A Discussion with Emmy Simmons, Retired Assistant Administrator, USAID

With: Emmy Simmons

September 30, 2009

Background: This conversation between Emmy Simmons, Katherine Marshall, and Thomas Bohnett was conducted in advance of a WFDD-sponsored consultation on links between faith and agriculture. The interview was updated by email in March 2011. Ms. Simmons discusses U.S. food aid policy and the various faith links to agriculture, observing that in her experience many faith groups shy away from both land and gender issues, but are more involved in biotechnology issues, including GMOs. Involvement of faith-linked NGOs with USAID varies widely by country; the role of bridging NGOs can be significant. She explores the sharp decline in agricultural support by USAID in recent decades, attributing it at least in part to the growth in support for health. Faith communities have also been involved in debates about operational versus policy support, helping to lead arguments for increasing focus at community levels. Food shortages are now driving a new focus on agriculture and food security, as is awareness of the impact of growing cities and food imports.

We are investigating links between faith and agriculture. In your long career working on agriculture issues at USAID, did you work with or come across faith leaders or organizations working on agriculture issues? What connections did you see?

You can’t work in development these days without it crossing your screen, and I have come across connections with faith groups in many ways.

First, humanitarian assistance from the U.S. is driven largely by religious groups and faith-based groups. They’re the ones who roll out the lobbyists and advocates, they make the calls to Congress—they are just an amazing force when it comes to humanitarian aid.

Over the last several years, though, there’s been a shift, to which I have to some extent contributed. Basically, faith-based groups have realized that just focusing on humanitarian aid is actually not as helpful as they once thought it was. And those who take this line are almost a breakaway group. One of them is Marv Baldwin of the Foods Resource Bank (FRB). They started up with support and encouragement from the Canadian Food Bank. They have been banging at the door and trying to figure out how to get into the larger development scene, but without playing the same song that most of the humanitarian response groups play.

Their approach has been to say, “While we understand the impetus of faith-based communities to help with food aid, we should take a broader approach to addressing hunger. It should be helping people where they are, and helping them accomplish what they want to do.” What FRB does is to produce food in the States through partnerships with church groups, then sell the food they produce, and use the proceeds to fund agriculture work in the developing world, generally with other faith-based partners like Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

FRB uses a somewhat different model than the traditional food aid-based model. Right now you’re seeing a kind of a breakaway movement in the agriculture movement, basically saying, “Look, guys, we’re spending huge amounts of money on food aid. We know it makes you feel good. But you know what? It’s really not an efficient use of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars.” Eight years ago when I first started saying this, it was considered heresy. I was told that I didn’t really care about people, did not care about saving lives.

And now that view has actually gotten a bit of traction, and people are now asking, “How do we do this?” It is by no means a completed dialogue, but it’s certainly a dialogue I think now is a little bit more intelligent than it used to be, and I think some of the faith-based groups are gradually coming along. CARE, which is not a faith-based group but shares many of their characteristics in terms of commitment and focus, led that split when it made the decision to discontinue food aid monetization back in 2006. That was a pivotal point, and CARE has since been joined by Save the Children and CRS in saying that if they can move away from monetization of food aid then they will do so. There is momentum in terms of rethinking what is an appropriate faith-based approach to poverty and hunger. And it may not be the humanitarian assistance, food-aid based push that so many have articulated, and supported and lobbied for, for these many years.

A second way it came across my screen was hearing from others how a couple of faith-based organizations appeared to be pushing the envelope a little too much in terms of the proselytization part of their mandates. Cited were groups likes Samaritan’s Purse, and even World Vision. I haven’t pursued this issue, but the stories surface from time to time and I heard about it.

The whole issue of the faith-based involvement in conflict and conflict recovery has been very interesting, with Sudan, of course, being the case in point. I am sure you know that story, but it just seems to me that this is not the regular food aid humanitarianism. This involvement moves more directly into issues of human rights, human dignity, that part of the humanitarian sector.

What about land issues? Did you see any faith involvement there?

My own experience has been that faith-based groups, especially in Africa, back away from issues like land ownership. Interestingly enough, most faith-based groups I’ve worked with have also backed away from gender issues, which I find interesting. They basically either work around it or don’t try to deal with it.

When I was in Pakistan in August, 2009, I read a case study about an NGO group that was, I believe, faith-based, actually deciding it had to address the issue of poor people’s access to land. As an NGO, they were able to arrange the purchase of a chunk of land, and then they leased it to poor people. Poor people were not able to get access to this land that the NGO was. So that was an interesting twist.

The biotech issue is another I want to flag. Use of genetic engineering to develop seeds that are resistant to herbicides or can better tolerate drought, generally called genetically-modified organisms or GMOS, is part of the agriculture debate, and many U.S. churches have as a matter of policy adopted an anti-GMO platform. Are you familiar with the Casey-Lugar bill? It’s called the Global Food Security Act, and there were a couple of paragraphs in it referencing agricultural biotechnology research. On the basis of just four words about this research, many U.S. faith-based organizations refused to endorse the bill even though they strongly the supported the issue of stronger action for global food security.

The Catholic Church has weighed in on GMOs. During Pope John-Paul’s tenure, the Church put out a pro-biotech piece basically saying that he thought that humans were supposed to use their intelligence to adapt and adopt innovations that would address the fundamental issues in people’s lives. Then, of course, the discussion in Europe—where GMOs are not accepted—was, do GMOs really address that?

Do you have any sense on the program implementation end of things, if there’s any interesting or distinct work that has been done by faith-inspired groups working on agriculture with USAID funding?

There is a significant amount of faith-based support for agriculture in Africa, with significant variation by country. USAID’s country-based programs are often managed through a combination of for-profit consulting firm contracts and grants to international and/or local NGOs, many of which are faith-based. Using Title II food aid resources or Food for Progress resources, many NGOs also monetize (or sell) the food aid in order to use the revenues for carrying out agriculture activities , and this has become an area of some criticism, especially when USAID missions are advocating more open and competitive markets and the sale of subsidized food aid contradicts this position This lack of coherence has to do with the way that funding is allocated, because the NGOs acquire the resources through a Washington-directed process, while all the rest of the Mission’s agricultural programs are funded through a field-directed process.

The situation does vary by country so the role of faith-based organizations in any USAID mission’s portfolio also varies. Universities are involved in some countries, and in other countries, they’re absent. In some countries there’s quite a lot of contracting with local implementers, local NGOs or local partners, and in other countries, there isn’t.

There are a couple of NGOs who kind of bridge between the for-profit community, which tends to work on analysis and complex development programs where it is necessary to keep 16 moving activities going at the same time, and the faith-based NGO community. The for-profit organizations focus on policy, finance, some legislative reform, research – things which the faith-based NGOs do not do—as well as implement some project action on the ground. The “bridging” NGOs are not the food aid NGOs, but they’re also not for-profit. Technoserve is a good example of that.

And USAID also has regional capacity, so it supports regional organizations, both on the agriculture-trade side, as in COMESA and ECOWAS, but also in terms of research and coordination of the extension activities.

In some countries that are really critical food security countries, like Ethiopia, the food aid funding (and hence faith-based NGO involvement) continues to outweigh the agriculture development investments funded by the Development Assistance account by a factor of three or four to one. In some years it’s been as high as 25 to one.

I’ve seen an evolution in funding for agriculture over the last 30 years in the World Bank at the same time you’ve seen it in USAID. There clearly are two big trends in the Bank. One is the move toward a focus on policy and the big sector programs. And the second was a de facto withdrawal from agriculture. Because almost everything was so problematic that people almost gave up in despair. Of course, there is now a big plunge back in to agriculture. Would you describe anything like that in USAID? I have a sense it was much less pronounced on both those fronts.

The shift was very pronounced at USAID, but I think the causality was somewhat different. One of the questions is whether USAID’s withdrawal from agriculture funding or declining agriculture funding actually contributed to other donors doing it. I don’t have any answer to that. But the trend of declining investments in agriculture between ’89 and ’97 was the first period of really major declines.

Part of the reason for the decline stemmed from the emergence of an amazing, burgeoning positive agenda for health care. And so even when I began to try to build up funding for agriculture in USAID starting in 1997 and, after 2001, when I got a lot of support from Administrator Andrew Natsios, it was just a huge battle, because the health portfolio had so much more political support that it was very, very difficult to rebalance any kind of a budgetary process to provide funding for agriculture.

As an example, in 2003, USAID spent $600 million in Ethiopia on food aid and food aid delivery and $3 million on agriculture investment, theoretically under the rationale that the policy environment wasn’t propitious for agriculture investment. But you can’t really hold on to that argument very long. If you’re prepared to run in and put $600 million worth of food into the country on a moment’s notice because agriculture has failed and lives need to be saved, and then are unwilling to work with the government to invest in the agriculture production system, there’s clearly something wrong.

I think that example, and Andrew Natsios’s support, got the Agency moving in the direction of thinking that there has to be more than food aid in our food security response. I think that’s contributed to what you’re seeing right now—it has taken four or five years.

Another part of the downward pressure on agriculture funding in USAID was that Representative Lowey, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee for Foreign Affairs, really prioritized education. She constantly included in the actual budget several hundred million dollars more than were requested for education. And generally, there was an unwillingness to take it out of the health account, so the “extra” comes out of economic growth and agriculture. The hydraulics of budget systems are a big factor in all of this. But it’s also this fact that the humanitarian, health, and education agenda has been so much more potent in Congress than has been the economic growth and agriculture agenda.

What about the balance between more operational project support and policy?

My observation is that as funding shrank, USAID staff looked for better leverage for their dollars. And as USAID’s technical staff shrank, which also happened in the ‘90s for different reasons, the remaining USAID agricultural staff also looked for more efficient entry points. That led them to focus on policy, regulatory, and institutional change issues, thinking, of course, that moving those levers was going to be more efficient for agricultural growth than running lots of community-scale irrigation projects. That, in fact, has led to one of the big points of contention between the agriculture-side of USAID, and the food aid side of USAID: the appropriate role for community-based activity vis-à-vis more structural or systemic institutional support.

The faith-based NGOs have built some fires between the two wings, basically saying the “aggies” in USAID don’t really care about grassroots, community-based agricultural growth, and they only care about policy and institutions. Yet, say the NGOs, we’re the ones who are out there working with the people to build their skills and increase their yields by 30 percent.

In my view, the argument about which approach is more effective is artificial, because both probably need to be supported by U.S. assistance. It’s a question of what resources are available and what approach you feel comfortable taking. My own feeling is that community-based gains are not likely to be sustainable unless the structural changes also take place.

Does the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) come into this much?

MCC has come into the agriculture picture because MCC did not put any sectoral bounds on the proposals they sought from countries they determined were eligible for MCC funding. Initially, MCC also did not set any funding bounds on the proposals they sought. This reportedly caused a certain amount of back-and-forth for about a year. But once the MCC adopted the procedure of setting a funding envelope for a country, I think there was a reverberating shock through Washington, because countries came in with program ideas that had to do with agriculture and rural development. In Africa, more than half of the MCC programs have to do with agriculture and rural development. To my knowledge, however, the MCC has not engaged the faith-based community.

There is this sort of catapulting into agriculture. From what I see, it’s partly linked with climate change issues, because of the storyline coming out of Africa about hundreds of millions of potential climate refugees. So it’s almost inevitable it’s going to lead to a sharper focus on agriculture. But whether people have a clear line of what they’re going to do about it is not anywhere near as apparent to me.

I actually think the current emphasis on increasing agriculture production comes out of another thing as well: the emphasis on trade in the ‘90s and the expectations associated with the WTO and the initial disappointments that as trade globalization proceeded in the ‘90s, African countries began to be shocked by how much food they were importing. Nigeria imports three billion dollars worth of food every year! And people say, “This is crazy! Seventy percent, 80 percent of our population still works in agriculture, why are we importing all this food?” Part of it, I think, was that people didn’t realize the power of urbanization and how that led to wheat-based diets and rice-based diets that are ready-to-eat (as in bread) or cook quickly.

Finally, by the end of the ‘90s, with population growth, urbanization, more open trade, and relatively inexpensive grains on the global market, people just realized that they needed to pay more attention to their food supply. And then, in 2008, when global food prices started spiking, a lot of countries just said, “You know, relying on the international market isn’t really going to work.” And that was when, again, there was kind of a coming back to agricultural development in a number of developing countries.

And, frankly, I also would not understate the importance of Kofi Annan and his “Uniquely African Green Revolution,” and the work being done by Bill Gates. No matter where you go, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been sprinkling money around to get people looking at agriculture—in Africa, Asia, the U.S., and Europe. And there has been no other organization in the foundation community who’s been doing that. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, so critical in the 1960s, had pretty much opted out by 2000, and when Gates started supporting agriculture with such significant funding, people started taking notice.

The prospect of climate change at this point is what I would call a “gradually emerging threat.” There is certainly greater awareness that drought and higher temperatures might be a reality that has to be dealt with, but there is, as yet, little concerted action to address it in sub-Saharan Africa.

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