Events of the last few days have rekindled debate about the role of government and business in solving humanity’s thorniest problems.
On Friday, President Barack Obama announced the creation of a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, backed by a pledge from 45 food and agribusiness companies to invest $3 billion in Africa over the next 10 years. Among those companies are Cargill, DuPont, Monsanto and PepsiCo.
In making the announcement, Obama called for an “all hands on deck” approach to fighting hunger and lifting 50 million Africans out of poverty. He also anticipated criticism.
“I know some have asked, in a time of austerity, whether this alliance is just a way for governments to shift the burden onto somebody else,” he said. “I want to be clear: The answer is no.”
Not everyone is convinced. A group of African nonprofits released a statement urging governments not to outsource foreign assistance. Oxfam said the U.S. strategy “focuses too heavily on the role of the private sector to tackle the complex challenges of food insecurity in the developing world.”
Private aid and advocacy groups have long embraced the need to engage with business – for example, by supporting local food processors or linking farmers to markets. But some worry that the priorities of large foreign corporations don’t always line up with those of local populations. And many argue that problems like poverty and hunger have less to do with technology or efficiency than with land rights, women’s education, corruption and other issues that defy market-based fixes.
Oxfam did join an alliance of U.S. aid organizations in applauding Obama for renewing his 2009 pledge to increase U.S. government spending on African agriculture and calling on other G-8 leaders to do the same.
But Saturday, at their summit at Camp David, most of those leaders declined to follow Obama’s example. Memories of the 2007-08 food crisis are clearly fading as the economies of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy founder. The world’s wealthiest countries have other things on their minds and other demands on their wallets.
And that leaves an opening for another group of global powers.