Hungry for impact: how USAID is feeding the future

Sean Jones may be talking from his office in the Washington, DC headquarters of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), but his career has very much revolved around the needs and hopes of millions of people living in developing countries around the world.

A multiyear veteran of the agency – Jones’ previous roles include stints in Mexico, Colombia, Iraq and Jordan – he is now the senior deputy assistant director in USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, which leads “Feed the Future” – the US government’s initiative to tackle food insecurity and global hunger. Launched in 2010, Feed the Future operates in 19 countries around the world

“One of the biggest things that we’ve seen our engagement create is the international momentum behind the concept of food security,” he says. “This is about the intellectual firepower which goes into identifying what makes a really good series of food security interventions from donors, the private sector, or host governments and communities. This international momentum is a result of this programme.”

There’s no doubt such momentum is needed. Latest figures from the UN’s World Food Programme show that 795 million people – one in nine – still go to bed on an empty stomach, and even more – one in three – suffer from some form of malnutrition. Quite a daunting set of statistics, and one that no doubt serves as compelling motivation for Jones and his colleagues.

A global problem, a global set of solutions

Feed the Future aims to tackle the issue of global hunger in the medium and long term. Its goal is to reduce poverty and childhood stunting (a measure of undernutrition) by 20% in each area where it operates. To do so, it sets its sights on the longer-term goal of sustainability by equipping people with the knowledge and tools to feed themselves and helping them end their reliance on aid.

Jones and his team do this by seeking out new opportunities for trade in emerging markets, creating opportunities for meaningful work for at-risk communities, and much else besides. He is keen to stress that they are doing a lot more than just “feeding bellies” – particularly in focusing on improving resilience and nutrition. “There are multiple dynamics that go into helping communities become more resilient,” he explains.

“We want to ensure that when a shock occurs – like conflict or natural disaster – a community has the tools or the coping mechanism to actually be able to withstand that shock. We are probably in more of a teaching mode among international donors and the private sector when it comes to this. And nutrition programming is a part of everything we do. We want to make sure that the food that is being produced will reduce stunting, help brains grow, and ultimately help these communities become more resilient.”

Partners in impact

Feed the Future has invested more than US$1 billion annually across its 19 countries. Not only is it is supported by 11 US government departments and agencies, it also incorporates the efforts of partner governments around the world, global development organisations, and American businesses, not-for-profits, universities and research institutions. For Jones, who frequently peppers his conversation with references to USAID’s partners, this teamwork element is clearly vital.

“It’s not just mobilising US taxpayer funds – it’s having true partnerships where everyone shares some of the risk, including the host government and down to the small farmers and up to the Fortune 500 companies that are selling seeds or providing crop insurance premiums,” he says. “Everyone needs to have some stake in the game – this partnership perspective is absolutely critical to the future of international development, and I think we’re leading on that.”

And the element of country ownership – so important for any development programme – looms large across its operations. “We are talking with governments and seeking their commitment to be a full 50-50 partner to invest in their country,” he points out. “Without that commitment and planning, there will be no programme in that country and so, yes, this is absolutely a programme where we operate hand-in-hand with our host government.”

More done, more to do

The good news is that, seven years in, Feed the Future’s work is bearing fruit. It has helped more than 11 million farmers and other food producers gain access to new tools or technologies, as well as help food producers gain more than US$2.6 billion in new agricultural sales. Furthermore, based on what the initiative has measured thus far, it projects that poverty has dropped an average of 19% and child stunting has dropped an average of 26%

And yet, Jones would be the first to agree that there remains a huge amount still to do before hunger and malnutrition is truly eradicated.

“We have the largest number of people at risk of famine right now since World War Two,” he points out.  “In the countries where we are seeing progress, people from across all economic and social strata are stepping up and saying ‘this is disgraceful and we are going to work together to resolve it’.  This takes a long time and it takes real leadership to make the necessary changes.” He goes on to say, however, that he is anything but deflated by the size of the task ahead.

“US leadership in this space has really built a positive momentum across US administrations,” he says. “It has helped generate that continued investment from around the world. In food security, it is a point of conversation in almost every single international meeting now – this is unheard of.  And remember, we are striving to play a catalytic role. We’re not just out there to fund a rice mill in Senegal – what we want to do is create system-wide change. It’s ambitious, but if you’re going to spend one billion dollars of American taxpayers’ money every single year, and form thousands and thousands of partnerships, then you should be ambitious.”

Jones makes an eloquent case for the value of the programme and for international development as a whole. Persuasive arguments such as these remain in demand in DC and beyond, as there is a permanent need to communicate and explain the mission to those who might instinctively prefer US taxpayers’ money to be steered towards the domestic arena.

“Since the beginning of foreign assistance, it is not 100% immediately identifiable as to why you would want to take the resources of your own country and start sharing them with the rest of the world,” admits Jones. “But what we’ve learned over past decades is that what we invest now results in generational linkages between our two countries. We also find that investments in most of the countries in which we are working tend to result in greater stability for those countries.”

A technological future

As for what comes next, Jones believes there will be progress across the board in those countries that are committed to having strong policies to encourage private sector investment and investment in their own people. Technology, too, will play its part.

“We’re all excited by technology – the challenge is deciding what to do with it,” he says. “Artificial intelligence is an underlying technology that will support a lot of the systems we use in order to assess crop yields, weather patterns, and the likelihood of drought. Another area we are exploring is the use of satellite imagery and technology that can be used to identify where multiple interventions – nutrition-based, water-based, or providing tools or basic infrastructure – will have the most impact.”

At the end of the day, though, the success or otherwise of a country’s development ultimately rests with the country itself. “If they become resilient to threats such as climate change and conflict, then they will substantially reduce or eliminate hunger and malnutrition,” he says. “But in countries where this isn’t happening, unfortunately we will continue to see a need for international partners to support countries as they move down that path.”

Whatever happens, Jones and his team stand ready to assist. “We believe that the United States and the American people are a giving people,” he concludes. “The work we do is an expression of that.”

 

(Photo by Ana Filipa Couvinhas)

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