The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Shah promises evaluation of ‘Feed the Future’


Is President Obama’s “Feed the Future” program to encourage agricultural development in poor countries working?

Lawmakers and taxpayers should be able to get answers within a month, according to a scenario laid out last week by Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

After a speech to the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank, last Thursday, Shah told The Hagstrom Report that “very shortly within a month we will issue comprehensive results” of monitoring Feed the Future activities in the 20 countries in which projects have been started.

“We owe that data to the public and Congress,” Shah said.

Noting that USAID intends to learn what to do and not to do from its evaluations, Shah said that in some countries the agency has already shifted from agricultural projects that are successful to new projects that are larger in scope. As an example, he noted that USAID is no longer going to support women making honey and jam in Senegal co-ops, even though it has raised their standard of living, because the agency has other, larger projects to support.

Officials must ask the “unit cost of impact,” Shah said, adding that he had signed an order establishing a policy of compensating USAID local contractors “based on performance — the number of health workers trained, the volume of crops produced —rather than on how many people employed or trucks purchased.”

Ruth Levine, a USAID official in charge of monitoring and evaluations, said that food production levels and reduction in levels of poverty are being watched in all 20 Feed the Future countries, with more intensive evaluations going on in five countries. Most of the 20 countries are in Africa, but there are also projects in Asia and Latin America.

The Obama administration launched Feed the Future, overseen by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in reaction to high commodity prices in 2008.

In the late 1960s, buying fertilizer for India was the single biggest budget line item at the agency, Shah noted in his speech, but in recent years agricultural development has declined. When Shah, who headed the agriculture division at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, was named Agriculture undersecretary for research and economics in the early months of the administration, he took over USAID and made agriculture an even bigger priority.

Critics, including some advocates for U.S. food aid, have noted that agricultural development in Third World countries is often difficult to achieve, especially if the governments in those countries have their priorities elsewhere.

Shah made his comments after a speech that emphasized USAID’s determination to properly evaluate its projects. For decades the agency has been accused of wasting money, but Clinton pledged to make development on a par with defense and diplomacy as the pillars of American foreign policy. Shah said he is determined to live up to that pledge, agreeing with Defense Secretary Robert Gates who recently observed “development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.”

Shah hinted that the administration believes it already can prove the success of some Feed the Future projects.

“In just five of our 20 focus countries, we believe we can help nearly 6.5 million poor farmers — most of them women — grow enough food to feed their families and break the grips of hunger and poverty for tens of millions of people. This is smarter and [less] costly than dealing with the food riots and famine that are caused when people do not have access to food themselves.”

Costly senior USAID positions in Paris, Geneva, Rome and Toyko are being eliminated or restructured, he said, while jobs in sub-Saharan Africa are being filled.

“Any effort that is serious about ending hunger or preventing the spread of disease or preventing the emergence of safe havens for terrorism or creating the markets of tomorrow, must tackle the development challenges of sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “It is the epicenter of our work.”

Development assistance also helps Americans, Shah said, pointing out that on that on a trip to India with President Obama last year, he saw a solar-powered micro-irrigation pump in use whose solar cells were manufactured by a small Georgia company called Suniva. The company, Shah said, is now opening a plant in his home state of Michigan.

Shah also pledged to improve oversight of the contractors that oversee so much of USAID’s activity.

“Every enterprise relies on contractors and depends on them to succeed. USAID is no different. But I want to make it clear; we do not work for our contract partners, our contract partners work for us,” Shah said. He noted that too often, “handoffs rarely happen; projects are extended in perpetuity while goals remain just out of reach.”

“There is always another high-priced consultant that must take another flight to another conference or lead another training. This agency is no longer satisfied with writing big checks to big contractors and calling it development.”

Asked by Nancy Birdsall, the former Inter-American Development Bank official who heads the Center for Global Development, whether he needs additional legislative authority or money to achieve his goals, Shah said the agency does need more staff because the spending authority has quadrupled while the operating expenses budget has stayed flat or declined.

On whether Congress should provide more money for USAID to help other countries directly develop their agriculture or provide more money for a trust fund for agricultural development administered by the World Bank, Shah said, “I am an agnostic. We are looking for ways to get leverage and impact.”

USAID is expected to face intense budget pressures as Congress and the White House try to deal with the deficit.

More information can be obtained at