Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Teach a man to fish a commentary

A director at the Earth Institute of Columbia University uses an old proverb in his latest commentary. Pedro Sanchez tells us how helping hungry people grow more food will do more than giving food, and it can be even cheaper.

The commentary is excerpted by the Guardian but will published in it's entirety in tomorrow's issue of Nature.

New evidence from the Millennium Villages project, which I direct, shows that helping farmers help themselves is more effective than food aid and costs a sixth as much. Farmers were given access to fertilisers, improved seeds, training and markets. Their maize yields more than doubled as a result. Similar results were seen in Malawi after its government provided fertiliser and seeds to farmers. In just two years, Malawi went from being a recipient of food aid to a food exporter.

It costs $812 to deliver one tonne of maize as US food aid to Africa. The fertiliser and seed that Millennium Village farmers need to produce an additional tonne of maize cost $135 on average.

Buying food aid locally, as the UN World Food Programme is increasingly doing, is another important step away from the inefficiency of food aid. Purchasing a tonne of maize in an African country costs approximately $320.

Although estimates on costs may vary, their underlying message is clear. Turning away from food aid and providing subsidies or credit to farmers in poor countries could help millions obtain their own food, begin the escape from poverty, and also meet much of the demand for food aid in developing countries – without costing more.

Fortunately, some donors are starting to shift away from food aid for the chronically hungry. The UN World Food Programme now buys some of its food aid in poor countries. The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is leading the development of a fund that would provide support for farmers in poor countries to grow more food. The Spanish government has pledged €1 billion over five years for this initiative, and the European parliament has committed the same amount. What is urgently needed now is an innovative financial mechanism that can deliver the funds rapidly and effectively to African governments that have shown a serious commitment to end hunger.

To paraphrase the popular proverb, giving someone a fish so they can "eat for a day" is only a solution for the most hungry who cannot help themselves or are the victims of war and famine. For most people in poor countries, we must give them the tools to fish so they can eat for a lifetime, and at one sixth of the cost.

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