Tony Blair and Howard Buffett: African Leaders, Not Aid Donors, Must Lead the Way to Ending Hunger

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Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP / Getty Images

Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma arrives at the closing session of the ECOWAS Summit in the Nigerian capital Abuja on July 18, 2013.

Despite the progress we have made in eradicating disease, advancing new technologies and improving wellbeing, it is difficult to fathom that we still fail to feed nearly a billion people in the world. Nowhere is chronic food insecurity so entrenched as it is in Sub-Saharan Africa, where one in four people go to bed hungry each night.

The good news is we believe this can change, and quickly. We have the knowledge, the technology and even the resources to end hunger. What has long been missing from the equation is the necessary leadership and political will. However, Africa increasingly is a land of leaders who have a progressive vision for their countries and for improving the quality of life for all of their people. Given the right support, Africa’s leaders can instigate huge, positive changes for millions of people. For our part, developed nations have to realize that it must be Africans – not aid donors – who determine the path to progress. Our role is to make sure the right structures and institutions develop to enable this new generation of African leaders to end hunger within their borders.

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We come from different professional backgrounds: business, philanthropy, and farming on the one hand; politics on the other. But we have come together on this issue because we have seen in our own work in Africa that visionary and determined leaders can deliver real, sustainable change at the national and local level.

One such person is President Koroma in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone was decimated by years of civil war in the 1990s. President Koroma took office in 2007 and has brought democracy and peace.  He has begun to rebuild infrastructure and address corruption. Today, Sierra Leone’s economy is growing rapidly.  The Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), with financial support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation (HGBF), is helping President Koroma build the government’s capacity to both prioritize its development agenda and, importantly, deliver on those plans. AGI brings in individuals experienced in building effective government institutions. They work side by side with motivated but often inexperienced local government officials who learn the skills and organizational tools needed to build and run these institutions.

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The results are profound. In Sierra Leone, for example, thanks to a focus on healthcare in 2010, increased access to treatment led to an 80% reduction in child deaths from malaria and a 60% reduction in maternal mortality in hospitals. This is progress affecting millions of lives.

President Koroma’s government has identified improving agricultural productivity as one of his government’s next priorities. A nationwide Smallholder Commercialisation Programme has been launched to support 80,000 subsistence farmers to progress into commercial production. The plan provides farmers with better fertiliser and seeds, access to markets through better transport infrastructure and the use of over 200 Agricultural Business Centres.

But it’s not just national leaders who can make a lasting difference with the right support. Local leaders such as Kofi Boa of Ghana are also driving change.  The son of cocoa farmers, Kofi studied advanced agricultural techniques in both Ghana and the U.S., but he always knew he wanted to return home and help his country.  Today he is a widely respected expert in what is called conservation farming, or “no-till” systems specifically designed to preserve and nurture soil and reduce the need for fertilizer, water, and other inputs.  At his Center for No-Till Agriculture, Kofi has helped 100,000 farmers across Ghana adopt these practices and his published research inspires others throughout the continent.

President Koroma and Kofi Boa are two visionary leaders creating change at the macro and micro level. The challenge now is to encourage and enable other motivated Africans to take aim at hunger.  We have seen the shortcomings of western-backed aid projects. Building schools, delivering seeds, and digging wells may be done with the best of intentions, but without visionary and empowered national and local leaders these contributions can only be sustained with more aid. As we mark World Food Day this month it is worth remembering that while big issue awareness campaigns are crucial, what is really needed is long-term support for African-led development.

Today AGI is working with seven African leaders and their governments to build the institutions they need to prioritize and implement their own plans to end hunger and malnutrition. That ranges from helping increase mechanization in agriculture in Sierra Leone to improving seed quality, production and crop diversification in Malawi. At the local level, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation is investing millions in Ghana and South Africa to promote conservation agriculture to sustainably address local food production challenges. This is in addition to the millions invested in creating markets for improved seeds in partnership with the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS).

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One encouraging development this year is the creation of the New Alliance on Food Security (comprised of African heads of state, corporate leaders, and G-8 members) which seeks to lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years. Its plan is to encourage private sector investment to improve agricultural productivity and incomes for smallholder farmers, and to make sure donor governments align their support with plans conceived by African governments. The initiative will be collaborative and led by Africans.

World agricultural output will need to increase 70% by 2050 to feed our growing global population. Urgent action is needed to address this crisis, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. But we must balance this sense of urgency with the right