Bill Gates: Helping world’s poorest farmers is best international aid

WASHINGTON — Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, continues to emphasize that supporting farming families in developing countries is critical to overcoming poverty and hunger.

“I came here today to join those calling on the U.S. and other countries to fund agricultural development for poor farming families,” Gates said May 24 at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security.

“The U.S. has a pivotal role to play.”

Gates was joined by U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran, and others.

Basic need

In his first major address on agriculture to high-level members of the Obama administration and U.S. Congress, Gates noted that three-quarters of the world’s poorest people rely on small plots of land for their food and income.

Helping these small farmers grow and sell more so they can become self-sufficient is the most effective way to reduce hunger and poverty, he said, giving examples of progress already happening in Africa and South Asia.

Today, there are nearly a billion hungry people in the world. In 2008, food prices jumped to record levels, causing riots, hunger, instability, and a plunge back into poverty for millions. Early this year, food prices spiked again, even higher than the peak of three years ago.

On right track

But Gates argued that sweeping change is already under way, and he praised U.S. leadership for helping to secure $22 billion in commitments to food security that were announced at the G8 and G20 meetings in 2009.

While only about half of these pledges have been disbursed or are on track to be disbursed, Gates noted the commitment of President Obama and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to spend $3.5 billion over three years through the Feed the Future program.

Justified budget

He also lauded Congress for including $100 million in the budget for the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program.

“We have a big budget deficit, and foreign assistance is always an easy target. So we need to tell people over and over why this spending is worth it — even in tight economic times,” Gates said.

Gates said farming is a business that helps poor farmers build self-sufficiency and improve their lives.

His role

He explained how the foundation and its partners are focusing their efforts on helping farmers get better seeds, healthier soils, and access to markets, as well as supporting better data and policies.

“In country after country, these approaches have improved the livelihoods of small farmers while reducing poverty and increasing economic growth,” said Gates.

“It’s proving the point again and again: helping poor farming families grow more crops and get them to market is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing poverty and hunger.”

To date, the Gates Foundation has committed $1.7 billion to agricultural development.

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