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By Carlos Perez del Castillo
Last week, Oxfam and Save the Children published a report titled “A Dangerous Delay”. The report details how, despite clear early-warning indicators of an upcoming drought and consequent famine in the Horn of Africa, the international community was too late to respond.
While the first clear signals of a major drought came as early as August 2010, it was not until a year later, in July 2011, that the international community started to react. The relief efforts mainly started after the UN officially declared a famine in southern Somalia, and the drought - finally - hit the international press.
Way too late for an adequate response though, states the Oxfam/Save the Children report. With disastrous consequences: Of the 13 million people at risk, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people died. More half of them were children under five, according to the same report.
LEARNING FROM OUR MISTAKES
The report raises many questions.
Why is it that clear, indisputable scientific evidence of an upcoming extensive drought in a region that was recognized to be highly food insecure and vulnerable does not turn into a significant humanitarian response until people are starving?
Why is it that clear calls for funding by major and credible humanitarian organizations, like the World Food Programme, four months before the declaration of famine, did not yield an adequate donor response?
Why is it that, time and again, funding is not provided to respond to a hunger crisis until pictures of starving children are seen in the world press?
Isn’t it the strength of the human race to be able to learn from our mistakes? We would start to doubt that strength, as the scenario for the Horn of Africa threatens to be repeated in the Sahel, at this very moment. Will we wait once more until pictures of dead cattle, dried crops and starving children hit our TV screens?
PREVENTION BETTER THAN CURE
While we applaud the continuous work and dedication of humanitarian relief agencies to intervene in times of hunger crises, there is a more, pivotal question to be asked: “What can we do to prevent hunger? What can we do to increase food security in vulnerable areas?”
And that is where our work comes in. The CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) develop collaborative approaches to address the needs of the poor. They address a wide range of issues: They aim to increase yields and profits for crops, fish and livestock. They improve sustainability, climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Our research improves the productivity, profitability, sustainability and resilience of farming systems. We work to improve nutrition and health. We ensure agricultural and natural systems remain in balance, increasing their resilience to degradation. We also work with governments and other organizations to improve policies and markets.
The Horn of Africa drought relief effort had a price tag of over US$1.2 billion, a one-time remedy to help 3.7 million people through one drought crisis.
Between 1997 and 2007, Ethiopia lost an average of US$1.1 billion to drought. Annually.
The 2012 cost for our research programs to improve the yields of major food crops is $300 million.
PROGRESS, WITHOUT THE PHOTOS
We don’t want to feature pictures of starving children, dead cattle and dried crops. We want to show thriving and innovative farmers, like Margaret Silas and Emily Marigu Ireri in Kenya, Joel Yiri in Ghana, Helene Nana in Burkina Faso and Ramniwash Kumar in Bihar, India.
We want to show the impact made by our researchers like Pooran M. Gaur, a scientist at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) who helped triple the yield of chick peas, a crop making up 20 percent of the world’s pulse production.
We want to show the world that even simple solutions help. Simple and cost effective solutions, like CIMMYT‘s project mobilizing farmers to produce metal containers to store their maize crop, dramatically reducing the post-harvest loss to weevils, rats and pests.
FROM AID TO DEVELOPMENT
Maybe our upbeat stories of how agricultural research impacts small farmer communities won’t “sell” as well as pictures of starving children, but we are tired of those pictures. These pictures don’t belong anymore on the newspaper front pages. Not in the year 2012.
This was also part of the message Bill Gates gave in a recent New York Times editorial, last week:
”My hope is that we can convert some of the generosity that goes into humanitarian relief into stronger support for foreign aid programs.
“Many of those suffering in the Horn of Africa were going hungry before there was a recognized emergency in the region. In fact, more than 1 billion people in the world don’t have enough food to eat.
“One of the most powerful solutions to this problem is to help poor farmers get more out of their small plots of land. In parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa especially, farmers plant low-yielding seeds, climate change is starting to shrink their harvests, and plant diseases are invading their fields.
“New seeds, better practices, better policies can help farmers cope with these challenges.”
The future is no longer a picture of a starving child. The future is one of people with smiles. It is a picture of prosperous farmers, of thriving rural communities, of innovative applied research bringing practical solutions. The CGIAR is the leading international agriculture research group. We can make that future happen.
We can change the picture.
Carlos Perez del Castillo is chair of the CGIAR Consortium Board, a member of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, a member of the board of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council (IPC), and a small cattle farmer.