Obama Unveils Private-Public Partnership on Food Aid

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Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

US President Barack Obama speaks on Global Agriculture and Food Security at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, on May 18, 2012 on the sideline of the G8 summit.

Any one remember sending their left overs to Africa? Not so long ago, that food aid consisted of massive amounts of random extra food that developed countries would send to the developing world in response to crises – mostly to rot on airport tarmacs for lack of distribution. On Friday, President Obama hopes to show the world how much times of changed.

Three years ago in L’Aquila, Italy, on the heels of a crippling famine in Africa, the G8 pledged $22 billion in food development – the first significant investment in a field where aid had been dwindling for years. That pledge expires this year and the Obama Administration is seeking to not only renew it, but to expand it, particularly in the private sector. When he announces this “New Alliance” on Friday, Obama will notably share the stage with the CEOs of several of the 40 companies who have pledged $3.5 billion in food and nutritional assistance along side the government.

“We’re very excited,” USAID Administrator Raj Shah told TIME in an interview in his Washington offices on Wednesday. “It really is the culmination of years of effort on behalf of African leaders, on behalf of entrepreneurs, this Administration, partners in the G8 and many, many others including the private companies that are joining this private-public partnership.”

The initiative will focus on sub-Saharan Africa and aims not only to feed the hungry in that region, but to create jobs and rescue 50 million people from extreme poverty. “You’ve seen six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world in sub Saharan Africa. You’ve seen two to three times the growth rate of the global economy and as a result you’ve seen a lot of foreign investment go to Africa but usually for things like minerals and extractive industries,” Shah says. “You’ve not seen a parallel growth in private investment in agriculture. And so this effort will correct for that.”

Not everyone is delighted with the campaign. Non-governmental organizations involved in food and nutrition held a press conference Wednesday morning at the Old Ebbitt Grill. Over a greasy American breakfast, they warned the G8 not to roll back on their commitment. “Frankly, I think, it would be a colossal derivation of political will and leadership to actually take a step back” frpm the L’Aquila commitment, said Ben Leo of Bono’s One Campaign.

Ninety percent of Africa’s food is produced by small and women farmers, noted Neil Watkins of ActionAid USA, who said they should be the focus. “If you look at the program on Friday you do see large American agro-business as the main speakers, chief executives of them. What we’d like to see is a broader definition of the private sector that includes things like farmer collectives in Africa, farmer associations, very small things like associations in Africa. The challenge is in getting the incentives to actually get private businesses and banks to support those kinds of collectives that are a lot more risky.”

Shah bristled at the suggestion that the aid is somehow a handout to U.S. businesses. Half of the 40 companies in the alliance, he pointed out, are African. And almost all of the work involved is targeted at small farmers. Jain Irrigation out of India, for example, plans on spending $375 million on developing low cost, small scale irrigation systems that could be used en masse in Africa. And Vodaphone had pledged to reach at least 500,000 farmers with farm extension services, which would allow them to text and get market prices from their fields. “The focus on this effort is on small family farms,” Shah said.

With the world economy teetering, it’s notable that Obama is making this announcement before the Camp David summit even begins on Saturday. Only two hours are set aside in the weekend schedule to talk about food and nutrition. The leaders, instead, will focus on the Eurozone crisis, Greece’s potential default, unrest in Syria and the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. “The era of Gleneagles, of large scale massive aid pledges is over,” said Sam Worthington of InterAction, referring to the 2005 G8 meeting in Scotland where leaders doubled aid to Africa, forgave the debt of the world’s poorest nations and agreed to up foreign aid by $50 billion a year by 2010. “That doesn’t mean that the G8 can’t make a significant difference in development issues. It can create new alliances by bringing in the private sector, civil society, multiple governments. So you can create a frame for people to work out of. “ What Obama is proposing aims to do just that.