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U.S. ag programs ease hunger, poverty abroad

DANIEL YOHANNES chief executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Corporation addresses the Mississippi State University Food Security Conference At left are Sen Thad Cochran RMiss and Mark Keenum Mississippi State University president Photo by Russ Houston MSU
<p> DANIEL YOHANNES, chief executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, addresses the Mississippi State University Food Security Conference. At left are Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Mark Keenum, Mississippi State University president. (Photo by Russ Houston, MSU)</p>
MCC has invested $4.6 billion in 11 African countries; 60 percent of its funds are invested in infrastructure, such as rural roads and ports, to help transport crops to markets more efficiently. Through Feed the Future (the U.S. government&rsquo;s global hunger and food security initiative), USAID partners with research institutions, churches, student groups, and other organizations to help communities develop and sustain sufficient food sources.

Mid-South and U.S. farmers face challenges daily — such as drought, frost, and pests — but advanced technology and farming methods and government subsidies mitigate the problems to some degree.

In developing countries, however, the absence of organization, modern techniques, and adequate tools makes farming a much more difficult profession, resulting in widespread problems ranging from malnutrition to starvation.

U.S. government organizations like the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the United States Agency for International Development are making strides to assist farmers in developing nations and, as a result, help those nations fight poverty and hunger.

At an international conference on food security at Mississippi State University, Daniel Yohannes and Jolyne Sanjak from MCC and Raj Shah from USAID discussed programs that their organizations are creating to expand agricultural production and markets in these countries. The programs are steadily improving infrastructure, providing advanced technology, and training farmers to use more effective methods.

Since its establishment in 2004, the MCC mission has been responding to specific needs of agricultural communities in developing countries. Sanjak, MCC managing director of technical services, said the organization is a “demand-driven model, not U.S. government-driven.”

MCC has invested $4.6 billion in 11 African countries; 60 percent of its funds are invested in infrastructure, such as rural roads and ports, to help transport crops to markets more efficiently.

Yohannes, chief executive officer of MCC, said the organization is committed to providing the best and most cost-effective programs. “We owe it to American taxpayers to get the best return for your investment. We are more and more open to embracing the culture of change, innovating how we do business.”

To that end, MCC evaluates the success of its programs based on evidence such as increased traffic on roads, increased production and revenue for farmers, and whether their methods increase household income.

From 2006 to 2012, MCC partnered with the West African country of Mali to increase agricultural production and revenue. A major venture was the Alatona Irrigation Project, which resulted in improved water distribution technology and minimized water waste through real-time monitoring of water management systems.

MCC has also invested heavily in training — 227,000 farmers have been trained since its initial stages. The organization makes gender integration a priority because, in many developing countries, women are excluded from certain agricultural activities, which weakens agricultural communities. Therefore, they insure that women benefit from MCC assistance programs.

When MCC established a dairy program in Nicaragua in 2006, 21 percent of its beneficiaries were women, who are now on the boards of Milk Collection Centers. Additionally, quality and hygiene improvements were made in yogurt and cheese production, which are traditionally female activities in Nicaragua.

Prior to the dairy project, Sanjak said, “Livestock activities were seen as a masculine work.”

In addition to training, these agricultural communities need technology to improve farming methods. In Madagascar, MCC encountered unsystematic land records in several communities. Decrepit and disorganized records were collected, verified, repaired and placed in waterproof file folders, then were later digitized and made accessible through a land information system.

MCC works to engage people with technology. For example, cell phones connect people to legal help, and satellite imagery can help with mapping activities such as drawing boundaries with neighbors. Technology can provide more effective, lower-cost approaches to titling and registration, which result in more organized and efficient agricultural communities.

“We need to make the projects sustainable,” Sanjak said. “The people should be able and willing to continue to use the technology and knowledge.”

These programs not only help developing countries, Yohannes said, but also strengthen the U.S. security and the economy. “Development is in our national interest,” he said. “It may seem like a misplaced priority, but it is tied to our security and prosperity. Development money strengthens the U.S. economy and opens markets for American businesses.”

USAID is taking similar action to solve the problem of global food security, said Raj Shah, who is the 16th administrator of USAID and former chief scientist at USDA. “USAID is an open source development,” he said. “We identify problems, then identify people who can solve those problem and connect them.”

Through Feed the Future (the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative), USAID partners with research institutions, churches, student groups, and other organizations to help communities develop and sustain sufficient food sources.

According to Shah, the United States has the capability to handle the problem at home. “We know we’re suffering from major drought, but we also have systems in place — insurance, satellite data, measuring systems, and Extension systems to reach producers. These systems are missing in most of the countries we’re working in.”

The Horn of Africa is one area where USAID sees tremendous food insecurity. Because of long-term drought, 13 million people have been pushed below the poverty line and are leaving their communities in search of food.

USAID has plans to mitigate some of those problems. It has pledged $70 million over the next five years to collaborate with the Kenyan Research Institute to produce climate-resilient crops, increase livestock herds through disease resistance, improve irrigation systems, and reduce post-harvest losses and food waste.

Strengthening connections between these agricultural communities and the global market is also key to improving food security and alleviating hunger for millions of undernourished people.

“Even though there’s a globally connected system in areas that suffer from regular hunger, they’re not as well connected,” Shah said. “Part of the solution is building market systems that connect those communities to larger economies.”

As part of the solution, USAID partnered with Chevron, the fourth largest employer in Mississippi. Together, they helped establish Angola’s first bank, which gave loans to over 200,000 customers and has a default rate below 3 percent.

A future in which no one dies of starvation or food-related disease may seem unattainable now, but he said, the U.S. government has been and continues to be effective in its efforts to help farmers make the most of their agricultural resources and feed their communities.

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