WASHINGTON – President Obama vowed Friday to accelerate efforts to relieve hunger and malnutrition in Africa and unveiled as part of his plan a $3 billion commitment from multinational companies to make it easier for small farmers to grow their own food.
The commitment from 45 private companies outlined by Obama and African leaders gathered for the Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security highlights theWhite House's efforts to tap the private sector to complement existing programs. The number of people living with hunger globally has fallen slightly from its 2009 high of just over 1 billion, but 13% of the world's estimated 7 billion people still do not get enough food each day, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
"We need a new approach that challenges more nations, more organizations, more companies … to step up and play a role. Government cannot and should not do this alone," Obama said.
"I know there are going to be skeptics. There always are," he said. But he vowed, "This will remain our priority as long as I am United States president."
The corporate funding under the food initiative will be partly from African companies, with just under half of the investments coming from businesses there and the rest from other companies around the world, according to the White House. The program's goal is to promote sustainable agriculture and remove 50 million people from poverty during the next decade.
Obama noted recent investments in nutrition and agriculture in Kenya and Ethiopia prevented millions of people from needing aid during a recent drought, but he said more progress needs to be made in other parts of Africa being ravaged by famine and drought. "When tens of thousands of children die from the agony of starvation like in Somalia, that shows we still have a lot of work to do. It's unacceptable, an outrage, an affront to who we are," he said.
The companies that pledged funding in the latest round to fight global hunger include Cargill, Diageo, Swiss Re, Unilever, Monsanto and SABMiller. DuPont will invest more than $3 million over the next three years to help smallholder farmers in Ethiopia. Vodafone will assist farmers with text services to help them obtain local market prices.
Ellen Kullman, chief executive of DuPont, said in an interview that everyone involved in combating hunger needs to hold themselves accountable. "We have to measure ourselves and we have to measure collectively the progress that is made," she said.
In recent years, she said, companies, governments and aid groups have developed a better understanding of how to combat hunger, making progress to understand the local conditions and what tools can best help farmers support sustainable agriculture in their region.
"People have always known we've had a problem," she said. "I think sometimes it seems so overwhelming it's hard to know where to start."
Global efforts to improve food security gained attention four years ago when soaring food prices sparked riots and led to political instability in some parts of the world, including Haiti and Egypt.
The new program, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, builds on a 2009 pledge by the Group of 8— leaders of the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia — known as the L'Aquila Food Security Initiative. World leaders committed $22 billion to fight world hunger by investing in agriculture and nutrition.
Obama called on the world leaders to honor their 3-year-old pledge and vowed to "speed things up" to get the money delivered and said the United States remains committed to the $3.5 billion it promised. The initiative ends later this year, and some humanitarian groups have said much of the funds have not been doled out. The G-8 is expected to release an accountability report this weekend detailing how much of the funds is still on the sidelines.
African leaders from Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania expressed optimism that the announcement by the White House on Friday will help build momentum toward fighting hunger. Jakaya Kikwete, president of Tanzania, said he was "inspired" and "hopeful" and noted that for any success to occur the private sector must be involved.
"I'm seeing with the words of President Obama and the G-8 summit tomorrow the commitment that they are going to play their part as donors, helping us," he told reporters.