Fawzi Al-Sultan, President, International Fund for Agricultural Development

George McGovern, US Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Agencies

John Mellor, President, ABT Associates

Geeta Rao Gupta, President, International Center for Research on Women

John Westley, Vice President, IFAD

David Beckman, President, Bread for the World

Peter McPherson, President, Michigan State University and co-chair of
the Partnership to Cut Hunger in Africa

Rajul Pandya Lorch, Head, 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture and Environmental Intitiative, International Food Policy Research Institute

February 7, 2001—World attention needs to refocus on rural poverty and its critical importance to poverty in general, according to a new International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) report released to the public at the Wilson Center. Nearly 150 people attended the report's release and a subsequent discussion, while many more watched via live Web cast. (The archived Web cast is available at http://ecsp.si.edu/ruralpov.ram.)

Three-quarters of the 1.2 billion people in extreme poverty live in rural areas. Rural Poverty Report 2001: The Challenge of Ending Rural Poverty details their livelihoods, the factors that keep them impoverished, and the steps the world must take to help them. The rural poor are caught in a matrix of pernicious circumstances and forces: little access to schools, hospitals, markets, credit, and technology; dry and marginal lands; low levels of literacy; bigger families, higher mortality, and more hunger and disease (including HIV/AIDS); and fewer employment opportunities off the land.

In introducing the report, Fawzi Al-Sultan warned that today's rate of poverty reduction is less than a third of that needed to achieve the UN Millennium Summit's target of halving global poverty by the year 2015. He called for a reversal of the twelve-year decline in agricultural development aid given to developing countries, saying that "the rural poor must be the focus in any effort to eradicate poverty."

"The rural poor must be the focus in any effort to eradicate poverty."
Fawzi H. Al-Sultan, President, International Fund for Agricultural Development

The IFAD report emphasizes four specific and critical needs of rural farmers: assets, markets, technology, and institutions. Poor farmers own very little land and cannot use what they have for their own benefit, said Al-Sultan; they need more land and water access as well as more financial support and land titles. Local markets and infrastructure also need to be developed to give rural farmers' access to better prices. In addition, both existing and new technologies need to be brought to smallholder agriculture, and agricultural research needs to refocus on crops of use and importance to these farmers. Finally, institutions must become more responsive to and equitable for the rural poor.

Other rural residents especially vulnerable to poverty include landless wage laborers, displaced people, and female householders. Al-Sultan noted that impoverished rural women and children often suffer the most, having even less access to land, water, credit, and social services than their male counterparts.

Agricultural Reform Key to Poverty Eradication

George McGovern called the IFAD report a wonderful statement of the need to deal more strongly and effectively with rural poverty. The drive to halve global hunger and poverty by 2015 is "perfectly practical and achievable," said McGovern. "I am sure we can do this in 15 years."

But he questioned whether donor and recipient governments have the interest or competence to use the resources now available to achieve the 2015 goal. To combat this inertia, McGovern called for a campaign focused on the 300 million hungry children worldwide. Calling nutrition "the handmaiden of education," McGovern stressed that school lunch programs are the best weapon to promote education and hence increased literacy, better health, and lower birthrates. He also vowed to lobby President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on the importance of the report and the unparalleled effectiveness of investing in girls' education.

"Nutrition is the handmaiden of education."George McGovern, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Agencies

John Mellor said that he was hopeful the IFAD report could spur foreign donors to return to their higher agricultural aid levels of the 1980s, which were extraordinarily successful in reducing rural poverty. While there is now much talk of the ascendancy of urban poverty, said Mellor, absolute urban poverty in Asian countries (for example) has essentially ceased to exist. Agricultural reform is the proven engine of poverty eradication, he stressed, not only because most poverty is rural but because of the profound multiplier effect of rising rural income: for every one agriculture job created, two to three are created in domestic goods and services.

The Importance of Empowering Women

Geeta Rao Gupta called the IFAD report both a great resource and a prime advocacy tool. But she warned that the UN Millennium Summit pledge cannot be met or sustained without significantly involving poor rural women in the effort. Such involvement is both smart and right, said Rao Gupta: smart because women are crucial players in food security, and right because gender disparities are greatest among the rural poor. "A gender perspective needs to be woven through all the analyses and recommendations of the IFAD report," she said.

Rao Gupta also noted that the UN Security Council's recent discussion of AIDS as a national security issue afforded an opportunity to place food security on the international agenda as well. Citing the success of advocacy for girls' education, she argued that comprehensive national data on women's poverty would be crucial in convincing skeptical officials of the need for action.

Implementing the Report

Audience questions focused on implementing the report's conclusions and recommendations. Calling the issue of rural poverty as important as that of debt relief, Al-Sultan noted the difficulty of getting rural agricultural programs onto the agenda of developing countries' governments. But he also noted that, after a long period of budgetary restraint, some developed countries have a renewed interest in foreign development aid.

A full discussion period followed the report's presentation. John Westley of IFAD began by announcing that the report (which had been presented two days earlier to United Nations officials) would also be presented to several donor countries in the next weeks and then to aid recipient countries.

"If we continue our short-term view, more people will die."Peter McPherson, President, Michigan State University; co-chair of the Partnership to Cut Hunger in

Asserting that agricultural aid has been neglected inadvertently in foreign aid budgets of the last decade, Peter McPherson called for an "NIH-like" professional approach to the problem of increasing agricultural productivity worldwide. McPherson said that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is deeply interested in African affairs and will be receptive to such an approach. "The technological capabilities for food production are just exploding," said McPherson. "But if we continue our short-term view, more people will die."

David Beckmann announced that a recent Bread for the World survey showed that 83% of the American public wants the U.S. government to support the effort to halve global poverty by 2015–and is willing to pay $50/person annually to accomplish it. He said that $4 billion in additional and effective poverty reduction assistance ($1 billion more from the United States) would ensure reaching that goal, and he added that he is hopeful both the Bush administration as well as Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) will be open to this initiative. "We need institutional reforms, too, said Beckmann, "but money is a clear sign of will to alleviate this problem."

Rajul Pandya Lorch called the IFAD report the clearest and most compelling report to date on rural poverty and how to eradicate it. However, she was pessimistic–given the intractability of global rural food insecurity–that the Millennium Summit goal could be reached. Pandya Lorch noted that food insecurity is entrenched in Asia and has doubled in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s. She also cited urbanization, HIV/AIDS, and globalization as major developments that could block poverty eradication efforts.

"Looking for Openings"

Responding to audience questions, Beckmann said that the IFAD report's proposals were entirely consistent with President Bush's platform of "compassionate conservatism." And he defended his openness to working with Senator Helms, saying that Helms' staff members have told him the Senator wants to reform the U.S. Agency for International Development, not eliminate it. "I'm hopeful, not optimistic," said Beckmann. "We're looking for openings."

George McGovern echoed Beckmann's optimism and added that there has never been a better time to launch an effort to eradicate poverty. McGovern said that, while $16 billion in productivity is lost annually because of world hunger, $6-8 billion yearly would end it. "There is a real possibility that the kind of interesting common sense proposals heard today could be sold to the U.S. government and my UN colleagues," added McGovern.

All participants agreed with Pandya Lorch that, while foreign aid is welcome, the real goal is agricultural self-sufficiency for developing countries. She added that there must be a strong element of community participation from the beginning in any new program of agricultural assistance. Wesley of IFAD said that the report will be presented to aid-recipient countries precisely to generate such self-initiative. Beckmann concluded by lauding the IFAD report's case studies highlighting programs that increased productivity and political empowerment for the world's poor. He said that groups representing the poor must push from below for poverty reduction strategies that are not business as usual.