Earlier this week, I was among an audience of around 100 or so Congressional staffers and non-profit professionals who attended the event “Ending World Hunger: What Can the U.S. Do?” as part of the Wilson Center’s On the Hill panel series. Presented by John Sewell of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the panelists were Ann Tutwiler, coordinator of the USDA’s Feed the Future initiative, Jay Branegan, senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Julie A. Howard, Executive Director of the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa.

The eradication of world hunger has been the dream of students, politicians, peasants, and beauty queens alike since the inception of global conscience. No surprise then, I was excited to attend an event that would substantively discuss and challenge how the US was approaching sustainability and food in the developing world.

At the end of the panel, however, I wasn’t quite satisfied.

To be fair, the presentations sounded great, at least at the beginning. There was significant enthusiasm for country-driven, capacity-building, learning-from-the-past, and soon-to-be-implemented models. Tutwiler explained how the Feed the Future Initiative was taking on a systemic methods as opposed to those that were project-based; she revealed that the organization had learned that donor-driven assistance was not sufficient to bring those chronically hungry out of poverty; she explained that Feed the Future was to be accountable to countries it works with, engaging in consultation with local organizations. As a student organizer, I’ve got a big soft spot for building capacity of local actors.

Branegan went on to describe the most recent developments with regard to the Global Food Security Act, also called the Lugar-Casey Food Security Bill. I’d suggest reading (former Global Development Intern) Rachel Voss’ excellent post to find out more about the basic provisions and previous problems with the bill. Branegan focused on several parts of the bill: he clarified that certain money would be put aside for “emergency emergencies” (situations like the earthquake in Haiti, but remaining untouched otherwise). He attempted to assuage concerns raised by “environmentalists in the blogosphere” by saying that the language would probably be changed to “including but not limited to GMOs.” He praised the HECTARE (Higher Education Collaboration for Technology, Agriculture, Research, and Extension) provision that would seek to  “transplant the American land grant college system” into other countries to increase educational as well as agricultural opportunity. And finally, he touted bipartisan support for the bill amid “a sea of partisanship” after Sunday’s divisive health care vote. Again, it sounded pretty good, but I remained skeptical.

In a similar vein to Tutwiler, Howard spoke about the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa as an endeavor to “amplify the African voices” of countries the organization works with. Howard explained that the priorities of the Partnership included evaluation then learning from actions, prioritizing increasing capacity on the ground, articulating a narrative about food security and global hunger, coalition building abroad with Africa-based staff members, and broadening country markets to regional markets to increase trade and sustainability. These are all immensely laudable goals.

I guess I get simultaneously delighted and nervous when I hear people in suits with catered meals and full stomachs talk about building capacity in the developing world. On the one hand, it’s important that powerful countries appreciate their prominent position and act morally. At the same time, the whole purpose of organizing as a theory of social change is for communities to solve their own problems. If the US keeps sending money, attempting to replicate systems specific to the US, and swooping in to save the day, how could this possibly help folks solve the questions of sustainability and hunger in their very particular circumstances? Furthermore, the trust fund for food aid would still be under the auspices of the World Bank, and subsequently the US Treasury. This way of dolling out money to countries keeps them accountable not to themselves but to giants like the World Bank, the IMF, and other multinational corporations.

In the end, it comes down to responsibility, individual and collective. The US is not exempt; it needs to be held accountable on a global scale. One woman asked about meat: since countries consume more meat as they industrialize, and given that the US already consumes an astounding amount of meat, and the world can only sustain so much livestock, has there been any talk of urging developed nations, particularly the US, to cut down on meat consumption? The answer she got was a collective chuckle at the idea that a US government would tell its people what to eat.

I’m not sure it’s so laughable.

People, especially those disappointed on Sunday, are very wary about increasing government regulation about choice. But on the other hand, if we’re claiming global citizenship, isn’t this exactly the type of global thinking we need to engage in? This is just one form of sacrifice, and a fairly mild one at that, that the US could make that would actually save us money and contribute very positively on an international level. The people I heard speak seemed to want all the benefits of more numerous markets without any of the sacrifice it takes to be a responsible part of the global landscape.

One response to this strategic struggle has been the concept of food sovereignty articulated and embodied by La Via Campesina; they define the term as “the RIGHT of peoples, countries, and state unions to define their agricultural and food policy without the “dumping” of agricultural commodities into foreign countries.” This international grassroots movement seeks to “develop solidarity and unity among small farmer organizations in order to promote gender parity and social justice in fair economic relations; the preservation of land, water, seeds and other natural resources; food sovereignty; sustainable agricultural production based on small and medium-sized producers.”

When Ann Tutwiler was asked how women play into the Feed the Future’s plans, she exclaimed that, as 70% of the world’s farmers, they were a vital factor. But she wasn’t a gender expert and she didn’t have enough time to really talk about that aspect of her organization, but really, it’s a great question.

It isn’t enough to learn a local language or research what crops grow best in an area. Food sustainability is bound up with family, and family is inextricably tied to women. Gender expert or not, empowered women are integral to the survival of farming, food, and families. In the same way that coalitions are more powerful than individuals, La Via Campesina articulates the ways that free markets, imperialism, the marginalization of women, and other oppressions work together to undermine the autonomy of the developing world.

That outlook is pretty different from the one I saw presented earlier in the week on Capitol Hill.

As I said, I left with more questions than answers. What does “capacity-building” on the ground actually look like from an American perspective? A native perspective? When will we get to see the fully updated version of the Global Food Security Act? Who will be on the advisory board that will have oversight on the World Bank’s trust fund? What does a sustainable developed country in the Global South even look like? Is the goal to have more mechanized farming and all the attendant environmental issues? How, in fact, are the specific needs of women in the developing world factored in to these models? Is food sovereignty a paradigm destined to remain on the fringes of US government policy? If so, why? Is the extra-governmental work of organizations like La Via Campesina completely at odds with policies of US foreign food aid?

And finally, where were the Africans that morning? How different are these “new” initiatives really if, despite the airtime given to carefully orchestrated rhetoric, the same people are seen and not seen?

In the new few weeks, I’ll try to answer some of these questions, and share what I find out.

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