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Rajiv Shah, USAID director, on tackling global hunger and why women lead the way

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; A15

The number of people suffering from hunger has now topped 1 billion globally -- the highest since 1970, according to the United Nations. U.S. foreign-aid director Rajiv Shah, 37, recently presented the Obama administration's strategy to tackle the food crisis.

"Feed the Future" will focus on improving the agricultural systems of at least 20 countries. It's part of an international effort that could benefit 40 million poor people over a decade, officials say.

Shah, a medical doctor who heads the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, came to agriculture through a circuitous route. In a former job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he analyzed high-impact ways to help the poor. That led him to focus on farming. He didn't just crunch numbers, though; he spent time working on a Montana farm "to get my boots dirty."

"I fell in love with it," he said.

Q: What's the main way in which Feed the Future differs from what the U.S. government did before?

A: Probably the most important is the level of political commitment and engagement across the entire federal government. In the past, we've done good projects but often small projects . . . that didn't really tie together and lead to a real transformation of that country's agriculture and its situation with respect to hunger.

Can you give an example of a country where you're introducing this?

I just got back from Bangladesh [where there are] 160 million people . . . about 40 million of whom suffer from chronic hunger. . . . We worked for many months at a high level with their government, civil society and the private sector, as well as international donors and partners who could really help focus on this program. . . . It's about following the lead of the countries we work in, as opposed to designing solutions from Washington or Rome or New York.

Farming sounds like something the U.S. government did back in the '60s and '70s. Why focus on it now?

In the late '70s and early '80s, we spent almost 20 percent, one-fifth of our foreign assistance, on agriculture. . . . Since then, agriculture has been forgotten. Investment has dropped down to 3 percent of foreign assistance And for a variety of reasons, as a result, the actual productivity growth of agriculture in these countries has dropped.

You've announced there will be a focus on female farmers. Why?

Women play a tremendous role in both producing food and making sure it gets to children and vulnerable populations. Women account for more than 70 percent of all farm labor in sub-Saharan Africa. We know that when a dollar of income goes to a woman, it's far more likely to generate improvements in the health and welfare of families than if the dollar goes to a man.

How did you choose the 20 countries that will qualify?

Most of all, we worked with the countries themselves to identify which ones had a real commitment to solving hunger, that had real potential. . . . This has to be ultimately led by the countries in which we work. We looked around for countries that were really leaning into this and trying to solve this problem aggressively.

There's been some skepticism in recent years about whether aid programs can deliver. What makes you think this will work?

I've seen this work in many parts of world. I've seen it work in western Kenya, where over the last decade, they significantly increased food yields. . . . I've seen it work in even tough places in dryland South Asia, like India, parts of Pakistan. There have been big successes in the past.

You recently spent six days in Africa, then went to China and Bangladesh, and now you're off to Rome. You must be jet-lagged.

I am. I have two young kids, and it's hard.

How do you deal with all that travel?

In all these places, we meet people who are very much a part of the solution. . . .It's inspiring to meet these people. It gives you confidence you can succeed at getting that billion number down to half or less.

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