ANALYSIS-Obama hunger plan to help, but must seize momentum

Thu Oct 22, 2009 10:18am EDT

* US said all the right words, now waiting on action

* High-level political support a good omen

* Management of program, other details still unclear

* Will be hard to get Congress attention on issue

* USAID still leaderless-McCollum

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON, Oct 22 (Reuters) - The Obama administration has the right approach for reducing world hunger but must move quickly on its plan to make food security a central part of its foreign policy by helping the world's poorest farmers.

The administration wants to spend $3.5 billion over the next three years on projects to help farmers get seed, fertilizer, training and access to markets, dovetailing with pledges of more than $22 billion from other countries.

"I think all the right words have been spoken. Now it's a question of delivery," Tom Arnold of Irish aid group Concern Worldwide told reporters last week.

World hunger numbers have soared past 1 billion people, or one in six, at a time when climate change threatens to curb food production and populations continue to grow. [ID:nN14256108] [ID:nLN517136]

"So far, we're still losing the race against hunger, but I guess I'm hopeful ... that this will have an impact," said Gawain Kripke, policy advisor with Oxfam America.

Spending on agricultural development has long dwindled. But since crop prices spiked to record highs last year, sparking riots in some countries where food ran short, the world has been reminded about the security threat of hunger. [ID:nLC316989]

The unprecedented attention to the issue from the highest levels of U.S. government -- President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- has spurred optimism among those who have long fought to raise awareness of hunger.

"This is a moment I've never seen," said Ellen Levinson of Alliance for Global Food Security, who has worked with aid groups on the issue in Washington since 1985. "I think we really have an opportunity to turn a corner."

Philanthropists have also mobilized global resources to give small-holder farmers tools to increase yields, noted David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian political advocacy group focused on hunger and poverty.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has led efforts, and committed $1.4 billion to agricultural development.

"Bill Gates' money on the table is a strong argument for optimism and action," Beckmann said. [ID:nN15300517]

But he cautioned the convoluted web of federal departments, agencies and programs that have a stake in development and aid may make it hard to get the strategy rolling.

"What they haven't figured out yet is how they're going to manage this in a way that makes our whole development assistance program more effective," Beckmann said.

The State Department, which is leading the initiative, is still consulting with domestic and international players about how the strategy will operate.

"You've really got to bring in people who know on the ground how these things work. I hope they do reach out to people with that kind of operational capacity, and not just the theoreticians," Levinson said.

SPENDING DETAILS UNKNOWN

Congress has not yet finalized appropriations for the plan for fiscal 2010. The U.S. Agriculture Department hopes 10 percent of the initiative's funds will go to agricultural research. [ID:nN15325264]

Still unclear is the role of traditional food aid -- funded separately from the USDA's budget. [ID:nN21238446]

Ultimately, Congress controls the purse strings for the program, and the administration must secure its support.

"Obviously, the devil is in the details and we need to do our appropriate oversight to make sure everything is going the way we want it to go," said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who introduced an anti-hunger bill in the U.S. House (of Representatives) and is eager to see the plan unfold.

The administration needs to quickly name its top officials for the lead agency for foreign development, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has been leaderless for too long, said Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota.

"There's no more excuses: we can't have USAID stuck in a holding pattern," McCollum said.

Congress is preoccupied with health care reform and climate change as well as the sagging domestic economy, and it will take work to convince some members to support more funding for foreign agriculture, said McCollum, who also filed a food security bill.

"This is going to have to be a slow and steady drumbeat in making sure that members of Congress are fully informed of the impacts of lack of food security," she said. (Editing by Christian Wiessner)








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