This morning, we were swept onto the campaign trail as Senators Obama and McCain shared their plans for US policy in each of CGI’s four focus areas: education, poverty alleviation, climate change, and global health. Each addressed the current financial crisis, and the international cooperation that we need going forward to overcome it. Both also discussed the imperative of addressing malaria, diversifying our energy use, and improving education. Senator Obama emphasized the role we each have to play – “the scale of our challenges may be great; the pace of change may be swift, but we know that it need not be feared. The landscape of the 21st century is still ours to shape.”
Each candidate touched on the rise of food prices globally. Over the past 24 months, grain prices have doubled, prices of fertilizers and fuels have tripled, and 30 countries across the world have seen food riots. Today in areas as distinct as Haiti, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, millions of people face starvation. Devastation wrought by drought, misguided corn ethanol subsidies, and protectionist agricultural policies have skyrocketed world grain prices, spiraling many of the worlds poor further into poverty.
In light of this relationship between food security and poverty, the Poverty Alleviation Track started the day with a panel on this topic. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argued that we must frame the food crisis as an issue of national security if we are to overcome our ‘crisis fatigue’ and drive our leaders to take action. There is the danger of a ‘billiard ball effect’, of domestic policies that worsen the situation in neighboring countries, leading to heightened tensions and the risk of conflict. Amos Namanga Ngongi of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) explained the need to focus on small-holder farmers, for they constitute the vast majority of farmers in Africa. He emphasized taking a comprehensive approach to smallholder agricultural development, improving seeds, soil, production, and transportation to market. Eleni Gabre-Madhin, CEO of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, believes commodity exchanges bring necessary order, integrity, efficiency and transparency to all market actors – and thereby reduce risk. She has set up electronic price boards throughout Ethiopia to instantaneously provide crucial price information to farmers, consumers and traders. Ken Lee, co-founder of Lotus Foods, described the labor intensity required to educate US consumers about the value of traditional agriculture sourced from developing countries, pointing out that customers are willing to pay a premium for these products. At table discussions, CGI members identified the importance of increasing small farmers’ access to finance, leveraging information technology to strengthen the entire value chain, and instituting legal protection for land ownership.
Nick Kristof of the New York Times built on these early themes with our post-conflict panel, where speakers emphasized the risk of falling back in to conflict, and the need for post-conflict leaders to provide immediate results in improving livelihoods and opportunities, giving former combatants a stake in the new order. One in two countries that has emerged from conflict will return to violent conflict within five years, and thus immediate and sustained action is crucial. Peter Buffett of the NoVo Foundation, Donald Kaberuka of the African Development Bank, and Mayu Brizuela of HSBC El Salvador, all underscored that women must be central at all stages — from ending conflict, to restoring trust and to securing longer term stability and development. Peter warned against ‘philanthropic colonialism’, or assuming that we know best – instead we must see, experience, and listen to the people we are trying to help, because they know best.
We concluded the day with a joint panel with the Climate track to explore the interplay between the climate crisis and poverty. We learned that while climate change will have the most devastating effect on the poor, addressing this crisis poses an opportunity for lifting the poor from poverty through millions of new green jobs. The panel urged outside-the-box thinking when it comes to addressing these challenges simultaneously. Dr. Pachauri, Director General of TERI – The Energy Resources Institute– provided the example of his “Lighting a Billion Lives” initiative whereby women entrepreneurs rent out solar powered flashlights to communities in India that are not currently electrified, enabling school children to study at night and villagers to eke out a better living. President Calderón of Mexico called for the creation of a Green Fund that all countries could contribute to and take from to respond to consequences of climate change. And Oakland’s Van Jones and Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation put forward the need to bring new partners to a “Green Growth Alliance” to realize the economic potential for creating millions of new green jobs.
All in all, a whirlwind day – brimming with ideas and opportunities in the face of crisis.
President & CEO, World Affairs Council of Northern California
Working Group Chair, Poverty Alleviation, Clinton Global Initiative