A Conversation With Howard G. Buffett, Bill Gates, and Josette Sheeran, World Food Program Executive Director, Focusing on Efforts to Address Global Hunger and Create Economic Opportunity

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
October 24, 2011

MS. SHEERAN: Well, we’ll give you your chance now. Secretary Clinton, I know that you want to listen and not speak, but before we let you off the hook, this is the 50th anniversary of the creation of the World Food Program. It was created with the idea that peace cannot be built on an empty stomach, after the experience of a war-ravaged Europe was stalked by hunger and malnutrition, and the power of interventions to transform countries and stability. And it’s still going strong, but it’s been rare in our history that we’ve seen a foreign minister, and then presidents and prime ministers, get behind the fight for the hungry, and then such transformational business leaders as this. So the powerful alliance here on the stage really marks a moment in time here, and we want to thank you for bringing us all to the State Department and for bringing the fight to hunger right here. So thank you. (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you for that. Thank you.

MS. SHEERAN: And I would just like to ask each of you, to open, why should this be the business of foreign ministers, presidents, and prime ministers, G8s and G20s? And why are you hopeful, why did you personally get involved in the fight against hunger?

Maybe Bill?

MR. GATES: All right. (Laughter.) Well, Howie’s the farmer here, so he can speak the knowledge. I’m the city boy on the panel. For me --

MR. BUFFETT: He’s done okay – (laughter).

MR. GATES: For our foundation, as we looked at what the great inequities are, we really kept coming back to health and agriculture as the two that topped the list. Whether you look at the nutrition needs that, if they’re not fully met, mean that a child doesn’t develop their full potential and the kind of economic impact that has, or if they have childhood diseases, and that tends to interact with – if you have diarrhea, you have malaria fevers, you’re not getting enough food, that makes things even tougher. It raises the chance of dying. It raises the chance that you’ll have some lifelong disability. And we were able to see that if you can raise these incomes, then farmers will choose to send their kids to school. And it changes livelihoods very quickly. I think it’s a World Bank study that said that of all the different development dollars, the one that has the most immediate impact on poverty reduction is investment in agriculture.

Now, of course there’s a time scale here. There’s the acute needs, like we’re seeing in the Horn of Africa right now, that are very, very important. And WFP takes the lead on those and does a fantastic job. Then there’s the longer-term issues of creating the seeds, the soil improvements, the delivery systems so that farmers can have this increased productivity. And I was pretty stunned to see the gap in productivity between different locations within Africa or between Africa and the United States. And so the potential really is there.

For the urban poor, our food productivity is going to mean more food security, less volatility in prices. And food is a major part of their budget, unlike in rich countries where we sort of – food is such a small percentage. For them, not only are they not able to buy as much as they want, but instability is actually one of the results when you have food price spikes coming along.

So the idea that we could back some scientists, we could back people in country – particularly in Africa, which is where the focus of our work is – it looked like an intervention that had big payback. Some of it’s been dairies, some coffee. The bulk of it has been staple crops because those are quite important. There had been some underinvestment in this area. About four years ago, the world sort of looked around and said that food aid and agriculture investment had come down, and that really was a mistake. World Bank and others decided, okay, we need to rev that back up. And so a lot of energy’s been put into it. Unfortunately, it comes at a tough time for increasing these amounts, but some new money is – has come into it. And I’m quite optimistic that we can raise productivity and have pretty dramatic effects because of that.

MS. SHEERAN: Howard.

MR. BUFFETT: I think when you ask the question why would a prime minister or president care about this, it’s pretty simple: self-interest. A hungry country doesn’t do very well. And so I think that at some point, anybody that has much of an IQ in a leadership position figures out that they’re going to have a problem. And we’ve seen it really surface in the last two or three years with 30 countries having food riots. We’ve seen a lot of activity even more recently – again recently. And I think it’s just self perseveration at some point. So I think there’s a self interest that drives it.

How we got involved in agriculture is a little less sophisticated than how Bill got involved it. But I remember back in 1992, Dennis Avery said to me, “Howard, no one’s going to starve to save a tree.” And I thought about that for a little bit. And I had been going around the world very engaged in conservation, and all of the sudden, I stopped looking – when I was on the Sarengeti, I thought I’m going to go meet these leaders of the villages and I’m going to see what their problems are. And so Dennis’s statement drove me in a very different direction.

And then we spent about a decade funding programs a certain way, that is more the traditional development way. And Jerry Steiner, who may be here somewhere – Jerry took me down to a project that they have in Chiapas, Mexico, and I realized just kind of like what I’d heard 15 years earlier. What I saw there was that there was a better way to do this. I always kid Bill because he’s always got a book under his arm and he reads more books than I could ever read, and he figures it out by reading it, and sometimes I have to see it. And Jerry took me and saw this, and I thought we have to do this differently. Our money, our investment, can be leveraged in a different way, and we can get better results than what we’re getting. And we just weren’t doing it the way we needed to do it. And it was a great opportunity for me to say we need to change how we do it.

But agriculture to me has been – I mean, it’s been most of my life. And my mom always says I didn’t have enough Tonka Toys when I was a little boy, and so I have big tractors now, I guess. I don’t know. (Laughter.)

MS. SHEERAN: And Secretary Clinton.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Josette, I think that what Bill and Howard said is really at the core of it. I mean, for a country like our own, I think there are four baskets of considerations, basically; one, the moral and humanitarian. It is the right thing to do. If you come from a country as blessed as ours, with the resources we have and the food we take for granted, it is an obligation to try to help those who are in need.

Secondly, the security and strategic considerations that are certainly evident as you listen to both Bill and Howard, the fact that hungry people and hungry countries and poorly managed agricultural systems lead to all sorts of problems that not only cause misery within but very often without as well. So you have refugee flows; you have poor agricultural practices that destroy top soil, create erosion, accelerate the impact of climate change, cause conflict; as the Vice President said earlier, Darfur, which is a classic conflict between pastoralists and herders. And so strategically, you have a ripple effect and repercussions that keep rolling and don’t stop in one localized place where people are suffering and hungry and where their land is poorly managed or not producing, or where whether is not cooperating.

Thirdly, there are historic reasons. I’m very proud of the role that the United States played in the ’60s and ’70s with the Green Revolution in India and elsewhere, which had a tremendous impact on creating the conditions for people to take care of themselves with the right investments and the right inputs and tools. And then we moved away from those front-end investments and really moved a lot of our agriculture and hunger and food investments to the back end, where we kind of waited for disasters and crises and failures to occur. And when this Administration came in, we thought that doesn’t add up. I mean, we ought to get back into the business of helping to improve agriculture, focus on who produces most of the food, recognizing that we’re going to have to produce about – last figure I saw – 70 percent more food in the next 20 or 30 years to keep up with population growth and to make it affordable and accessible.

And then the final considerations are the pragmatic, practical ones, is we know how to do this. I mean, we do have a lot of really good knowledge and skills that can be shared if we go about it in the appropriate way. So I think for all those reasons the Obama Administration really, right off the bat, decided that we wanted to take a look at our food and nutrition programs, our agriculture programs, and try to begin to sort out what worked, what didn’t work, emphasize the former, not the latter, build a broader international consensus.

I mean, Josette has done a terrific job at the World Food Program, sort of making the case, being an advocate for the program. Yes, it was born of the disasters of World War II and the great hunger that swept across so much of Eurasia and killed many millions of people. But it’s also true that this institution needed more partners. It needed a better international consensus about what could be done and what would work. So I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve made this decision, we have realigned our priorities and programs, and I think we’re better positioned to be effective in our efforts.

MS. SHEERAN: Thank you. And today we’re honoring the commitment that both Bill and Howard have made to Purchasing for Progress, which was really a simple idea to say if we’re purchasing 80 percent of the food we purchase, WFP and other partners in the developing world, can we involve the very farmers who would be hungry and dependent on food aid because they can’t connect to markets to help supply that food and help feed the world? It requires very patient – it’s a more patient market, P for P, and that it can work with these farmers.

But I’d like to ask each of you why you decided to support P for P and what you think its promise and potential is?

MR. BUFFETT: Well, patience isn’t in my vocabulary. But I think for me it kind of evolved, spending a little time in Guatemala with Villam, spending a time in Zambia with David Stevenson, both country directors at WFP, seeing very similar activity to this. And as I said earlier, Josette, it took the leadership at the top of WFP to make it happen. And it wasn’t very hard for me to figure out that this was a great idea. And it didn’t take me too long to see that this was something that we should support.

One of the things that we’ve struggled with for a long time was, as we supported projects, we could never see or figure out what’s the exit strategy, I mean what gets us – when we leave, we go home, the money’s gone. And slowly I realized that – I’m a slow learner – but I realized that the market is an incredible exit strategy. And with WFP’s ability to leverage the purchasing, we could really have an impact on not just large numbers of farmers, but we might be able to set up a model that, with certain modifications, could be transferred to different parts. And it truly moves farmers into a competitive environment with the tools so that they can compete long-term. So when I saw all of that, it wasn’t very hard for me to think this is something we really should be supporting.

MR. GATES: Yeah. I totally agree with that. The thing we saw is that when you look at food aid, you want to be as responsive as possible, and so having all of it come many thousands of miles away isn’t going to be – shouldn’t be your only source for that food, and increasing aggregate demand in Africa for the farmers who were doing well seemed like a very positive thing. But I think the biggest thing is more qualitative, which is that a lot of the small holders, in terms of how they store their output, how they maintain the quality of that output, have not – nobody has worked with them so that they can sell into the bigger markets.

If you take the rice market in Nigeria – Nigeria is a gigantic importer of rice. They actually have a goal over the next four years to not – to be able to be self-sufficient in rice, and they should be if you just looked at the acreage they have. But a lot of is that the post-harvest processing, the kernels get broken, they get a lot of dirt and sand in with the rice, and compared to the almost perfect rice coming out of Asia, there’s not a willingness to buy it.

And so having a sophisticated buyer like WFP, who because of the funds from the Buffett Foundation and ourselves could go in there and take the time to help either create cooperatives or to work with them, make a commitment so that they can buy the equipment or invest in new storage techniques, even when WFP’s not there as a buyer, these people have learned how to sell into a much broader market. And that’s a great thing for Africa. It’s a great thing for these farmers. And we certainly have seen even in these first few years some significant success in drawing farmer into commerce that were not participating before.

MS. SHEERAN: Secretary Clinton, it has always struck me that hunger can either be seen as a huge problem or a huge opportunity, because everyone has to eat, and it creates jobs up and down the value chain. And one thing that you have done with Raj Shah and others is to really focus on the private sector partnerships. I’m just looking at BCG’s work and Yum! and so many others here in the audience. We have – private sector, raise your hand. (Laughter.) We have so many partners here that now are being brought into the fold. But what is the power – the transformative power that you think and potential of these new alliances to tackle age-old challenges like hunger and malnutrition?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think it builds off of what Howard just said. I mean, you want to create a market. You want to be able to create enough demand and quality supply so that people are able to move forward themselves. And for a lot of reasons that the experts in the audience know far better than I, there have been so many disruptions and difficulties in so many places in the world in doing just that. So I think our private sector companies, some of whom are represented here, have expertise, have the skills, have the investment, to really help the whole supply chain improve. And I don’t think there’s any way we can anticipate meeting the needs of the current and future population unless there’s a heavy, market-driven component.

So much of what we’ve tried to do is to latch up the aid and investment sides of the equation. And what both Howard and Bill do so well is they straddle that. They’re able to bring both sides together. We’ve been working in so many countries to persuade them to open up their own markets to our large companies that will bring expertise, which they currently do not have. And Bill mentioned the whole issue of storage. I mean, it’s a nightmare in so many countries. I mean, you have the problems that Bill talked about in Nigeria. Well, India, 40 percent of the harvest is lost because there is no storage system, both either dry or cold storage.

So I think bringing in private sector partners, who understand what a quality supply chain looks like and how a market can grow once you have competitive products that are going to be affordable in the local market and then maybe even available for export, is absolutely essential to how we see the vision of Feed the Future.

MS. SHEEREN: We have come to a (inaudible) not just about (inaudible) so what is the content of those kilocalories? And if we look also at the face of hunger, it is very often a woman. If we look at the face of small farming, it’s very often a woman. Are there ways to look at the value-added production – I know this is – are issues that all of you have looked at – in order to combine the cause of fighting hunger and malnutrition? And I will just say that both these foundations put us under great rigor. Ken Davies is here, who runs this program, to ensure that at least half the beneficiaries were women. And they’re less organized as farmers than others, but can we – you mentioned that in your speech. Can we just touch on the special imperative, I think, to address that particular aspect.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I recall when you started this emphasis with P4P and both the Gates and the Buffett Foundations’ requirement that half the recipients be women, there were a lot of people who say, “Why? Why would you make that? That seems like political correctness.” And there was an enormous lack of knowledge, I guess is the most polite way I can say it – (laughter) – about the fact that 60 to 70 percent of the people who labor in the fields are women. And they are an invisible part of the economy and certainly of agricultural production. I’m sure that Bill and Howard have had the same experience I’ve had in talking with ministers of this, that, and the other in many countries, and talk about focusing on women smallholder farmers. Why? What does that have to do with producing enough food to feed our people and keep the prices down and all the rest of it?

So I really give the three people up here and their able teams a lot of credit for helping to push into greater visibility with those of us who work and care about this area know, which is if you don’t focus on women, if you’re trying to improve agricultural production, and really the whole chain in access and affordability, we’re not going to be successful. So it’s not only the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. And it is harder to empower women. Often they don’t own the land that they farm. They’re often pushed off the land if their husband dies and they have no stake in it, even though it was their sweat labor that produced whatever was produced. They are not part of organizations. They are often denied other rights, like for credit or other kinds of support that are needed to be successful.

And so anything we can do to raise their visibility and make them be seen as valued partners in countries where we are working is going to be beneficial to the overall project’s possibility of success.

MR. BUFFETT: Somebody asked me today earlier, “What’s the game changer on this issue?” And I’ll tell you, the game changer is, “Put a woman in charge of every country.” (Laughter and applause.) That’s my mother’s influence, and my sister’s. (Laughter.)

But the truth is there is no game changer in the end. I mean, this is tough work. It’s a complicated problem. But women do look at this issue differently than men. A mother will look at feeding her children in a different way than a man does. That’s just a fact. So when you have the personal experience of interacting with women that have children that are dying – and Bill has seen this too – that you realize that that’s the person you want to be the decision maker. And so empowering the mother and the women in an environment like that is absolutely key to success.

MS. SHEERAN: And, Bill, you have the last word.

MR. GATES: Well, definitely when you raise the income on the crops that the woman’s involved in, it directly maps to improvement in food for that household and the money is just spent in a better way. So not only are they the majority of the actual agricultural hours, but when you help them, you get a lot more impact. And we just need to understand why there’s this separation of roles and how our interventions can offset the tendency to focus on the male roles as opposed to what the women do.

MS. SHEERAN: Well, I want to thank our awardees today. Secretary Clinton, I remember when you called together foreign ministers from over six countries two years ago at the United Nations. It was the first time foreign ministers ever took on the first thousand days of life, the ending malnutrition and hunger. I want to thank you for bringing us into your home here today, thank the Vice President. And on behalf of Rick Leach, Randy Russell, the head of the WFP-USA, and Hunter Biden soon-to-be, and all of us, the whole board, we want to thank you very much for making us feel so welcome. Thank you.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you all. Thank you. (Applause.)

PRN: 2011/1794