A New Commitment To Food Security From G8, But Empty Promises Remain

I have just returned from a whirlwind visit to Washington, D.C. and Chicago, where I participated in a number of events around the G8 and NATO Summits focused on food and nutrition security. Among so many world leaders and high-level representatives from civil society and academia, I felt a sense of critical mass beginning to form in the fight to end global hunger.

It's a feeling I've had before -- perhaps not this strong -- only to be disappointed when promises went unfulfilled. We must keep calling our leaders to persevere, especially those in the G8, to ensure that does not happen this time.

At the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Third Annual Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security on May 18 in Washington, DC, I witnessed President Barack Obama's landmark announcement of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. It's a partnership between G8 nations, African countries, and private sector leaders that promises to raise some 50 million people out of poverty over the next ten years through investments in agriculture and nutrition.

Let me be clear from the start: as the CEO of an organization working on the front-lines of hunger, I loudly and wholeheartedly applaud the leadership of President Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in establishing the New Alliance. Concern Worldwide is committed to doing everything we can to ensure that it succeeds. But so much more needs to be done, and the time is now. The force behind the New Alliance can be leveraged and multiplied if we keep our existing promises to the world's hungry.

Before the G8 Summit at Camp David, Concern launched a paper, "The Time is Now: The G8's Opportunity to Make Undernutrition History," that outlined how members should structure a new commitment to food security and nutrition and the risks if they don't

Thankfully, much of what we know works is part of the New Alliance, such as the creation of country-owned plans and alignment behind those plans, an explicit focus on women and smallholder farmers, and the aim to reduce risks for vulnerable economies and communities. We know from our work on the ground in 25 of the world's poorest countries that this multi-pronged approach to tackling food insecurity and undernutrition is critical and effective in saving lives and protecting the futures of millions of vulnerable children.

We also celebrate that the private sector has stepped up in the fight against hunger. At the time of President Obama's announcement on Friday, some 45 local and multinational companies had already signed Letters of Intent to invest more than $3 billion in Africa's agricultural systems -- a milestone that will greatly help lay the foundation for a strong agricultural base that can foster food security and stimulate Africa's economy.

While the New Alliance signals a commitment to ending hunger and malnutrition, it is still unclear whether or not G8 member nations will fulfill their original promise to invest some $22-billion in food security at the 2009 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy. Nearly half of that commitment is still pending, and while President Obama emphasized that promises made at L'Aquila must be met, there are no concrete timelines in place to ensure that members will disburse those funds by the end of 2012, as originally planned.

Following through on L'Aquila is also vital because the New Alliance does not represent a strong financial commitment in comparison. The New Alliance has laid out $1.2 billion for food security and nutrition initiatives through G8 nations and new donors, a sum that, while significant, is a fraction of what was committed in L'Aquila. While we welcome the $3 billion committed by private-sector partners, it cannot replace public-sector investments, particularly when it comes to social safety nets for the poorest and support for those who may not be as attractive to for-profit investors.

The New Alliance must also take a broader approach to promoting food security. Despite some mentions of nutrition, including support for the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, the New Alliance still focuses very heavily on improving agricultural yields through new technology. While important, this is only one part of what it will take to end food insecurity and malnutrition. G8 members cannot forget the importance of complementary initiatives such as social safety nets, direct nutrition interventions, and stronger health systems, all of which ensure that the most vulnerable, who may not directly benefit from more food being produced, do not slide further into poverty.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her remarks following President Obama's announcement on Friday: "Nutrition is just too important to be treated as an afterthought. Children's entire lives are shaped by whether they receive enough of the right nutrients during those crucial 1,000 days from pregnancy to second birthdays. And this, in turn, heavily influences whether a country will have a healthy and educated workforce. So when we overlook nutrition, we set ourselves up for a less healthy, less productive, and less prosperous future."

She is right. Over the course of a 40-year career, I have seen first-hand how a child's potential slips away when we neglect to focus on nutrition. Any delay or failure by G8 members to follow through on what they committed at L'Aquila will directly impact entire generations of children, ultimately dragging down the GDPs of low-income countries by an estimated 2-3 percent per year.

The fact is that keeping these promises will not directly affect me, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Bono, and the other people present at the announcement of the New Alliance. But they will make a life-and-death difference for the lives of millions of people, children in particular, whose lives are lost or bodies and minds are stunted because they do not have enough nutritious foods to eat.

President Obama eloquently said on Friday: "As the wealthiest nation on Earth, I believe the United States has a moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition."

And he concluded his speech by pledging that "this will remain a priority as long as I am United States President."

We all share the obligation to make malnutrition history. The good news is that we have never been this well-positioned to make it a reality. The time is now. All we have to do is seize the moment, starting with our leaders filling their promises. The ones who will benefit -- or suffer -- may never know that such promises were made, but we know. We know what is at stake. And we know that empty promises are not an option.