Addressing the Global Food Crisis

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by Senator Richard J. Durbin     

I want to thank my friend Dan Glickman for that generous introduction – and for his and Cathy Bertini’s tireless leadership in the fight against global poverty and hunger.

I want to thank them, in particular, for their leadership on The Chicago Initiative on Global Agricultural Development.

I also want to acknowledge and thank Marshall Bouton for his leadership of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  

The symposium you are hosting today on global agricultural development and food security addresses issues that are critical to the work of helping left the world’s poor out of poverty.  That work can feel thankless, even endless, at times.  But it is noble and necessary work that is saving lives.

It is an honor to speak to you today about this cause.

The Chicago Initiative’s new report

Last month the Chicago Council released an important and insightful report, “Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty.” 

Around the time of its release, I had the honor to speak on global food security to several members of the Council at an event in Washington hosted by Dan Glickman. 

The timing of this report was perfect – for this is a new time in America. 

As President Obama stressed in his inaugural address – quote:

 “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

That is our goal.  Yet, last year’s food riots, and the continuing demands on the World Food Program, remind us that more must be done.  Millions of people around the world continue to live in grinding poverty and hunger, and we must not turn a blind eye to their plight. 

They need realistic options so that they can provide for their basic needs and make the most of their God-given potential.  And we all need them to have that chance – because poverty and hunger isn’t just their misfortune; it is a serious and growing threat to global stability and security.

This morning, I want to share with you some brief observations on your report and efforts to alleviate global hunger and poverty.  I also want to mention some measures that I, and others in Congress, are working on – measure that mirror recommendations in your report.  I hope we can work together to make these ideas a reality.

2008 food riots and crisis aid

We saw clearly a year ago how urgent the need for change is when violent food riots erupted around the world, from Senegal to Egypt to Indonesia, and toppled the government in Haiti.

Because of rising food prices, the World Food Program released a dire forecast.  It could buy only half of the food for school children that it could purchase one year earlier. 

The world responded quickly.  Congress included more than $1.2 billion in emergency food aid in a supplemental appropriations bill.  Other nations responded as well. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced over $18 billion in pledges at an emergency food summit in June.  Private organizations stepped up.  Together, we were able to step back from the brink.

Situation remains dire

But the situation remains dire.  The World Food Program is once again facing a projected shortfall – about $1 billion this year.  And we now face a growing global financial crisis that threatens to drive many of the world’s most vulnerable people deeper into poverty. 

The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that two likely consequences of this global economic crisis -- lowered economic growth, and reduced agricultural investment -- could result in 16 million more malnourished children in developing nations by 2020. 

In addition, as the Chicago Initiative report warns, without change, conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will worsen in the coming years because of population increases, growing pressure on limited supplies of land and water, and climate change.

Need to find a sustainable path

Of all the statistics in your new report, one of the most startling is this:  “The United States is now spending 20 times as much on food aid in Africa as it is spending to help African farmers grow more of their own food.”

This must change.  We have to find a sustainable path that promotes long-term agricultural development in the poorest regions of the world. 

That change is already starting to happen.

In response to last spring’s global food crisis, private organizations – including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – created new programs to support long-term agricultural development.

The World Bank established a $1.2 billion rapid response fund, the Global Food Response Program, to support food production in some of the poorest nations on Earth.

Congress included $200 million for long-term agricultural development in last year’s emergency supplemental.  That allocation included $50 million for local and regional purchase – one of the report’s recommendations – to help improve markets for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.

And just last week at the G-20 Summit, President Obama called for a doubling of US assistance for global agricultural productivity and rural development.  And he called for a comprehensive food security strategy to help alleviate chronic hunger around the world. 


Global Food Security Act

Let me mention three proposals in Congress that can also reduce hunger and poverty in developing nations.  The first is a new, bipartisan bill that was introduced earlier this year by Senator Dick Lugar and Senator Bob Casey.

It’s called the Global Food Security Act, and I’m an original cosponsor.  It would expand agricultural research and partnerships between higher education institutions in this country and their counterparts in developing nations. 

It would establish a new post – special coordinator for food security – within the White House, to make the best, most efficient use of America’s global agricultural assistance.  It would also improve our response to food crises.

This is important legislation that deserves our support. 

USAID Development Capacity Act

Second, we need to rebuild USAID’s leadership capacity.   This is another of your recommendations.

In 1990, USAID had 181 agriculture specialists; today it has 23.   USAID today doesn’t have enough agriculture experts – or water experts, or engineers, or any of the other professionals it needs  – to really make substantial, sustainable gains in the fight against global hunger and poverty.

I saw that when I travelled to Afghanistan 2 ½ years ago.  I was alarmed to learn that there were only six US agriculture experts in the entire country.  Imagine trying to rebuild a largely agrarian economy in a conflict zone – and move it away from a harmful dependence on poppy – with only six agriculture experts!

President Obama recently announced his policy for dealing with the conflict in Afghanistan.  The policy begins to address this glaring shortfall by sending hundreds of new civilian experts to help in this critical country.

In January, I introduced a bill – called the Increasing America’s Development Capacity Act – that would triple the number of USAID Foreign Service Officers by 2012.

As Secretary of State Clinton and Defense Secretary Gates have both pointed out, America’s development assistance – its generosity and ability help those in need overseas – is not only the right thing to do, it’s a critical part of our country’s overall foreign policy efforts.  

Global Water Shortage

The last proposal I’ll mention is an idea I owe to my friend and mentor, the man whose seat I now occupy in the US Senate:  the late Senator Paul Simon.

When I say I’m a follower of the Gospel of St. Paul, Paul Simon is partly who I am talking about.  He was a profoundly good and wise man. 

Solving the global water crisis was his last great campaign.  In 1998, he wrote a prophetic book called “Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It.”

He would go anywhere, and talk to anyone, to try to get people and governments to take the global water crisis seriously.

He found it unacceptable that almost 1 billion people in this world lack access to clean, safe water.  And more than 2 billion people lack access to basic sanitation. 

And water is not simply a humanitarian challenge.  It is a threat to global stability and the global economy.

Last June, Goldman Sachs held a meeting to assess the top five risks facing the world economy.  Resource scarcity – including competition for water, food and energy – was at the top of the list. 

Paul Simon understood the potential for conflicts over dwindling supplies of clean water.  It alarmed him.  He used to say, “Nations go to war for oil, but there are substitutes for oil.  There are no substitutes for water.”  We see that in the roots of the conflict in Darfur.   

And I have seen water challenges in so many of my recent travels.

First, Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.  Global warming is already causing Bolivia’s glaciers – a critical source of water – to melt and not be replenished. 

Second, Jordan, a key American ally in the Middle East.  What is the main challenge facing that country as it wrestles with a huge influx of Iraqi refugees?  Water. 

Then there’s Haiti.  Just a 90-minute plane ride from Miami takes you to another world.  There are no public sewage treatment systems anywhere in the country.  Even in the capital, Port-au-Prince, a city of 2 million people, the drainage canals are choked with garbage and sewage.       

It is no wonder that Haiti has the highest infant and child mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere. 

And Cyprus, where I recently met with two brave leaders working to reunify the long divided island.   

Amid this hopeful progress toward peace, another problem plagues this island – water.   

The groundwater in Cyprus is being depleted too quickly, often for agriculture, and it is being replenished too often with salt water that creeps into the water table.  Global warming is causing rainfall to decrease.

According to Johns Hopkins researchers, the average American uses 578 liters of water per day.  In Africa, the average person uses 47 liters of water per day.  People need 50 liters of water per day to meet basic needs.

The health consequences of water shortages in developing nations are devastating.  The World Health Organization estimates that, at any given time, close to half the people in the developing world are suffering from diseases associated with the lack of clean water and basic sanitation.

Children are especially vulnerable.  For example, diarrhea alone kills 1.8 million children under the age of 5 die each year.  That is the equivalent of all the children under age 5 in New York and London combined.

Lack of safe water also threatens economic development.  The UN estimates that women and girls in Sub-Saharan Africa spend 40 billion working hours each year collecting water – the equivalent of a year’s labor for the entire workforce of France.

A developing economy cannot grow if its people are too busy collecting water – or too sick – to work or to go to school.

Clearly, we can’t begin to solve the problems of global hunger and poverty without addressing the water crisis. 

After Paul Simon died, Congress passed the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act.  President Bush signed it into law in December 2005.  It represented the first time the US codified our commitment to any of the Millennium Development Goals.

That act helps people in developing nations develop and maintain their own water and sanitation systems.  It also makes water and basic sanitation a top priority for all US foreign assistance.

It is saving lives.   But it needs to be strengthened.

Paul Simon Water for the World Act

So, last month I, along with Senators Corker and Murray, introduced a new bill, the Paul Simon Water for the World Act. 

Our bill will reestablish US leadership on water around the world.  The goal is to reach an additional 100 million of the world’s poorest people with sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.  This would represent the largest single commitment of any donor country to meeting the Millennium Development Goal for water.       

Our bill targets aid to areas with the greatest need.  It helps build the capacity of poor nations to meet their own water and sanitation challenges. 

The bill provides technical assistance…best practices…credit authorities…and training to help countries expand access to clean water and sanitation.  Our development experts will design the assistance based on local needs.    

I hope I can count on you for support.  It’s the right thing to do, and the smart thing.  Every $1 spent in the water and sanitation sector creates on average another $8 in costs averted and productivity gained.

Poverty can be overcome

Let me close with a word of caution.  We can’t afford to be naïve about these challenges.  With our nation facing the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and millions of Americans losing their jobs and homes, it won’t be easy to convince people that it is in our interest to increase public and private support to feed hungry people a world away.  But we must make that case.  The crisis will only grow larger every year if we fail to act.

Lastly, a word of hope.  Nelson Mandela said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural.  It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Nelson Mandela conquered apartheid.  We can, and we must, help poor nations in Africa, South Asia and around the globe conquer poverty.  It is matter of mutual security and survival.  Thank you again for inviting me to join you this morning – and for the Council’s excellent report, which points us toward some solutions.