Don't Slow Antihunger Efforts

The recent televised images from Liberia were chilling: US troops rescuing American citizens as one more poverty-stricken African nation was overtaken by civil war. If we hope to prevent such wars, fighting underlying causes such as hunger in developing nations must remain a key goal of American foreign policy.

But the United States appears to be preparing to pull the rug out from under one of the world's most effective international hunger-fighting organizations. In recent years, the US - once the world's best hunger fighter - seems to have opted for the role of world-champion arms merchant instead. It's a bad choice. Rather than ship these nations more arms, we ought to be shipping them aid for food, knowledge, and technology.

As former chairman of the US House International Task Force on Hunger, I know we can help developing countries tackle hunger, which spawns wars and stands in the way of economic progress and democracy.

One program leads the way in stopping hunger in Africa and around the world. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a United Nations specialized agency, makes small loans to local agricultural projects in some of the poorest parts of the world. These loans go directly to help small farms achieve basic food security and increase their incomes in local villages.

What's more, some 30 percent of IFAD lending is specifically targeted to women, who make up a disproportionate share of the world's poor. Economists have pointed out that when women increase their ability to raise and sell food, children reap the benefits, mainly though increased nutrition and higher levels of education.

IFAD's program also takes US development aid in a direction long supported by this administration and Congress. Rather than have the United States foot the bill for these loans, the US contribution to IFAD leverages contributions from other donors. Remarkably, 25 percent of IFAD's funding comes from the developing countries themselves.

This money is spent where it is needed - on the rural poor. And unlike many UN agencies, IFAD runs a tight ship: Annual administrative costs are only 10% of its budget.

If ever there was a showcase development program, IFAD is it. The very poorest of the poor receive these funds, and yet the repayment rate is an astounding 90 percent - higher than the rate for commercial loans in many developed countries.

In short, IFAD enables poor farmers to stay on their land producing food; helps feed women and children; and brings stability to nations that increasingly purchase US-made goods and farm products.

Yet bureaucratic budget battles threaten funding for IFAD. Short of funds, the United States Agency for International Development has balked at releasing the $30 million transfer approved by Congress this year for IFAD.

If the US - IFAD's largest contributor - abandons IFAD, the other developed nations who look to the US for leadership will likely soon follow. Programs will shrivel. Twenty years of good work in helping 160 million poor people survive and fight hunger around the world will disappear.

It's time for the US to live up to its promises and deliver the $30 million Congress authorized to be transferred to IFAD to continue its important, life-saving work.

This year, all other developed nations have indicated they intend to help fund IFAD, contingent upon US participation. Yet the US - and only the US - remains silent. The fate of very worthy antihunger programs for Liberia, Bangladesh, and many other countries - and countless human lives - depend on this crucial commitment.

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