While the rest of the world has spent the last few years worrying about double-dip recessions and upheavals in the Middle East, the borderless nation of the hungry has continued to suffer in silence.

It was recognition of the debilitating effects of chronic hunger that led policymakers to include its eradication by 2015 among the Millennium Development Goals. This week, in Washington, that very recognition also undergirded the announcement of this year’s winners of World Food Prize (WFP).

The award has, since it was instituted in 1987, always gone to agricultural scientists such as M.S. Swaminathan of India — the winner of the first ever WFP award — and sometimes to social entrepreneurs such as Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh.

Yet this time the WFP Foundation sought to highlight the impact that top political leaders could have on the welfare of those afflicted by chronic hunger, if only they chose to foster a deeper commitment to agricultural science that actually translated into policy and results on the ground.

In doing so, the Foundation chose John Agyekum Kufuor, former President of Ghana and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former President of Brazil, “for their personal commitment and visionary leadership while serving as the presidents of Ghana and of Brazil, respectively, in creating and implementing government policies to alleviate hunger and poverty in their countries”.

Speaking to a packed audience in the grand Benjamin Franklin hall of the State Department, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said, “President Kufuor and President Lula da Silva have set the gold standard for presidential leadership in tackling the global challenges of poverty and hunger,” adding that it was necessary to train the next generation of forward-thinking leaders to deliver meaningful results in food security and nutrition.

The two former Presidents were picked for the award, which was created in 1987 by Nobel Peace Prize winner and Green Revolution champion Norman Borlaug, for leading a drastic reduction of hunger and poverty in their respective countries.

Mr. Kufuor who was the President of Ghana for two terms, during 2001-2009, was said to have implemented major economic and educational policies that increased the quality and quantity of food to Ghanaians, enhanced farmers’ incomes, and improved school attendance and child nutrition through a nationwide feeding program.

The WFP noted that under Mr. Kufuor’s leadership, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to cut in half the proportion of its people who suffer from hunger, and the proportion of people living on less than a dollar per day, on course to meet the Millenium Development Goal for hunger eradication.

Further, Mr. Kufuor prioritised national agricultural policies following which Ghana saw its poverty rate drop from 51.7 per cent in 1991 to 26.5 per cent in 2008. Hunger, in turn, fell from 34 per cent in 1990 to 9 per cent in 2004.

Mr. da Silva, who rose to the nation’s top public office despite being born into a poor family, had announced his intention to make fighting hunger and poverty a top priority of his government even before assuming office as President in 2003.

In choosing him as a co-laureate for the award, the WFP noted that Mr. da Silva had ensured that more than ten government ministries were focused on the expansive Zero Hunger programmes, “which provided greater access to food, strengthened family farms and rural incomes, increased enrolment of primary school children, and empowered the poor”. Zero Hunger very quickly became one of the most successful food and nutritional security policies in the world, the WFP Foundation added.

Similar to the policies of Mr. Kufuor, Mr. da Silva’s approach showed the dramatic transformation that highest-level political commitments could bring about. During his time in office, the Millennium Development Goal on hunger eradication was exceeded as Brazil cut in half proportion of its people who were in hunger.

The WFP said that with 93 per cent of children and 82 per cent of adults eating three meals a day, the unprecedented improvements in the hunger situation had occurred in tandem with the a sharp drop in the percentage of Brazilians living in extreme poverty, from 12 per cent in 2003 to 4.8 per cent in 2009.

Poor bear the brunt of food shortage

Speaking to The Hindu after the awards announcement, Professor Swaminathan commented on how the experiences in Brazil and Ghana compared to the situation in India, where the past few years have witnessed sharp fluctuations in food prices, and the poor have continued to feel the brunt of food shortages despite government silos being well-stocked.

Arguing that in India, rampant under-nutrition and malnutrition showed that more income for farmers was required. He said, “Agriculture will have to be revitalised in terms of getting more per drop of water or per unit of land — in other words, this can only be achieved by technological [upgrades] and more attention to land- and resource-use planning.”

Professor Swaminathan added that more than 60 per cent of India’s population depended on agriculture for its livelihood. He said, “In India, agriculture is not just a food-producing machine. It is the backbone of the livelihood security system of a majority of people.” There was also a growing tendency of the next generation of farmers abandoning farming as an occupation, he cautioned, noting that a lack of farmer interest in agriculture would make it difficult to have a second Green Revolution. He added that the absence of agricultural insurance would exacerbate such adverse conditions that farmers faced.

In this context, Professor Swaminathan had, as Chairman of the Selection Committee for the World Food Prize, hoped to underscore the significant difference that public policy could make when it helped farmers effectively obtain and adopt the best technologies.

Mr. da Silva and Mr. Kufuor will be formally awarded the WFP in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 13, in conjunction with the Borlaug Dialogue international symposium, themed “The Next Generation: Confronting the Hunger Challenges of Tomorrow.”

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