resources in Africa to feed the manufacturers in export-driven policies of the Chinese economy. And oftentimes that leaves Africa as simply an exporter of raw goods, not a lot of value added — as a consequence, not a lot of jobs created inside of Africa, and it does not become the basis for long-term development.”

The involvement of China and Brazil in Africa, he said, “should be a signal to us, though, that there’s great opportunity there and that we cannot afford to be left on the sidelines because we’re still stuck with old stereotypes about what Africa’s future is going to be.”

But Obama also said that the message he is delivering to African countries is that they have to “ensure that there’s stability and good governance so that American companies can reduce some of those risks that have nothing to do with business and have to do with will they be able to get their profits out, will they have to pay a bribe, will they have to find ways to negotiate with bureaucracies endlessly.”

Rajiv Shah

Rajiv Shah
At a separate briefing, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah told reporters that the New Alliance, which was launched by the G-8 countries with the African Union “was an ambitious effort to couple really tough policy reforms that countries would make — reforms like making the kinds of changes to their tax code, and fighting corruption that would allow private businesses to have more confidence to invest, and to couple that with private investment commitments to make investments specifically in food and agriculture to address hunger and food insecurity.”

More than 70 companies, Shah said, have made commitments of $3.7 billion to these New Alliance countries to make investments in seed systems and agricultural processing and agricultural marketing.

DuPont, he noted, has opened a state-of-the-art seed production and distribution facility in Ethiopia, and already reached nearly 40,000 farmers with improved seed varieties that have helped them double the amount of food they produce for their families

Senegal, as part of joining the New Alliance, has agreed to change some of its laws and regulations: to expand access to credit for small-scale farmers; to reduce and to better target subsidies for fertilizers and seed; to fight corruption in the subsidy system; and to offer tax exemptions in its value-added tax system to enable more companies to make investments, Shah said.

As a result, he said, a series of private companies will commit to invest $134 million in Senegal’s agricultural system, and the United States will continue to provide the broad support by making a new $47 million commitment to expand access to new seeds and other agricultural technologies.

That grant, he said, will be to the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), an organization started by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and it will allow a series of countries to double access, to improve seeds in rice, sweet potato and other types of crops.

Responding to questions about continued corruption in Africa, Shah noted that Obama launched the Open Government Partnership, an effort to basically get governments to commit to fight corruption and be transparent in how they work.

Senegal, Shah noted, has joined the Open Government Partnership and applied for membership in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, promising to make certain types of government meetings and data and information more accessible.

He said corruption in Africa has been reduced since Obama started the partnership, but acknowledged it is hard to quantify.

Shah concluded by saying that 14 of the 19 countries where Feed the Future has worked have been in sub-Saharan Africa and that he believes “the vast majority of the focus and resources have been effectively deployed.”

The U.S. government, he added, has increased its investments in Africa each year Obama has been in office.

“Sustaining that in this political climate has required real tradeoffs to be made in other areas, but we've done that,” Shah said, adding that he believes the United States is “the only G-8 country to have achieved that kind of a sustained focus and investment. We believe is delivering real results, and that we measure and report on outcomes to demonstrate that.”

Shah said that the administration is “on a path” to deliver on its commitment to get 50 million Africans out of poverty by 2022 and will “exceed that path.”

“The president has consistently reminded people that if you double crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa, you can relatively quickly move large numbers of people out of hunger and poverty, and do it without providing humanitarian aid — helping them produce more food and build modern food systems.

“We’ve seen some extraordinary progress often based in science and business investment,” Shah said. “And that will continue to be our focus.”