Earlier this year, one of the world’s leading authorities on famine declared that 70 million people across 45 countries would need food assistance this year. Already 20 million in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen face famine, an unprecedented situation that prompted the United Nations in March to declare the worst humanitarian crisis the world has faced since World War II.
This global calamity needs our immediate and full attention. Yet saving millions from starvation is not only a moral obligation, it is also a national security necessity. We know from past food-related crises that lack of adequate food tends to create cycles of instability. A decade ago, protests over food prices toppled governments in Haiti and Madagascar. Popular grievances over food policy and prices also were a major driver of the Arab Spring and helped catalyze the instability and migration we see today across the Middle East and North Africa.
As the United States debates the appropriate balance of military, diplomatic, and economic levers at its disposal, the link between global food security and global stability has never been more clear, nor more urgent the need for U.S. leadership to confront and mitigate the risk of food insecurity.
Yet the talk in Washington is about budget cuts for development assistance and diplomacy, in part to ensure we can build up our military capabilities. As a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, I understand the need for a robust Department of Defense. But I also see development and diplomacy as central to achieving our security interests, and this includes assistance that can help shore up the stability of countries that might be at risk of civil unrest. This is especially clear when America’s foreign assistance as a whole makes up less than 1 percent of the total U.S. budget.
Moreover, these investments have shown remarkable return over the years. Efforts by the United States and other donor governments to increase agricultural productivity have led to higher incomes and better health and well-being for local, smallholder farmers, and to stronger economies in low-income countries. Agricultural development has been found to be more than twice as effective as investments in other sectors at alleviating poverty -- the kind of poverty that can lead to desperation and then to unrest. In places such as Rwanda, investment in agriculture has led to one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world and, more importantly, to no re-emergence of conflict.
So what now? National security leaders need to continue to raise their voices in support of a U.S. policy that spends smartly on global agriculture and food security so that we can spend less on guns and ammunition. Many already are doing so. More than 120 retired generals and admirals have co-signed a letter to U.S. congressional leaders urging them to continue to support diplomacy and development assistance, making clear these programs are “critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.” Former CIA staffer and current Texas Congressman Will Hurd was even more blunt: “Food security is a global problem, with real and immediate effects on national security.” More should speak up.
In fact, my organization has just released a report from a bipartisan and independent task force calling on the United States to make global food and nutrition security a pillar of U.S. diplomatic and national security engagement and to strengthen the integration and coordination of activities within the United States and around the world. This means more focus on how and when food insecurity triggers unrest and migration so that we are able to respond more quickly in high-risk areas, as well as investing in robust public research and development to help our farmers combat ever-increasing environmental threats to the global food supply.
But perhaps the best match for the new president would be to marshal the considerable appetite among leading American companies looking to both grow markets and solve some of the world’s greatest challenges, especially as it relates to food and nutrition security.
We’ve seen what happens when leaders stop paying attention to food security and strong food systems. We’ve also seen the long-term payoff from investment in development. The United States’ response to the terrible humanitarian crisis before us will stand as a historical testament to our values. To me, the case is clear. We can do both what is right and what is smart.