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Growing Out of Poverty
Annual letter: agriculture’s promise
As most of the world’s poorest people are farmers, helping them grow and earn more from their crops is the best way to fight poverty and associated ills. In my 2011 letter as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I report progress and some new strategies for agricultural development.
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Outside of health the area where we invest the most to help poor people is agriculture. There is so much potential in agricultural development because most poor people in the world feed their families and earn their income from farming. When farmers increase their productivity, nutrition is improved and hunger and poverty are reduced. In countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, investments in seeds, training, access to markets, and innovative agricultural policy are making a real difference. Ghana made agriculture a priority and cut hunger by 75 percent between 1990 and 2004. The increase in food production has led to economic development in other areas. 

But the growth in other countries has been slower. These are complex issues, and it’s going to take strong leadership to make sure farmers have the opportunity to seize their potential. Kofi Annan, who chairs the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, is leading the way by helping to drive a new agriculture agenda for the continent.

One program I’m especially enthusiastic about is a partnership launched in 2008 with the World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian agency for fighting hunger. What I like about it is that it takes a new approach to something the world has been doing for a long time, food aid.

In the past most small farmers were not able to sell their produce to WFP to be used as food aid. They had trouble meeting WFP’s complicated requirements and delivering food in bulk quantities that met WFP’s quality standards. Our partnership works with farmers and others to resolve these issues, making it possible for them to sell to lots of additional buyers including WFP. When the West African country of Niger experienced a famine last summer, WFP bought 1,000 metric tons of rice from a farmers’ organization in Mali. When small farmers in Mali are earning extra income by feeding hungry families in Niger, it’s a clear win-win.

The near-term rise in food prices and the long-term increased demand for food will create opportunities for small farmers even in the poorest countries. In fact, increasing production in Africa will be critical for the world to have enough food. It’s encouraging that foreign aid for agriculture has now increased from its historic low of just $2.8 billion in 2003 to $5.9 billion in 2009, and it’s critical that nations don’t cut back again.

One of the most important new developments came in April when I joined the finance ministers of the United States, Spain, Canada, and South Korea to launch the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program with initial commitments of nearly $1 billion over three years. This program provides support to developing countries with strong domestic agricultural development plans that they are already investing in themselves but cannot fully fund. It has generated amazing demand, demonstrating how committed poor nations are to their own agricultural development.

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