Josette Sheeran
Josette Sheeran

Although the United Nations always has crises to solve, delegates at this year’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York seemed to have an exceptional number on their plates. With America’s financial turmoil creating a bleak backdrop, the gathering seemed to hum with palpable angst about the future. One world leader after another strode to the podium to tell how high food and fuel prices were devastating the poor in their countries – and threatening to reverse economic growth and the significant gains we have made in fighting poverty. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the world is facing a “development crisis”, and worried that wealthy nations would fall further behind in their commitments to the poor. Many delegates and leaders I met echoed those fears.

We were gathered at UN headquarters to assess how the world is faring in meeting the global compact known as the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. The consensus was sobering: we are slipping far behind in achieving those goals as the global food crisis threatens to turn the clock back altogether. As if to underline this state of affairs, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) issued a grim bulletin that coincided with the UNGA: according to its research, rising food prices have plunged another 75 million people into dangerous food insecurity – raising the total to an unprecedented 923 million people fighting hunger every day.

This is bad news for MDG #1 – which aims to halve the proportion of hungry people by the year 2015. It’s also bad news for all the other MDGs – ranging from universal primary education and empowering women, to reducing child mortality and the spread of HIV/AIDS – because eliminating severe hunger is fundamental to achieving each benchmark. In fact, conquering hunger is the bottom line to economic development, full-stop.

And yet, if the report card on the MDGs was discouraging – there was also a buzz of excitement in the hallways of the United Nations about the increasingly assertive role by the private sector in fighting poverty. Crisis really does breed opportunity. In spite of the prevailing climate of financial uncertainty, this phenomenon offers real promise and hope.

I was privileged to be able to work with two of the world’s most prominent business leaders – Bill Gates and Howard Buffett- to launch an exciting new public-private partnership we’ve called “Purchase for Progress” or “P4P”. We were joined in the announcement at the UN by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda; President Paul Kagame of Rwanda; President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania; and the First Lady of Guatemala Sandra Torres de Colom. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – which is already committed to investing more than US$900 million for agricultural development in poor countries – joined with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the government of Belgium to commit US$76 million to P4P projects.

Set against the landscape of the global food crisis, we expect P4P to turn the traditional concept of food aid on its ear: it will transform the business of meeting desperate needs – food for survival – into an opportunity to empower the smallholder farmers in ways that will build capacity and encourage real growth. Bill Gates calls it “transformative”. I see it as a revolution in food aid.

How does it work? As I wrote in my last blog on local procurement, we start with the fact that WFP is one of the largest purchasers of agricultural commodities in the world, spending $612 million in 2007 in 69 countries – a figure expected to reach a billion dollars in 2008. What’s “transformative” here is how we buy the food. Rather than make one-time purchases depending on need, availability and price, we will experiment with long-term contracts; this will generate guaranteed income that would in turn enable farmers to plan ahead and purchase seed, fertilizers and equipment they otherwise could not afford. With bolstered confidence and cash, farmers will have the incentive to invest in next year’s crops – uplifting their families as well as their fragile local economies. All told, we aim to help some 350,000 poor farmers in 21 countries significantly increase their incomes. Purchase for Progress is a “win-win”: we help the hungry poor, and we help local farmers who have little or no access to markets where they can sell their crops.

Increasingly, we will make an effort to buy locally for our school feeding programs around the world. Let me elaborate on school feeding, which I see as one of the best and most cost-effective investments we can make in the future of our planet. At just 25 cents per day to feed a child at school, school feeding has multiple benefits. In these times of high food prices, it provides a critical social ‘safety net’ that can help satisfy increased hunger needs, as well as social stability. WFP has extended school feeding to children through the school holidays in Guinea, Senegal and in Haiti, where I just returned from a trip to survey the damage caused by four successive storms. When schools manage to reopen next month, lunch-time meals will be essential to nourishing children and helping them focus on their lessons and not where their next meal might come from.

School feeding is the most powerful and affordable human rights program I know of for girls – who comprise half the school children we feed. Girls who spend at least five years in school are less likely to marry early, have children early, get trafficked or contract HIV/AIDS. Many of them also get take-home rations – an extra bag of rice or oil – based on perfect attendance. This raises their status to “breadwinner” in the family, especially in conservative societies, and helps attract and keep girls at school. Pretty much anywhere in the world, when WFP starts a school feeding project, absolute enrolment in that school increases for girls by 28 percent. Study after study has also shown that education of females is the cornerstone of economic development.

The next step will be looking for the maximum nutritional impact as we work with not only our own nutritionists, but with companies interested in improving nutrition for the developing world. Finding ways to increase the nutritional content of our school lunches and other food; improve packaging so that vitamins and minerals last longer, and developing greener packaging are all part of the next wave in food assistance.

All in all, it was an amazing week in New York. I was so heartened to see the private sector step forward in such a significant way to invest in development – a realm traditionally left to the public or non-profit sector. Working together, it is precisely these kinds of innovative private-public partnerships that can engage the poorest citizens of our planet in their own future – and ours – by cutting the cycle of hunger and poverty at its root.

Photo by FAO / Alessandra

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