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Move to the country

November 14, 2011

One great paradox associated with the problem of global hunger is that it affects those areas most where food is grown. After years of neglect, Germany is shifting its development focus to the countryside.

An Indian farmer on dried out ground
Development aid may help bring land back into useImage: AP

"Helping people to help themselves" was the central philosophy behind the German government coalition agreement that was put together after the 2009 general election.

The Christian Democrats, their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, and the Free Democrats committed themselves to a development policy that would strengthen agriculture and rural areas in the developing world, rather than merely feeding the hungry.

The government apparently believes world hunger can only be brought to an end by involving the people who are most affected. That approach was until a few years ago anything but common, whether in Germany or internationally. The long-held view was that the most developed nations - with their industrial style of agriculture - were the best placed to feed the world's poorest people.

A tractor in a field
German farmers can benefit from subsidies that are viewed by some as unfairImage: AP

However, this was not a question of generosity or even charity. Exporting food is good business, often at the expense of those who can afford it least. When it comes to competing with highly subsidized milk and meat products from Germany, for example, farmers in developing and emerging countries have no chance.

An inevitable consequence of this has been the widespread regional destruction of agricultural infrastructure, which now needs to be laboriously redeveloped.

Abolishing subsidies

Germany can play an important role in this long-term process, according to the government's coalition deal and, indeed, according to a strategy paper developed by the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

"At an international level it is particularly important to establish conditions of fair competition for partner countries through a reduction in market-distorting farming subsidies," the BMZ wrote.

While this lofty goal is not a new one by any means, it has only been pursued half-heartedly in the past; politicians were reluctant to take on the agricultural lobby.

Thus, it's all the more surprising that Development Minister Dirk Niebel and Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner are keen to do away with subsidies by 2013. Aigner - who's job it is to ensure German farmers can compete on a level playing field - has called for all members of the World Trade Organization to follow rules proposed by the EU along these lines. But to think that they would do so seems naive.

Dirk Niebel
Niebel has been criticized for involving the private sector in development aidImage: DW-TV

A true paradigm shift can only really be achieved if the EU gives in to German pressure and agrees to go it alone.

Billions for food security

Environment Minister Niebel's stance on the issue of subsidies stems from his own political beliefs as a member of the Free Democratic Party, which stresses the importance of free markets.

Indeed, many critics accuse him of caring more about export opportunities for German business than fighting poverty. The accusation is primarily made against him because he wants to increase public sector involvement in improving the effectiveness of development assistance.

As far as world hunger is concerned, however, the criticism is not particularly relevant. Take the BMZ strategy paper, for instance, which sees the market forces of supply and demand as central issues: "The core and the starting points for economic development in rural areas, to reduce poverty and ensure food security, are the strengthening of local markets and the sustainable use of local resources," the document says.

That is something upon which Niebel will have to be judged. A pledge to provide 700 million euros ($970 million) each year between 2010 and 2012 for rural development and food security - made at a 2009 G8 summit - shows that the German government is committed.

Whether or not this money, and other funding, is used in a sensible way is not entirely in the hands of the Germans. Donations that flow through international funds are notoriously difficult to control.

A biofuel pump
Biofuels are made from crops grown on land that could be used to grow foodImage: picture alliance/dpa

Niebel wants to increase bilateral cooperation in development aid to allow Germany to be directly involved in negotiations with partner countries. The policy shift has ruffled feathers, but it could prove useful in helping to realize the United Nations millennium goal of halving hunger and poverty rates in the world's poorest countries.

The dilemma of biofuels

If Germany insists on good governance from its partner countries and, in particular helps them in the establishment of structures to bolster the rule of law, it should be possible to at least stem the selling off of all agricultural land for purposes other than providing food.

Using arable land for producing biofuels is one issue Germany should be able to influence as German consumers fill up their cars with the fuels. Indeed, the BMZ paper implies that the government is aware of its dilemma: "Domestic and foreign investment in land and agriculture are necessary. However, investors must also feel bound to responsible development of rural areas instead of - as is often the case today - contributing to making social and environmental problems worse."

Germany has to assume its responsibilities and not hide behind international agreements. A change of EU policy on biofuels, at the behest of its most populous and car-loving member state - Germany - could signal a change.

An Indian family with their livestock
Only by involving the poor do some experts think that aid can be truly effectiveImage: DW

From the perspective of the BMZ, growing energy crops is both an opportunity and a risk. Still, as long as major international companies dispel small farmers to grow corn or rapeseed for biofuels, countries like Germany will continue to have a credibility problem. Promises to work within international bodies to promote sustainability do nothing to change that.

No chance of short-term success

In the 1980s, the percentage of global development aid that was spent on agriculture stood at 16 percent. Today, that proportion has fallen to four percent. In its 2011 budget, the BMZ has set little more than that aside for food security and environmental protection.

That is something that will have to change if the claim is serious that the development of rural land should become a "key area" and "focal point" of policy.

At the same time, both supporters and critics must accept one statement in the BMZ strategy paper in particular: "When investing in sustainable development of rural areas, no short term successes can be expected."

Author: Marcel Fürstenau / rc
Editor: Nancy Isenson