Conversations With America: Ending Hunger Through Development

Cheryl Benton
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
David Beckmann, President, Bread for the World and Tjada Mckenna, Deputy Coordinator for Development, U.S. Feed the Future Initiative
Washington, DC
October 25, 2011

MS. BENTON: Hello, and welcome to the U.S. Department of State. This is Conversations With America, a discussion between top State Department officials and NGO leaders, where you can watch and participate in the dialogue. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

Today we are discussing Ending Hunger Through Development. We’ve received questions and comments on today’s topic from around the world through our blog, DipNote, and have selected several for this broadcast.

Let’s meet our guest. Tjada McKenna is Deputy Coordinator for Development of the U.S. Feed the Future Initiative, which is America’s global hunger and food security initiative. The main focus of Feed the Future is to reduce poverty and under-nutrition. Deputy Coordinator McKenna coordinates implementation of food – of Feed the Future across the U.S. Government.

So thank you very much for being with us, Deputy Coordinator.

MS. MCKENNA: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: David Beckmann is president of Bread For The World, a nonpartisan organization working to end hunger at home and abroad. Welcome, David, and thank you --


MS. BENTON: -- very much for joining us.

Throughout the month of October, the State Department has been highlighting America’s commitment to supporting global food security. And just last night, Secretary Clinton presented the 2011 World Food Prize to Howard G. Buffett and Bill Gates for their contributions to reducing global hunger, and she also announced that the U.S. Government is providing an additional $100 million primarily in food assistance for drought-affected areas in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.

Tjada, can you tell us what is the Feed the Future Initiative and how it operates? Because I’m sure that – I mean, I don’t even really know that, so I thought --


MS. BENTON: -- everyone will be interested.

MS. MCKENNA: And thank you. Thank you, Cheryl, for hosting us.


MS. MCKENNA: Feed the Future, as you said, is the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. In 2008 when we – when the food price crises struck, President Obama and other global leaders at the G-8 summit in L'Aquila committed to act with a sense of speed and urgency to address the root causes of hunger. And from that, the U.S. pledged $3.5 billion, which leverages $18.5 billion of other funding to create Feed the Future.

Feed the Future focuses on smallholder farmers, primarily women, and works with countries to develop their agricultural sectors to lead to their own economic growth, to alleviate hunger, and to reduce under-nutrition as well as increase incomes. It’s a whole-of-government initiative, I should note, so USAID is the lead implementing organization, but we take all the contributions from our partners at USDA and MCC, and other U.S. Government departments are all coming together for this important cause under President Obama’s leadership.

MS. BENTON: Good, so you’re working just the way the President has asked us to across all the agencies in government.

MS. MCKENNA: Exactly, exactly.

MS. BENTON: That’s great. Great.

David, tell us, how does Feed the Future work with the private sector to meet the global food security challenge?

MR. BECKMANN: Well, I think what’s really brilliant about Feed the Future is that it’s not just a government program. The President of the United States, the Secretary of State have really called on the world to invest more in agriculture and nutrition, and to invest in smart ways in agriculture and nutrition, because the economy and high prices for grain drove up hunger in many parts of the world.

I think it’s just the right response, and it’s more than just the U.S. Government. The U.S. Government has helped to provide leadership for an international effort. The World Bank’s done a lot. And most importantly, a lot of low-income countries have done a lot. I think all – virtually all the countries in which the U.S. is focusing its bilateral agricultural assistance, they’re all investing 10 percent of their own government budget in agriculture, which is probably twice what they were investing five or six years ago.

So I’m thrilled, actually, that the U.S. Government is providing some leadership for a global movement. And it’s that – it’s really that – I mean, putting some money into it, spending the money well, that’s important. But it’s the global leadership that’s probably done more for hungry people.

MS. BENTON: Good deal.

MS. MCKENNA: No, that’s exactly right. Part of my job as a development official is to work myself out of a job, and Feed the Future is really structured in a way, just as you were saying, to be sustainable and to do just that. So we’re working in countries where we think we can succeed that are committed to ending their own hunger and poverty, so they’ve committed resources to ending the problem. We’re working in coordination with other donors and other actors in doing that. We’re bringing in civil society and the private sector to create the lasting markets and to bring in the innovations that help leave a strong foundation behind so that ultimately our food aid won’t be needed and our agricultural development assistance won’t be needed.

MR. BECKMANN: Just – I want to – President – former President of Ghana Kufuor was just here in the United States. I was one of the World Food Prize laureates last year. This year, very cool, President Lula from Brazil and President Kufuor from Ghana won the World Food Prize. But it gave me several opportunities to talk with him. And what he explained was that when he was elected in 2001, the first plank in his platform was to expand investment in his own country’s agriculture. That was in 2001.

Then it was in 2005, finally, when the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation invested in Ghanaian agriculture a lot of money – more than half a billion dollars – and he’s very grateful for that. And then it was in 2008, 2009 when the President of the United States Obama launched Feed the Future.

So in a way, Ghana and a number of other African countries really provided the advance leadership. And one reason why this international effort is working as well as it is is because many African countries had already thought through their own ambitious plans to expand their investment in their own farmers. So they were rolling by the time the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized countries got into the act, and so it’s easy to help somebody who’s already got his own act. If somebody’s got his own act together, you can help them out, and I think that’s the case on this issue.

MS. MCKENNA: And the momentum has spread, so in Feed the Future, we also work in Asian countries as well as Latin American countries, and Ghana has been wonderfully ahead in a lot of ways, and we’re able to kind of take those models around country-led planning and coordination and really take them to countries like – and work with countries like Bangladesh and Nepal and Guatemala to achieve the same results.

MR. BECKMANN: I’m not letting you interview us, but – (laughter) – I was just --

MS. BENTON: No, this is the perfect conversation. (Laughter.)

MR. BECKMANN: I got to go to Bangladesh in February, and Bangladesh – I lived there as a young man. It was wonderful. I got to go back 35 years later. And agriculture in particular has just dramatically improved. It’s also – I mean, people are still really poor, but the roads are better, the housing is better. What’s most exciting is the women are more assertive than they were. I remember them being in the house; you’d almost never see a woman. But the Government of Bangladesh has definitely – since 2008 has dramatically expanded their own investment in agriculture.

So the U.S. Feed the Future Initiative really is able to support what a lot of governments are doing, and a lot of – I mean, the real energy comes from poor farmers who are working their tails off to provide better for their own kids, and it’s great that my government is part of this.

MS. BENTON: That’s good. And I know, Tjada, that Feed the Future is working in Tanzania to train farmers to improve agricultural methods, and I think we have a little film clip we want to show folks that explains the issues that are facing the farmers in Tanzania.

MS. MCKENNA: Wonderful.

(Video clip is played.) In Tanzania, nearly one third of residents live below the poverty line. Small holder farmers are often unable to grow enough food to feed their families. Under nutrition contributes to one third to one half of all infant and child deaths. Farmers with excess produce to sell are faced with the challenge of poor supply chains and inadequate access to markets. The U.S. Government’s Feed the Future Initiative, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is training Tanzanian small holder famers in agricultural methods and helping them gain access to buyers for their produce. (End of video clip.)

MS. BENTON: So I’m curious, why the focus on agricultural development?

MS. MCKENNA: Yes. Our Administrator Raj Shah likes to say that for a long time, there was a lot of angst with smallholder farmers as though they were part of the problem, and I think we’ve now finally gotten it right to realize that smallholder farmers are the solution. More than two-thirds of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and they survive on agriculture. And like that video clip said, I mean, the cruelest thing in the world is to be a smallholder farmer and to spend your life – to spend your time growing food but yet still not have enough to eat and still be – have to use the little income that you do have to buy more food to feed your family, and to still be undernourished as a result of that. So working through agriculture and with small holder farmers is the most effective path to really lead to broad-based economic growth. And studies have shown that agriculture – investments in agriculture are two to four times more likely to affect the poorest in that.

The other dimension that you started to see in that video, and that David alluded to earlier, is that we’ve finally woken up to know that we have to focus on women and that. So over 70 percent of the labor on these farms is performed by women, and really looking towards solutions and technologies and practices that work for them, and also that give them power and choice in how they use the proceeds from that income, that’s really the key for us to make lasting gains.

MR. BECKMANN: The other emphasis in the U.S. thinking about Feed the Future is child nutrition.


MR. BECKMANN: We know more about how to reduce the carnage of child malnutrition than we did just three or four years ago. The World Bank and the Gates Foundation funded a series of studies all over the world. So we now know what are the highest-impact ways to help malnourished kids. And some of them are just straightforward. One is just to focus nutrition assistance on babies and pregnant women, which is obvious. But most child nutrition programs don’t do that. One is to give moms and dads basic information about the power of washing your hands with soap, or breast feeding, and then in agriculture, paying attention to what kind of agriculture. Is it the kind of – does it include vegetables, so that – do people learn how to grow vegetables? Maybe it’s an area where they just grow one staple all the time, and they don’t know how to grow vegetables.

So to have an agricultural development that reduces child malnutrition is important. And I am delighted that the U.S. Feed the Future Initiative is holding – this program is an agriculture – primarily an agriculture program, but they’re holding themselves accountable for seeing that, in fact, the number of malnourished kids comes down, so that it’s the right kind of agriculture, and that it’s agriculture combined with complementary efforts to help kids eat. If little kids eat, it’s very powerful for the rest of their lives.

MS. BENTON: Yes. It has to change the whole dynamic --


MS. BENTON: -- of it all. So do you believe that the private sector has confidence that the Feed the Future Initiative will help shape the next generation of leaders in agriculture?

MR. BECKMAN: Yes. I mean, I’m telling nice things about her, but it isn’t – (laughter) – but also the world has changed. So I’m really struck now that a number of U.S. companies – Wal-Mart, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Cargill – are serious about investing in agriculture in low-income countries. Of course, in those countries, business is all over the place. I mean, there are traders and other food processors. I mean, there’s a lot of local business.

And the low-income developing countries, on average, are growing 6 percent a year this year. So actually, their economies are growing faster than the U.S. economy, and there’s money to be made. As these poor farmers manage to earn a little bit more, somebody’s going to make money buying, selling, moving that food. And then they’ll have a little bit more. They’ll buy plastic sandals or they’ll buy a bicycle. So there’s money to be made. And what’s striking to me it that at least U.S. business is much more interested in agriculture in poor countries than they were 10 years ago. It’s quite striking.

MS. BENTON: So it’s a good investment for them.

MS. MCKENNA: And then all those companies that you mentioned are also very interested in nutrition as well, which is – I come – I worked in the private sector earlier in my career, and it was startling to me to see that some people think of nutrition as a public health goal, but the private sector also realizes that under-nutrition, it hinders economic growth. It kind of – if the child does not get that proper nutrition in that period, up to the age of two, that child will not be as healthy and as vibrant and as able to kind of process mentally as many things as another child.

So I think our companies are really smart. They know these are their future markets. They know this is what needs to happen, and they’re really looking at our investment to be catalytic and to help build some of that infrastructure that then allows them to go more. So we do look at working with educational systems and making sure that the next generation of agricultural researchers or agriculture extension agents – that’s part of our sustainability plan, making sure that that labor force for enterprise to develop is there.

MR. BECKMANN: Cheryl, there’s a snag in all this, and that is the money. Bread for the World is – we’re an advocacy NGO.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MR. BECKMANN: We organize religious people all across the United States to put pressure on Congress to do the right thing for hungry and poor people around the world. But also, there are a lot of hungry and poor people in the USA.


MR. BECKMANN: And so we’re pushing our politicians all the time to do what makes sense for hungry and poor people. And in fact, right now the United States is – our government is embroiled in a huge controversy over how to reduce the U.S. federal deficit, how to get – bring down U.S. annual deficit spending. Within that, there is a large, powerful contingence that is pushing for deep cuts in spending.

And many of those politicians are very – they’re targeting programs for poor people for especially deep cuts, programs for poor people around the world but, I mean, those programs are really tiny in the federal budget. Everything we do for poor people around the world is probably six tenths of one percent of the federal budget. But they’re also after nutrition assistance to low-income kids in the United States, other assistance to low-income people in the United States.

So there’s a major debate underway now within our framework, basically. And at the present moment, the House of Representatives has proposed cutting about 20 percent of all the international development and humanitarian assistance, including food aid. The Senate has – they’ve decided that they think it ought to be the same as last year. The President just weighed in, in a serious way, this last week and said he thinks that he favors the Senate number.

But there’s a big fight ahead, and so what organizations like Bread for the World do is organize American people around – all over the country who understand that we’re connected with poor people around the world, who want to support things like what we saw from Tanzania, and who are willing to put pressure on their own elected representatives to say if you want my vote, help Tanzania.

MS. BENTON: Right. Well, and that is a great segue, because we actually have another clip about what USAID is doing to assist farmers in Tanzania. And then I want to track – tack back so that we can talk about the advocacy and your role in that, so we can roll that.

(Video clip is played.)

NARRATOR: With the support of USAID, local partners are providing a variety of trainings. This include hands-on instruction in basic growing techniques.

CLEMENT KIMARO, TANZANIAN SMALL HOLDER FARMER: Before training, this is how I was growing my vegetables. But now, using the double dug technique, the quantity has increased. The training covered post-harvest handling. Using these techniques has reduced the amount of spoilage and consequently I have more produce to sell.

NARRATOR: Projects like UWAMWIMA are training farmers on how to transport and store their produce, allowing them to sell more of their crops at higher prices.

KHADIJA RAJAB, SENIOR AGRICULTURAL SPECIALIST, FINTRAC: Before farmers used to put their produce in these baskets, and that would be sitting in the sun. As you can see, there’s a lot of wastage, rotting of tomatoes, resulting in over 40 percent loss of produce. But with USAID support, we have refrigeration system uses and plastic crates, which protects the produce so we can wait for a better price.

(End of video clip.)

MS. BENTON: So it’s interesting the things we take for granted, they cannot take for granted, just the refrigeration and the crating. So I know you were going to comment on some of the advocacy work that is required to sustain this.

MS. MCKENNA: Yes. So part of our commitment under Feed the Future was to kind of evolve the way that we provide foreign assistance to really focus on what works and to think about how we leverage our investments and how we work with others so that we get more bang for our buck. So in these times of economic peril, this is a relatively small investment for what will have great returns for American jobs, for our security interests, and also just in terms of a strong, healthy population.

And so I agree with David, and – but I’m just a humble servant. (Laughter.) And I’ll execute as appropriate. I mean, one of the things that we saw in that clip that’s right, in terms of working off of what works, is I think in the past some of the green revolution and some more recent agricultural development programs really just focused on production and improving yields, and what that tape shows is and what we recognize as very important is you have to help people markets for those products, you have to help with post-harvest handling so that they’re not wasting as much. So it’s – it really is a whole chain to kind of provide that incentive for that farmer to buy the inputs to improve those productivity increases. So we really are looking at it across the value chain.

MR. BECKMANN: Advocacy in places like Tanzania is also important. One of my colleagues in the Alliance to End Hunger just came back from a meeting in Ghana where a hundred non-state actors – so this is NGOs of all different kinds, religious groups, academics, business people – came together to talk about Ghana’s agricultural development program, and I think Feed the Future is helping with that. But this group of Ghanaians outside government came together to talk about the government’s plans in agriculture. I think, in many cases, advocacy is also appropriate in a place like Ghana. In this case, my understanding is that basically all these non-state actors said this is a good plan.

And what came out of that is that they are orienting their own programs. So NGOs are orienting their own programs and businesses are orienting their own plans to align with what the government’s planning to do, with U.S. support, in the agriculture sector in Ghana. So I think it’s very comparable to what we – in the United States it needs to be non-state actors working with and sometimes against the government and also in Ghana and Tanzania and Bangladesh.

MS. BENTON: Yes. It’s civil society –

MS. MCKENNA: Yes. Civil society.

MS. BENTON: -- that is particularly important in this entire mix. But I wanted to go to one of our questions that we’d gotten from DipNote, and Bret in Rwanda writes: We’ve been hearing a lot about the intersection of agriculture, health, and nutrition. How does Feed the Future align its agricultural investments to support production of crops that contribute positively toward health, nutrition, and the environment?

MS. MCKENNA: Yes. So as David alluded to earlier, our two top-line indicators – so what we’re measured on success are increase in incomes and a reduction in child malnutrition and under-nutrition. So because those are our two top-line indicators, as our countries – as our USG officials in each country have gone to say what parts of the country plans to we want to invest against, they thought about picking crops that – like, vegetables that contribute to the nutritional wellbeing of a household, crops like legumes that help improve soil health, and other ways we’re factoring into our nutrition interventions and to our agricultural work that nutrition lends to make sure that those things are tied together.

MS. BENTON: Okay. Very good.

MR. BECKMANN: I’m glad that he’s been hearing a lot about agriculture, health, and nutrition.

MS. BENTON: Right. Yes. Because it’s (inaudible).

MR. BECKMANN: Because I’m just – I’m convinced that the new knowledge we have about how to reduce child malnutrition makes it possible to do a lot, a lot of good in a hurry, and it’s just simple things like focus on babies and pregnant women, teach low-income parents some simple things that can help them keep their kids alive, get certain micronutrients into the food supply. If there are severely undernourished kids, you’ve got to identify those kids and get them something like Plumpy’nut, and then make the connection between agriculture and nutrition. If you – those six – that was six sentences?


MR. BECKMANN: That will save millions of lives.

MS. BENTON: Wow. That is interesting. We have another question that has come in from Allan in Virginia. He wants to know: How do we provide aid, while at the same time stimulating independence and economic growth? Deputy Coordinator, I want to throw that one to you.

MS. MCKENNA: No. That’s very important, and that’s why really agricultural development is the answer, because that does really stimulate – it’s – economic growth – more than 60 percent of the GDP in some of these countries is agriculture-related. The labor force is concentrated in agriculture, and that is the way that you help the poorest people while growing your economies.

Also, some of the other things we’ve talked about already, like involving the private sector, thinking about the whole chain to markets and how people can do their incomes. That’s all part of our effort to work ourselves out of a job and to make sure that we can get it right this time.

MS. BENTON: I like that; you want to work yourself out a job. Not many people would say that. (Laughter.) You’re looking to work yourself out of a job as well?

MR. BECKMANN: Sure. But I also – also, the questioner is right that nobody wants to be dependent on a handout.


MR. BECKMANN: And so the best assistance is assistance like Feed the Future that just helps people get up on their feet so they can provide for themselves for the long haul.

MS. BENTON: Well, a lot – we are right now very focused on the famine in the Horn of Africa, and so I was just curious how development would help prevent crises like the one occurring right now in the Horn. What’s the direct impact of what happened?

MS. MCKENNA: So I think in the Horn we want to distinguish between Somalia, where we have serious governance issues, and in fact, famine is a declaration – the word “famine” involves governance, and that’s what leads to it, and Ethiopia and Kenya that have suffered the same drought but have not had as dramatic effects – results from that drought.

In Ethiopia, we think that there are 8 million people – 8 million fewer people at severe risk from this drought based on development programs in resilience and helping the most vulnerable be more prepared to accept these shocks than there would have been had that development work not happened. And through Feed the Future, we are doing that kind of development and resilience work with vulnerable populations to make sure that they are resilient and that if they increase their income today, they can keep those gains if some shock comes and disrupts them in the future.

So the good news out of the Horn is that we’ve seen what has worked and we’ve seen less people affected. And we will keep doing that work.

One other thing I want to mention is we’ve launched a public awareness campaign so that people can understand more about what’s happening in the Horn and what contributes to it and what we know works to alleviate. It’s called the Forward Campaign FWD. And if you just go to, they will see that campaign. And tomorrow, we’re launching a series of public service announcements with familiar celebrities to raise more attention and awareness on that.

MS. BENTON: So give us that URL again?


MS. BENTON: Okay, good.

MR. BECKMANN: I was stunned when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut U.S. food aid by a third this year. If that becomes law, which hasn’t happened yet, but if that becomes law, it would take away food rations from roughly 14 million people this year. So in the face of severe need in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, the U.S. Government would have much less to deal with.

So not everybody is moved to action, even by something as grim as Somalia. And as you look back on it, the world has really pretty much abandoned Somalia since 1991, and there have been huge costs. There was just a study done that estimated that the cost to the Western world of dealing with Somalia since 1991 has been $55 billion, much of it ransoms for ships that were pirated.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MR. BECKMANN: So by walking away from Somalia, some people in this country and the rest of the world think, well, we’re going to save some money at least, let those people deal with their own problems. But we are interdependent, and so I hope at this juncture that we at least provide the necessary food and development assistance. But I think also there needs to be stronger intervention to develop peace and government. Any kind of government in Somalia would be better than the chaos that they’ve been living since 1991.

MS. BENTON: Right. It’s just interesting whenever we’re in a really good conversation, we run out of time. But I know that both the work you’re doing with Feed the Future and the work you’re doing around advocacy has to really make an impact. And the way it has is that we are beginning to have the conversations that perhaps we weren’t having some time ago.

And this is a conversation I could have forever, but unfortunately, we have to conclude our Conversations with America. I’d like to thank Deputy Coordinator McKenna and David Beckmann for sharing their work and knowledge of this issue with us. Please note the video and transcript will be available on shortly. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again very soon. Thank you so much.