Helping Our Neighbors: U.S. Leadership Promotes Partnerships, Saves Lives in Global Fight against Hunger

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

The United States has long been the most generous donor of global food assistance, both financial and with in-kind contributions. This role has allowed us the opportunity to share our knowledge and bounty, save millions of lives, build mutually beneficial economic and trade partnerships, and promote the growth of healthier, more stable societies. Americans are proud of this legacy, as we should be. Yet today, despite uninterrupted U.S. commitment, an estimated 690 million people are hungry, and 270 million of them stand at crossroads between starvation and a much-needed lifeline. Clearly, the United States cannot “reset the table” and end world hunger on our own.

To get to “zero hunger” in our lifetime, greater leadership is required. But what does that look like?

True leadership requires more than resources.

It requires political commitment—from donors, partner countries, and the private sector—to operate under a rules-based system and break down the barriers that impede inclusive, agriculture-led economic growth. It requires opportunity—for women, entrepreneurs, farmers, and others—to access education and training, own property, secure credit, participate in the economy, and become self-reliant. It requires innovation—from entrepreneurs, private sector partners, land-grant universities, research institutions, and others—to find low-cost, high-impact solutions to today’s most troubling food security challenges. It requires courage—from policymakers, civil society leaders, and ordinary citizens from around the globe—to address the underlying drivers of food insecurity. And it requires concerted action—from a broader pool of donors and the partner countries themselves—to mobilize resources, enhance disaster preparedness and response, and meet all of the challenges described above.

Between 2013 and 2016, the U.S. Congress made historic commitments to advance these principles, first by enacting modest but critical reforms to U.S. international food aid that provide for greater flexibility and the use market-based tools, then by authorizing a comprehensive approach toward food security through the Global Food Security Act. In 2018, we renewed and deepened those commitments by enacting additional food aid reforms and extending the Global Food Security Act through fiscal year 2023.

Through these efforts, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners have made measurable progress in tackling hunger, saving lives, promoting self-reliance, and helping communities grow their way out of poverty. They have incentivized governments to enact difficult but necessary reforms that enable agricultural investment and trade. They have reduced reliance upon market-distorting practices, including “monetization”—a highly inefficient process through which donated U.S. food is converted into cash to support other development activities—and expanded access to market-based solutions. They have supported the discovery and scale-up of over 1,000 agricultural innovations, including work on a blight-resistant potato by the University of Idaho and Simplot Plant Sciences. Moreover, through these efforts, they have helped advance core U.S. values and interests, strengthen U.S. alliances, and build new economic partnerships—key U.S. national security objectives that have become increasingly important in the face of China’s growing influence across the developing world.

“We will continue to lead in combating global hunger in part because it is what we as Americans do, but also because it is in our interest to do so.”

As we look toward the next Farm Bill and renewal of the Global Food Security Act in 2022, we must redouble these efforts. This will include challenging old assumptions, enhancing efficiency and effectiveness, spreading U.S. resources farther, leveraging other donors and private sector partners, and promoting even greater self-reliance.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the United States hard on multiple fronts, including in relation to food security. Yet, we will continue to lead in combating global hunger in part because it is what we as Americans do, but also because it is in our interest to do so. Hunger is inextricably linked to broader political and economic insecurity, which, in turn, threatens the health, safety, and prosperity of the American people.

I personally witnessed the profound human consequence of hunger and insecurity while visiting Mozambique in 2019, after two devastating storms—Cyclones Idai and Kenneth—struck the country within a period of just six weeks. And like many Americans, I have been struck by the images of starving children in Syria, Yemen, Zimbabwe, and South Sudan, where armed groups use food as a weapon of war. We all have felt the consequence of the 2007-2008 global food crisis, which drove an estimated 150 million people into poverty, sparked riots in 30 countries, and destabilized major parts of Africa, South Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. We also remember the 2010 popular uprisings in the Middle East, fueled in part by rising food prices, and resulting in the ouster of four sitting heads of state, the collapse of Libya, deeper insecurity across North Africa, ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and the periodic deployment of U.S. armed forces.

Today, a record-breaking 80 million people have been displaced by conflict and natural disasters, 80 percent of whom are living in areas severely impacted by food insecurity and malnutrition. The combined effect of these ongoing, deadly conflicts with the Covid-19 pandemic, a surge in climate disruptions and natural disasters, and related economic shocks has threatened to reverse 30 years of global economic gains and, according to the UN World Food Programme executive director David Beasley, trigger “multiple famines of biblical proportions.” The stakes could not be higher.

In the U.S. Senate, I worked last Congress with my colleague Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) to introduce a bipartisan, bicameral resolution recognizing a decade of results under the USAID signature global food security program, Feed the Future, and the need to continue efforts to accelerate inclusive agricultural development and improved nutrition outcomes for women and children in the developing world. However, Feed the Future investments also benefit communities in the United States by increasing U.S. trade and agricultural exports by more than $1.4 billion and supporting agricultural research partnerships with U.S. universities and land-grant institutions. 

Our founding fathers spoke about Americans’ habits of the heart—the idea that we always help our neighbors. The United States cannot do this alone, but by working with “our neighbors,”—including other donors and partner countries in the developing world—we can do our part to lead an effective response to growing food insecurity. I know we will.

Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has represented Idaho in the U.S. Senate since 2009.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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