Remarks by Vice President Biden at the World Food Program USA Leadership Award Ceremony
U.S. Department of State
October, 24, 2011
As Prepared For Delivery
Thank you, Rick, for that introduction and for the important work of the World Food Program USA to help meet humanity’s most basic need. Let me also congratulate our two honorees—Bill Gates and Howard Buffett—for your extraordinary contributions and personal commitment to eradicating hunger. Your groundbreaking work with the World Food Program on “Purchase for Progress”—using the purchasing power of the WFP to help small farmers—will set a standard for public-private partnerships for years to come.
I also want to acknowledge the team leading our Administration’s efforts on food security: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, last year’s recipient of your leadership award, and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. Both Hillary and Raj have spoken eloquently and powerfully about these issues, especially amid the ongoing crisis in the Horn of Africa.
And I have heard, and continue to hear, powerful personal stories about the crisis in the Horn from my wife Jill and my son, Hunter, who have both traveled to the region, and talked with some of the 13 million people at risk there. Jill tells a haunting story of a Somali woman, who described the long walk from Somalia’s famine zones into Kenya with two young children. When she could no longer carry them both, she was forced to leave one of them behind. That is a choice no parent should have to make.
A tragedy like this is a stain on the conscience of the world. As the ad by the ONE Campaign put it, famine is obscene. And I know that for those who have seen this suffering up close, it haunts you. It haunts all of us. And it stiffens our resolve to do something about it. In addressing these problems, our Administration is motivated by a simple proposition: helping people in times of crisis is the right thing to do.
The President also recognizes that it is not enough to make sure people have enough food to make it through today; we must help them take steps to prevent the crises of tomorrow. This approach benefits not only the people in these vulnerable countries, but the security of the international system, and of the United States.
In 2008, a global financial crisis brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression. But another shock that year—a spike in global food prices— set off a crisis of food insecurity that touched every region of the world. The least fortunate were hurt the most—because when you live on a dollar or two a day, most of your income is spent on food. And when that income is depleted, you go to bed hungry.
When we came to office, President Obama and I were determined to frame a global response to prevent such crises in the future. We knew that this was a problem we could do something about—and felt a moral obligation to the nearly one billion people in the world who suffer from chronic hunger.
So early in 2009, we launched a Food Security initiative and made it a priority for our administration. We committed at least $3.5 billion over three years to launch this initiative, which we now call “Feed the Future.” The rest of the international community pledged another $18.5 billion, and we continually urge our partners to do more.
But we also asked our development experts to do things differently—to achieve the best results for the taxpayer by asking vulnerable countries to develop their own plans and spend more of their own budgets – to put skin in the game. We are taking a comprehensive approach aimed at ensuring countries need not rely on food aid in the future by focusing on women as part of the solution and by meticulously and rigorously measuring our results.
Feed the Future is about restoring the basic dignity that comes from being able to feed your family without having to turn to anyone for help. This series of programs is focusing on 20 vulnerable countries on three continents—with a goal of helping 18 million people out of poverty, including 7 million children who are chronically malnourished.
These plans are focused not just on today’s desperate needs, but on anticipating and preventing tomorrow’s challenges – with programs that emphasize nutrition, research and development and conservation and that unleash the productivity of women.
And we are actively engaging the private sector, which works in partnership with governments to help them create sustainable agricultural economies— which in the developing world remain the key to economic growth.
In several African countries, our Agency for International Development is working with General Mills to transform the food processing sector, offering technical support and training to increase the availability of high quality, nutritious, and safe foods.
In Central America, our development experts work with Wal-Mart to support small-scale farmers, facilitating relationships with Wal-Mart’s buyers, who can explain their quality standards and share their production calendars.
And through a new initiative, our government will train Ethiopian chickpea farmers; PepsiCo will source at least 10 percent of its growing demand for chickpeas from Ethiopia; and the World Food Program and others will process Ethiopian chickpeas into a highly nutritional supplement for malnourished children.
Through these and many other programs, we hope Feed the Future can be a blueprint for development policy in the coming decades. We launched Feed the Future because tackling global hunger reflects our nation’s cherished values and because we believe that starvation anywhere, even in far-off corners of the planet, is the responsibility of all people everywhere.
But we also made food security a priority because it enhances our national security and the stability of the international system.
As Pope Paul VI once said, “development is the new word for peace.” And the reality is that, in many countries, food security and political stability are closely linked.
Investments made to ward off food insecurity and prevent its recurrence can prevent the vicious cycles of rising extremism, armed conflict and state failure than can require far larger commitments of resources down the road.
When food prices spiked three years ago, riots or demonstrations broke out in dozens of countries because people could no longer feed their children. Many of these protests turned violent.
In Sudan, the Darfur crisis, which seized the world’s attention for much of the past decade, was sparked, in part, by a competition for arable land—a competition later used to justify unspeakable atrocities by the Janjaweed militia. The crisis in Darfur is man-made. But it is also true that with dwindling supplies of water and arable land, often exacerbated by climate change, the conditions were ripe for conflict— because people were forced to compete for resources they once shared.
Food insecurity is also fueling political instability in the Horn of Africa, as millions flee Somalia into neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.
That is why President Obama has not hesitated to authorize more aid to those affected by this famine, despite the risks posed by al-Shabaab, a terrorist group that has brutalized the Somali population and placed deadly restrictions on humanitarian access to southern Somalia.
“Let me worry about al-Shabaab,” he said, “Where we can, we have to take steps to help these starving women and children.” Al Shabaab terrorists did not create the food crisis, but they have made it far worse. Drought conditions exist throughout East Africa, but so far, famine is concentrated only in Al Shabaab-controlled areas.
And in the face of famine, Al Shabaab has disrupted agricultural practices and the free flow of goods, and willfully denied the hundreds of thousands of starving people access to food, water and medicine.
They have kidnapped innocent civilians and threatened aid workers in the very camp my wife visited. And in the most cynical action of all, they endanger their own people by commandeering assistance sent by the rest of the world.
These sorts of tactics are controversial even within Al Shabaab and among its leaders. Make no mistake—it is not that Al Shabaab cares about innocent people dying. Rather, they are concerned that these grim conditions threaten their grip on the region and undermine their propaganda purporting to defend the Somali people.
The challenges that remain are enormous. To broaden the scale of our most successful projects, we need to build on the alliances that brought us here today. We need more leaders like Bill Gates and Howard Buffett. More companies to join us as partners. More nations willing to respond to our President’s commitment. More NGOs, and courageous NGO workers.
I want to thank all you here for doing your part. And those of you who work directly in the most vulnerable countries, we honor not only your humanity but also your physical courage, day in and day out, in delivering help where it is needed most.
We will continue to support your work, by urging our friends in Congress to resist the urge to slash foreign aid budgets, because long-term solutions now can reduce the cost of massive relief efforts and instability later.
We know one thing for sure—if we do nothing, food insecurity will loom as an even bigger threat in the future. We also know that if we act, we can make a difference. We have the science. We have the know-how. And we have the capabilities. We just have to have the will.
I am often accused of being an optimist. I plead guilty, because I believe strongly in the human capacity—and desire—to build a better world. But I am particularly confident in our ability to feed the future because we have done it before.
Beginning in the 1950s, we provided agricultural support—research, training, and partnerships with American firms—to South Korea, which was one of the poorest countries on the planet. Today, it is the world’s 15th largest economy, and a major trading partner responsible for hundreds of thousands of American jobs.
During the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, development initiatives raised living standards around the world—most notably in Asian countries that were newly able to feed themselves and never looked back.
And in the 1980s, Ethiopia was the center of a great famine, known around the world as the very epitome of human suffering. During the current drought, many Ethiopians still need our help. But because of investments Ethiopia made in agriculture, there are 8 million hit by the drought who do not need aid to survive.
Unfortunately, as the world’s attention shifted at the end of the last century, critical investments in agriculture fell. The work was left unfinished. Too many nations were left behind. This time, we must keep our focus.
Norman Borlaug, sometimes called the Green Revolution’s founder, once said: “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.”
Many of you in this room have picked up that mantle and are carrying it forward with distinction. In doing so you are fostering a world that is more just and peaceful, and a nation that is more secure.
Thank you for listening; it is an honor to be here with you today.