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U.S.-Africa alliance to help small farmer

The partnership between the US and Kofi Annan's farm group reflects the new international emphasis on agriculture.

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"This is a global trend in development assistance, as we see in the example of the US initiative, and the European Union is taking the same path," says Laurent Javaudin, agriculture attaché at the EU Commission's mission in Washington.

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"The idea is to help improve the whole food chain and not just the farmer," says Mr. Javaudin. "It's one thing to have the crop growing, but if you can't move it around to markets and consumers, it's not much better."

Indeed, Annan notes that 40 percent of Africa's crops are lost after harvest – this on a continent where 200 million people live with chronic hunger.

Across the developing world but in particular in Africa, agriculture lost its starring role as a key component of development as populations shifted to cities, say some experts. In some countries, misguided land policies also wreaked havoc on food production. One result, they add, is that Africa, which in the 1960s was a food exporter, has become a food importer – and particularly susceptible to the shock of suddenly higher food prices and tightened food supplies.

Robert Townsend, a senior economist with the World Bank, says the bank decided to put a new emphasis on African agriculture when it realized that much of the continent was falling further and further behind in meeting poverty reduction goals. "There's an increased recognition of agriculture's role in poverty reduction."

Potential breadbasket

Still, this does not mean that food production can prosper everywhere or that one policy can and should be implemented everywhere. "The focus should be on those areas with the greatest growth potential," Mr. Townsend says.

Many African food production experts agree. "We can't invest everywhere," says Akin Adesina, vice president of Agra. "We need to optimize our investment around the bread basket areas." Infrastructure development will be crucial, he adds, noting that "Africa has less infrastructure than when India embarked on its green revolution."

In the case of the MCC-Agra partnership, the pragmatic emphasis on potential "breadbaskets" means the focus will initially fall on Ghana, Madagascar, and Mali.

MCC chairman John Danilovich says the emphasis on efficiency and transparency that guides the institution's governance initiatives will continue.

Still, some experts say the new international initiatives are likely to be hampered to some degree by local mistrust of international institutions and Western countries. For some, they say, such efforts are associated with the imposition of genetically modified seeds, or international trade policies and subsidy regimes that favor the importation of foreign food products.

Some Africa development experts insist globalization and increased international trade have been Africa's undoing. But others, including some food policy experts, say global trade will be a key player in the long-term solution to Africa's food and development challenges.

"A solid rules-based trade system is absolutely essential," says Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. Citing just one example, he says, "Today's tremendously high rice prices [are] a result of a lack of free trade, not too much free trade."