Dr. Rajiv Shah gives the 12th Annual George McGovern Lecture at the UN Food and Agriculture Agency

16 November 2015, Rome, Italy - Rajiv Shah, Senior Adviser, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, Former Administrator, USAID. 12th Annual George McGovern Lecture: "George McGovern’s legacy: A roadmap to end hunger as we know

It is an honour to be able to give the McGovern lecture.

I first met Senator George McGovern, Ambassador George McGovern in the mid 2000s and his photo here perhaps expresses what we all know to be his good humor and his commitment to this fight against hunger. I met him through a mutual friend, who made an introduction just when David and I and others were starting an agricultural program at the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation, and we had probably a three-hour dinner in Missoula, Montana that ended at about 11 o’clock at night, in which he recited to me his very, very long and tireless history of fighting for justice and against hunger and suffering at home and around the world. What I was amazed by is that he was, you know, at the time, in his early 80s, and he managed to get in his car and drive himself and hour and forty-five minutes home that night after that dinner.  And he had only come into town because he wanted to meet us, because he knew we were starting this program that was going to be part of the fight to address hunger and poverty.

And it’s that kind of commitment that led him and others to point out that America’s fight against hunger and poverty has now been a very important part of both domestic and international policy for many many decades. It actually started during the Great Depression when we offered American farmers price supports, and at the same time initiated some of the earliest school-feeding programs by offering schools and communities in the United States loans and grants to be able to bring some of that food into service of children who were hungry at times of economic crisis in America. It extended in a global context, most notably, during the Marshall Plan which of course is widely credited with helping Europe reconstruct its institutions, its businesses, its basic infrastructure. But one of the main tenets of the Marshall Plan was providing food in a post-war Europe to avoid hunger and severe and acute malnutrition.

Senator McGovern continued his leadership as first Director of the Food for Peace Program, a program that continues to be active today, in fact is more active today that it even has been and in its 50/60 year history has provided more than 3 billion food items to families and communities and children who have required it at times of crisis. In 1977, showing that this fight against hunger and poverty is not just a global effort, George McGovern issued, really a landmark report in American nutrition that for the first time was a signal of public policy and political recognition of a problem that was taking place in the United States.

His report from the Committee on Nutrition first pointed out, in 1977, that Americans had a diet that was far too high in saturated fats, in refined sugars and in processed foods, and that was undermining the nutrition of a country that clearly could afford to do better on behalf of all of its people. So, those basic concepts of targeting those who require assistance more effectively; understanding that the fight against hunger is both a consequence of having food when you need it, but also the quality of the nutrition that children and families have access to; and bringing political leadership at home and abroad to the task; remain the central tenets of a road map to actually end hunger and poverty as we know it.

And in 2011, along with many of you in this room, I had a chance to see and experience what this looked like first hand in perhaps its most tragic incarnation. The photo you are looking at is of women and children that are aggregating in front of the Dadaab refugee camp. Many of these women had walked 50 or 60 km inside of Somalia to the Kenyan border where they would now get a measure of safety, security and human protection. Many of them were carrying children who were too weak to hold up their heads and had clearly not eaten in days, even weeks, in terms of being able to absorb a proper meal. And the human consequences of hunger in 2011 were brought home in a very tragic and personal way. Walking inside the clinic there I met children like this young boy who, as you can see, is being fed by his mother through a nasal-gastric tube because he does not yet have the strength to take in food by himself.

We know that those of you representing outstanding institutions like the World Food Program are often on the frontline serving children just like this young boy, and I was so struck by how much he was suffering just trying to get nutrition into his frail body that I neglected to observe, standing right there talking to that young boy, that in fact earlier that day his brother had passed away from malnutrition and disease and was still wrapped in a saari and on the cot in front of us.

The good news in this kind of tragedy is that science, technology, our political will, our commitment to do something about this tragic injustice has helped us figure out how to minimize the consequences of these types of tragedies. Within weeks, the global community mobilised a major effort bringing the advanced foods this child is receiving, Plumpy’nut, which as you know is a nutritionally enhanced ready-to-consume product that the World Food Program, USAID, and so many others partners around the world have started to shift towards as part of reforming the way we provide food assistance at times of need.

We’ve gotten better at targeting which children need what;  gotten much better at understanding that medical interventions and health interventions can actually save the most lives even in the context of widespread acute malnutrition, hunger, starvation and famine. And we understand that these types of tragedies today happen when there is an intertwining reality – in this case the most severe drought in six decades to hit East Africa, but also the reality of Al-Shabaab controlling parts of Somalia, harassing, harming, even tragically killing Aid workers who are trying to serve those who are vulnerable. And we know that the fight against hunger, in all of its forms, is both political, and driven by the science and technology of knowing how to save lives and how to serve vulnerable communities more effectively.

It is not just a global issue to the Obama administration. In the United States today as we speak, 15.3 million children are hungry, 21% of American kids live under the United States poverty line, 20% of all households in 38 of our states do not have secure access to food on a regular basis. This coupled with the fact that children in this age range often spend 7 or 8 hours a day engaging with the television screen, playing video games, playing computer games, has created an epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States that is the consequence of large-scale malnutrition, ineffective food systems, food distribution that doesn’t reach the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and therefore the term ‘food deserts’. And while George McGovern’s 1977 report was telling because it was the first time we talked about sugars, saturated fats and processed foods, since 1977 Americans consume on average 31% more calories than we did when that report came out, 56% more saturated fats than we did when that report came out and 16% more sugar than we did when that report came out.

So the fight against hunger, the fight for nutrition and the effort to improve the basic food system, an effort that has been embodied in Michelle Obama’s effort called Let’s Move, an effort to get better foods and more physical activity options to children throughout the United States of America is one manifestation of the Obama administration’s commitment to create and implement a roadmap to end hunger on global scale.

The other part of that effort has been, as Ambassador Lane mentioned, programs like Feed the Future, efforts to reform the way America provides food aid and assistance and an absolute commitment to bring science, technology, data and modern tools to the task of finally ending hunger on global scale.

And we need those tools because, even today, 795 million people will not have enough food to eat. Most of those individuals continue to reside in Asia, despite rapid growth in many Asian economies. One out of every four individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa is prone and vulnerable to be within that category of people who suffer from regular, chronic hunger. And 45%, fully 45% of the 6.5 million children who will die this year under the age of 5 – almost all from extraordinarily simple diseases: diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria –  will die because their underlying baseline of malnutrition is so severe their bodies don’t have the immune capacity to respond to things we are exposed to every single day.

Just a few weeks ago, President Obama and the rest of the global community got together in New York and set an extraordinary set of new goals and objectives to end hunger and poverty and child death and health injustice as we know it by 2030. It’s a goal that I have been passionate about and I believe is achievable. But I think today, in the context of George McGovern’s leadership, we have to ask ourselves are we on path to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in hunger and malnutrition, in child survival and global health? And the answer is quite clear: we are not.

In 2000, 17% of the population of the developing world suffered from hunger. Today that’s down to 13%. Reasonable baseline projections indicate that will be somewhere around 8-9% by 2030. 8-9% on a growing population is not zero.

Similarly, we know that stunting affected, in 2000, 38% of all children under the age of 5. Today we believe that number is 27%. On our current tragectory in 2030, when it should be effectively 0%, it will still be over 13%. So we have to ask ourselves what have we learned from what we’ve been doing to fight hunger and poverty and malnutrition, especially in these last 5 or 6 six years, that we can use as a roadmap to be more effective going forward.

First, I think we have to recognise and learn about the reality of political leadership. When President Obama took office in his very first G20 he was facing a global financial meltdown and a global economic crisis. But in that context he said simply resolving the global financial crisis without doing something for the hundred or two hundred million people who are suffering much more severely because of the food price crisis of 2007, 2008, 2009 would not be enough. So together with the G20 countries we launched major new investments in agricultural development.

In the United States we call those new investments our Feed the Future Initiative and we committed ourselves to doing things differently. We said we would work in the 19 countries that were willing to make policy reforms, create their own plan for improving agriculture and access to nutrition, double their own investment in these core areas of public policy and demand and measure real results together with partners, including the very important Rome-based agencies. Now, 5 or 6 years later, because of an absolute determination to measure results with rigour and sophistication, we know what Feed the Future has accomplished.

We know that in Cambodia the rate of stunting is down 21%, in Feed the Future zones of influence. We know that in Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya stunting is down anywhere from 9% to 23%, again not just among the participants in this program but in the much broader zone of influence that often defines 20% or 30% of a total population of a country. We have seen proven the basic tenets that agricultural development is the core strategy for reducing poverty in rural communities and agrarian societies. In Uganda, in Feed the Future focus areas, poverty is down 16%. In Bangladesh poverty is down also 16% and stunting is also down 14%. In Honduras 125 thousand families have doubled their income and in general farm families in Honduras over the life of the Feed the Future effort have increased their incomes by 55% average. In Haiti, the country that I first..not my first visit, but I visited 2 or 3 days after the earthquake with Secretary Clinton, where the two of us got off the plane and together with President Préval were literally walking around an airport that had fallen apart trying to help President Préval find people that were part of his team and his government, that had collapsed.

In that context, because we did some bold things on food and hunger, because we stopped dumping American food in Haitian markets and calling it food aid and stopped monetizing American rice in that context, because we invested in research programs with the University of Florida and others to bring more science and technology to the Haitian agricultural system, brought agricultural partners from Coca Cola to seed companies into those markets, we’ve seen Haitian food production more than double, we’ve seen the rate of acute child malnutrition in Haiti, compared to the day before the earthquake, be down almost 50% and we’ve seen significant almost 200+% income increases from Haiti’s farmers who are part of Feed the Future zones of influence.

Now, I know perhaps better than anybody the challenges that Haiti will continue to face to build a strong, viable democracy and economy. And I’ve seen the injustice of children who continue to suffer in any manner of life. But in 2007, when the food prices had spiked around the world, the New York Times ran an article, and on the front page of the paper they put a photo of a young Haitian girl in Port-au-Prince who is literally putting food and mud together into what she and her friends called ‘mud cakes’ and eating mud cakes to have some degree of satiety. Compared to that, we now know the consequence of improperly provided food assistance, we now know how to target children who are in need with vouchers, electronic vouchers that can be used in a way that keeps food markets vibrant and we now know how to bring science and technology to farmers to help improve productivity and outcomes and we’ve seen the consequences of that knowledge, which I think have tremendous and strong effect.

So I’d like to offer five basic principles of what I consider a roadmap to actually end hunger going forward:

The first, and I believe most important, is our capacity to target those in need. This graph is one that I grappled with many many times as USAID Administrator. I learned many terms from a woman named Nancy Lindborg, a great leader at USAID who led our humanitarian efforts and I know is well-known to many of you. But this is an aggregated excess mortality chart. The reddish line on top is the childhood mortality during the Somali famine, and the grey line at the bottom is what they would consider an average rate of mortality during that time period. So the area under the curve is the excess number of children who died. And you ask yourself, but why did all these children die? We knew, I knew back…this was in the fall – you’ll see the peak was in July in terms of deaths – but we knew back almost a year earlier, certainly by March, that there was going to be a massive consequence of a large-scale drought, coupled with governance challenges, in East Africa. In fact, I would regularly get maps that would show most of East Africa in various shades of red, with my wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Food for Peace team saying ‘Raj we’ve got to do something because 18 million people are at risk’. So here is the reality. The reality is that without granular, real-time data those warnings [aren’t enough]. It is hard for us to take those kinds of warnings to an American Congress or President, they are too diffuse, too broad, they are non-actionable. Today we have better tools at our disposal. I believe it was an FAO program, but maybe FAO, UNICEF and WFP together, that placed individuals at markets throughout Somalia sometime along the way; and somewhere along the way in the Summer we started getting charts that would show which markets had prices that spiked 450% and which markets spiked 180%. And we knew right away that the markets with the food prices that spiked in the 400% range were the ones where the children and families were most vulnerable. As you know, in these settings, families are spending 70-80-90% of disposable income to feed themselves. If prices spiked 400% this is not an inconvenience, for some children it was a death sentence. Having that granular market price data, in effective real time, allowed us and you to target those who needed service and support the most and we very rapidly started to see the level of mortality come down thereafter. Today we should be using different and new technologies to do this all over the world. We should be using satellite imagery and advance image processing. Every single person everywhere around the world, I have come to believe, has access to a mobile phone. We should be using photography from those mobile phones to collect data and information so that we can get actionable real-time data, granular and predicted. We should be looking at the phone records to understand migratory movements and what that might tell us. And I know today the World Food Program working with some private sector companies is helping to create such a system in Yemen, in parts of Africa, in advance of the El Nino weather pattern and its impact. Those, I believe, are the most important things WFP can do going forward. As a logistics agency we admire your capabilities, and I leveraged those intensively during last year’s fight against ebola in West Africa. But as a knowledge leader about hunger, vulnerability, where people need help, there is no other institution on the planet that can take on and implement that responsibility and I believe that WFP should take that on.

Second, we know now with certainty that simply improving at incremental levels smallholder productivity is not going to be enough to achieve large-scale agricultural transformations. Every country around the world that has had a significant 2-3 decade-long period of very high growth that led to development and human opportunity, with the exception of city-states like Singapore, has done it on the backs of a more professionalized, significant and commercially-oriented agriculture. So, as much as we have challenges in building public-private partnerships and encouraging private investment in agriculture, we haveto get that right in dozens of countries around the world if we are serious about ending hunger. Here is a photo of President Obama this past August in Ethiopia visiting a partnership between some USAID partners and Dupont Pioneer. We helped Dupont Pioneer gain access to this market and they made investments that have helped reach 28,000 farm households with improved hybrid seed. Those seeds yield 2-3 times what the farmers were experiencing before. Feed the Future is measuring household impacts, including whether those impacts lead to nutrition improvements for children, and empowerment improvements for women, in these farm families. But, you know and I know that sometimes bringing private commercial investment into agriculture in certain parts of the world can be controversial. We have to figure out issues like land access and land tenure and land ownership. We have to figure out how to respect and protect capital investment that companies, mostly local companies, will make. We have to build on initiatives like Grow Africa which President Obama helped launch at the G8 in 2012 in Camp David and I was proud to participate for 2 hours as the G8 leaders met leaders from the agricultural community, with heads of these agencies in Rome but also CEOs of major companies willing to make real investments, because African countries proved a willingness to change regulations and fight corruption such that private investment could flow into their countries. At this point more than 10 billion dollars of investment commitments had been made. To realize those commitments we have to stay committed to a vision of agricultural transformation that is centered around private investment done purposefully.

Third, we have to be open to science and technology in agriculture. In fact, the entire history of American agricultural performance is driven by science and technology. My favorite American history story about this is just before the Civil War in the United States, President Lincoln signed a landmark bill we call the Morrill Act, which created modern land-grant university structure in the United States. For the first time communities had resources to bring agricultural research, extension, product development and real science together to transform our agriculture and over many many many decades it did exactly that, spinning off one of the world’s most productive agricultural economies. We need that kind of revolution in science and technology, but not necessarily built around the kinds of traits that have been the focus of science applied to agriculture in the United States. We need to see abiotic stresses like water efficiency, heat tolerance, salinity-based tolerance and improved performance, and a focus on ensuring that the science we develop is transparently regulated and available and affordable and protective of the risks that smallholder farmers face all around the world. As you can see in this photo you are looking at the difference between water efficient maize that was developed as part of the CGIR program compared to traditional land races and other lines that clearly don’t perform as well in near-drought conditions. In this photo, you are looking at the difference between stress-tolerant rices and regular rices I believe from the STRASA program run out of IRRI but also relevant to the product development that has taken place with Norika in West Africa. These are core technologies that can be accessible to everybody and we need to invest more in them, embrace science and agriculture, and ensure we are building regulatory systems around the world that make science available to even the smallest scale, especially women farmers, everywhere on the planet.

Fourth, in my view we have to rethink nutrition and consumer behavior. Statistically speaking, in a macro sense, whether large economies that are rapidly emerging or have already emerged like China and Brazil and South Africa, follow a US-based consumer product-driven food system that we know makes a lot of people, especially poor children sick, or whether they come up with a better way to blend product development, product marketing, consumer understanding of health and perhaps a willingness to pay for health in the context of consumer purchasing of food, the difference between the trajectory they could be on and the trajectory the United States took over the last four decades, since that McGovern report came out, will be the difference that defines whether true human nutrition is the result of a more modern, more adaptable food system. I know Kathleen Merrigan delivered this lecture in the past and spoke about how, even in the United States, we are seeing a diversification of food production and accessibility and availability, which is still too focused on the most affluent parts of our economy and our population. But everywhere around the world we should be asking ourselves, as we commercialize food systems, how do we ensure that they deliver adequate nutrition. We should be holding our companies to a high standard, those of you that are part of the SUN framework and the significant partnership on nutrition now have a platform where you can talk to the CEOs of the biggest food companies of the world. Use that platform to insist that they develop products and market products that will keep our children healthy and not reinvent another consequence of malnutrition.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, political will and the absolute sheer determination to fight and end hunger will, in my view, be the difference between whether we succeed between now and 2030 or whether we have more of the same, that results in not quite hitting those targets. The targets that have been set are achievable, they are validated by science and knowledge but putting that knowledge into practice requires real political leadership. President Obama has fought for and won resources, support, organisation for Feed the Future, for reforming America’s food aid system, for making this a priority in the global landscape of leaders in meetings like the G8 and the G20, and ensuring that people see agricultural transformation as part of thesolution to climate change, not a downside consequence of an ever-warmer growing environment. Similarly, before him, President Bush had landmark achievements in fighting HIV/Aids and malaria that were, frankly, very much the basic construct we used for designing Feed the Future to be result-oriented, for measuring and reporting on results, for building a political consensus in America’s Congress that included faith-based Conservatives and globally-minded Liberal members. And as you can see from this photo in which I happen to be in the hold area with both Presidents and our Tanzania Ambassadors and convinced them to take this picture together because I thought it would help me on Capitol Hill. But as you can see America continues to be proud and willing and determined to lead the fight against hunger around the world. We hope we are conducting that mission with respect for the relevance, significance and the leadership of countries themselves and great institutions like those here in Rome, because we will only succeed if we marshall our resources and our ingenuity together. But I believe the United States, and I believe all of the countries that many of you represent, have to continue to fight politically for the vision that George McGovern fought for if we are going to achieve our goals, and truly live in a world where no child goes hungry.

Thank you.