CAN FOREIGN AID AVERT WORLD FAMINE?

The world has largely forgotten the global food panic of 2009 that doubled food prices, saw countries hoarding rice and wheat and threatened to leave hundreds of millions in hunger.

International aid and agriculture experts meeting in Washington recently warned that we are one step away from another food panic as the world population inches inexorably from seven billion today towards nine or 10 billion in a couple of decades.

"What was accomplished since 2009?" to prevent another food panic, asked World Bank expert Juergen Voegele.

The United States pledged $22 billion to prepare for global food panic but according to Voegele, the threat of famine is "not over yet - not under control.

"We've just been lucky. If two or three food exporting countries have problems" such as drought, floods, conflict, a global food panic "could happen tomorrow."

Climate change could cause a repeat of the 2009 food panics, especially as growing population in the world's poorest countries push people to farm steep hillsides and valleys vulnerable to mud slides and flooding.

The foreign aid experts spoke at the annual meeting of the Society for International Development which includes major private contractors who carry out billions in foreign aid programs paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other government agencies. Contractors such as Chemonics, Internews and FHI360 are paid to build schools, clinics and radio/TV networks as well as to train local people to operate them in scores of poor developing countries.

But although foreign aid from all U.S. and foreign donors has reached $130 billion per year, the aid effort is dwarfed by global economic and population challenges. For example, one expert warned that as China races towards prosperity, it is buying soybeans and grains from U.S. and other farmers to feed the growing Chinese demands for beef, shifting the world food balance and driving up food prices

One positive note is that improved use of fertilizer and irrigation drove grain production above the poverty threshold of one metric ton per hectare in some developing countries. But compare that to U.S. and Chinese farmers who produce six tons per hectare.

Another fear raised at the conference was that the huge humanitarian crisis caused by millions of migrants in Europe, fleeing conflict and poverty from Syria to Afghanistan to Africa, is draining foreign aid budgets.

And the threats from migrants, climate change, famine and population raised a broader question: why do some nations such as South Korea, Thailand, Costa Rica and Rwanda develop - raising incomes, education and nutrition - but dozens of nations such as Burma, Congo, and Haiti fail to develop.

For example, even though India launches rockets into space and builds shopping malls, half the world's malnourished children live in India.

Some countries have long cultures of caste restrictions, genital mutilation, corruption, and authoritarian rule at all levels from the village to the capital city. How can you deliver aid in such situations?

Anthony Pipa, a senior USAID official, said in an interview that some "countries haven't made much progress on ending extreme poverty - progress is a story of inclusive economic growth and improved governance."

He said countries need polices that involve more people in the economy and deliver social protection to get them out of poverty.

"Some whole countries have persistent large numbers of poor - many are in protracted conflict and poor governance," Pipa said. "They have weak institutions, ineffective polices and no political leadership.

"Insufficient leadership does not look at ways in which all of those in the country can benefit" from growth.

Some aid experts argue that the vigorous U.S. emphasis on promoting democracy is the way to improve local governance and spread benefits of growth to the very poor.

But countries such as Libya, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya and Haiti erupted into chaos after US officials pressed for greater democracy. Should we reduce our aid to democratic groups if it provokes instability? After all, when governments expel USAID democracy programs and local staff end up in jail on charges of treason, don't we share the blame for encouraging them to undertake programs considered illegal by repressive governments.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to peace and prosperity on earth comes from the rising global population increase from 7 billion to nine or ten billion in the coming decades. How can we avert growing hunger and underdevelopment? Should a crash program of family planning be launched?

The Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug told me in an interview shortly before he died that bringing a Green Revolution to Africa was his next challenge and it required roads to bring fertilizer and seed to farmers and ship harvests to markets.

But USAID has not done road building and other major infrastructure projects for 20 years.

Pipa said that major progress is taking place on scores of poor countries. But they can't develop overnight. "It will take some time for all populations in a country to rise," he said.