Many see increased hunger and starvation as inevitable, since nearly a billion people are already chronically hungry and 2 billion more suffer from hunger intermittently.
The primary concern is Africa, which doesn’t come close to producing enough food to feed its people. Most African farmers work only small plots of land and lack access to credit and markets that could boost their output, increase their income and reduce hunger and malnutrition in their areas.
Compounding the problem, many governments and donor agencies rely on a top-down approach to economic development focused on humanitarian aid. While this may provide some short-term relief, it offers little long-term hope of significantly reducing hunger or lifting people out of poverty.
There are positive developments, however. A growing list of national and international leaders favors a shift to a more bottom-up approach to development — one that improves lives through income generation and wealth building, rather than handouts.
At the core of this approach is the cooperative business model. Cooperatives are businesses owned and democratically governed by their members. They combine humanitarian concerns with self-reliance and business discipline to boost profits and expand markets.
U.S. cooperative development efforts grew out of the conviction that, having helped million in this country, cooperatives can be adapted to help low-income people in poor countries around the globe. In the trade-not-aid tradition, farmers are taught simple ways to increase production and how to work together to increase output and income. As part of a larger group, farmers can negotiate better market opportunities, higher crop prices and lower costs for inputs like seeds and equipment.
Cooperative development has produced impressive results over the years, including 100,000 dairy cooperatives in India; rural electric cooperatives in Bangladesh that serve 28 million people; more than 800 rural credit cooperatives in Russia; credit union movements in Ecuador and Kenya with more than a million members each, and Fair Trade coffee cooperatives in Africa, Indonesia and Central America that link thousands of small farmers to lucrative global coffee markets.
Cooperatives are also one of the most cost-effective methods of achieving development goals. For a relatively small investment, they can transform whole communities by stimulating economic growth and by providing social supports like education and health care.
President Obama identified cooperatives as key to achieving food security in the developing world in a speech prior to the G-8 Summit in May. “The whole purpose of development is to create the conditions where assistance is no longer needed,” he said, “where people have the dignity and the pride of being self-sufficient…”
There is also movement in the direction of cooperatives in the administration’s $3.5 billion Feed the Future initiative. The first grant under this plan to help countries grow enough food to feed their own people went to a cooperative development project that is reducing malnutrition and improving food security among Senegal’s rural poor.
The gap between what we need to feed the world’s poor and the food the global market can produce is massive and growing. Over four decades, cooperative businesses have led the fight against malnutrition and starvation in developing countries. With increased attention from policymakers, and increased investment from donor agencies, cooperative development can play a major role in closing the looming global hunger gap.
Hazen is executive director of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council, a Washington-based association of nine development organizations that adapt cooperative techniques to help poor and low-income people in the developing world.