Keynote by Ertharin Cousin at the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) (As prepared)

Delivered on: 08 October 2012


Madam Laura Chinchilla, President of the Republic of Costa Rica, Mr. Víctor Villalobos, Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA); Honorable Ministers, Excellencies, IICA staff members, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for your kind welcome.  And thank you for the warm Costa Rican hospitality I have enjoyed since arriving in this beautiful and full of life country so truly deserving of its name.  
Before I begin, I want to say a few words about our host who has invited me here and who has just provided those gracious welcoming words.

I knew of Director General Villalobos and his work long before I met him. We first met in the days immediately following the Haiti earthquake, when I was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Rome-based Agencies.  In fact, it was only a few weeks after he had taken the lead of this venerable hemispheric agricultural institution.

Through those first encounters I learned that he is a too rare breed, a leader who balances thoughtful reflection with decisive action.  The proof was demonstrated on March 12, 2010, when, two months after the earthquake’s destruction, 20 tractors rolled across the border from the Dominican Republic and into Haiti to ensure a timely start to the planting season and averting the second disaster of a missed planting season.

I was impressed by Director General Villalobos’ diplomatic skill and resolve in rallying four governments to this accelerated task:  Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and the United States – one country seeking urgent help and three neighbors answering that call with timely and practical support – to sow the seeds of recovery and help rebuild a nation suffering from a devastating natural disaster.  In times like those, you learn who your friends are; and let me now clearly say that before, during and after the Haiti emergency, this friendship between WFP and IICA has put down deep roots.

So, I am proud to join you today in commemorating this 70th Anniversary of the establishment of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture - IICA as we know it.

I am proud to be here today for three reasons:

• First, at 70 years of age, IICA is among the most energetic and forward-looking agriculture organizations in the world.  At a time when agriculture, particularly smallholder agriculture, has returned to the centre of the development agenda, this institute has successfully leveraged its knowledge and rallied resources, making inclusive agriculture not just a vision for the future, but a reality that is changing the global food security agenda and transforming the lives of the hungry poor.

• Second, IICA has been such a good partner to WFP.  Through the last four years you have been with us at the forefront of one of our most innovative initiatives, Purchase for Progress, or P4P as we call it.  This partnership is a model of how farmers, governments, global, regional and country-level organizations can join together, leveraging our competencies to harvest success.

• Third, Latin American countries have made such fantastic progress in recent decades to address the challenges of hunger and poverty.  Today, most countries in the region are middle income countries whose GDP per capita has increased by 25 percent over the past three decades.  WFP’s Executive Board counts among its members former Latin American aid recipient countries that are now not only supporting their own national food and nutrition assistance programs but these countries are now investing in the emergency response for the most needy.

Yet alongside this region’s remarkable economic progress lies some of the world’s greatest social inequality.  Pockets of food insecurity and undernutrition continue to hold back many countries in the region from reaching their full potential.  Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru are still faced with significant challenges before achieving food and nutrition security for all of their people.  Increased GDP has not necessarily translated into significant reductions in poverty across all communities. As this audience knows all too well, thirty-one percent of the population in the Latin America region continues to live in poverty.

And poverty is expensive.  A 2007 study conducted by WFP and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean concluded that the economic impact of childhood stunting can cut more than 10 percent off of a country’s Gross Domestic Product.   Another study concludes that children who receive more schooling lead healthier and longer lives, doubling lifetime earnings.   That is why, in addition to agricultural production-focused initiatives like P4P, WFP puts strong emphasis on school feeding programmes and improved nutrition for pregnant mothers and children under two.  

WFP has a permanent presence in 13 Latin American countries. The countries we assist are affected by chronic undernutrition, recurrent emergencies, volatile food prices and migration – challenges amplified by social inequality, climate change, hunger and lack of access to the right nutritious foods.

Our goal is to support the governments in the region in addressing these problems through innovative and integrated approaches that bring together the expertise and technical capacity of a wide range of partners.

The P4P initiative is the flagship of these efforts.  It is being carried forward in four Central American countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.  And IICA is a major partner in this initiative.

Just a few hours ago, WFP and IICA signed a new cooperation agreement renewing our commitment to work together in areas of food security, agriculture and rural development, including both P4P and climate change food assistance related initiatives.  This new agreement promotes complementarity, better knitting up our activities and funding strategies, avoiding duplication of efforts or disruptive competition for scarce resources.

And we are fortunate to have IICA representation on the WFP P4P Technical Review Panel. IICA lends us expertise worldwide ensuring we complete the P4P initiative’s pilot phase with proven models for agricultural and market development that others can readily adopt and scale up.

We also hope to see IICA supporting the growing work WFP is doing with a wide range of regional partners in climate change and food security.  This is a critical problem in this part of the world and we believe IICA could bring a significant contribution in joint efforts to promote the resilience agenda in the Andean region and in the dry corridor of Central America.

It comes as no secret to the people assembled in this room that across the developing world the agriculture sector as a tool for economic growth was abandoned for decades. Government and donor investment in the sector decreased significantly over the past 20 years – particularly so in the area of smallholder agriculture.

But IICA has been a catalyst for change.  IICA has advocated strongly with its 34 member states for new government policies to reduce rural poverty and lift the debilitating economic and social consequences of inequality.  IICA has pressed for agriculture that is inclusive of small agri-business, small-scale and family agriculture in rural areas.  IICA has been and remains a beacon of support for innovation and inclusion in agriculture.

And now the world is listening.

This shift in thinking had been underway earlier, but it accelerated after the 2008 global food crisis.  That crisis laid bare the difficulties of assuring food security, nutrition and health for a world population expected to exceed nine billion by 2050.  Calls to support smallholder farmers in developing countries to increase productivity, connect to markets and harness agriculture for improved nutrition and health emerged on the international development agenda, prompting global actions and responses.

The G8 meeting at L’Aquila helped focus government resolve; the World Bank’s 2008 World Development Report called for renewed emphasis on agriculture as an engine of poverty reduction and economic growth.  These were followed by the FAO High-Level Conference on World Food Security and the UN High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis – commitments most recently reiterated at the Rio+20 Summit and through UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge.

It was in this rapidly accelerating and fast-changing context that WFP decided to use our local purchasing power in support of more sustainable development for food and nutrition systems, and to transform food aid into food assistance, making productive investments in local communities.  And that is how P4P got started.

When we began in September 2008, people told us the basic grain sector in Central America was not profitable and that smallholder farmers faced too many constraints to successfully commercialize good quality maize and beans.

Today, I can proudly tell you that smallholder farmers in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua have sold over US$24 million of top quality grain to WFP. And not only to us, but to the private sector as well. P4P farmers have sold over 12,000 metric tons of grain to the private sector.  In El Salvador, for example, four P4P-assisted farmers’ organizations have signed forward contracts to supply 4,000 metric tons of maize to Harisa, a leading agro-business.

Before P4P, these smallholder farmers had no access to formal markets.  Their productivity was low because they could not obtain quality inputs, their farming techniques were inadequate, and their post-harvest losses reached as high as 30 percent.  If these smallholder farmers managed to harvest any surplus, they had to sell it at farm-gate to whoever wanted to buy it at whatever price they were given.

I’m going to share with you three examples of the kinds of positive changes we are witnessing in people’s lives.

Vilma Romero belongs to the board of directors of the Los Tabudos farmers’ organization in El Salvador.  Before 2009, she had to rent out two-thirds of her three hectares to buy inputs required for the remaining third.  But through P4P support she qualified for a loan of US$250 to purchase agricultural inputs and cultivate all of her land.  In that planting season she obtained over five metric tons of white maize per hectare, and with this harvest she paid back the loan, selling the surplus to Los Tabudos.  For the last two growing seasons she hasn’t required another loan.  And she has bought four metallic silos, enough to secure the surplus production for her family.

José Jesús Arauz, is a smallholder farmer from rural Nicaragua.  He has been a member the La Unión farmers’ organization for 18 years. Starting in 2010, he received P4P training on production and productivity techniques, post-harvest handling, commercialization, and access to credit.  He was then selected as a community promoter, receiving advanced trainings to show other farmers what he learned.  Now he plants earlier in the season and uses the cocoon system to store his grain, reducing post-harvest losses to only 10 percent and ensuring more competitive quality.  In 2010, José obtained a US$500 revolving fund loan for agricultural inputs.  The following year, he sold 5.6 metric tons of white maize to WFP at US$218 per ton and paid off the loan.

Reyna Luz Rodríguez belongs to a farmer’s organization from El Rancho, Guatemala.  She receives training on improved agricultural practices, soil sampling, fertilization, pest management and pesticide use, harvest and post-harvest handling – all provided by IICA. WFP provides training to measure the quality of maize and beans harvested, as well as training in commercialization and gender equality.

 I want to add a special mention of Howard G. Buffett – who I know was invited here today but unfortunately could not make it – and to thank him for his vision and commitment to P4P and for having brought it to this region.  He, in fact, enabled the strong partnership we have today with IICA.

Reyna credits P4P with giving the women of her community an opportunity to go ahead.  She says:  The experience of working as a group has shown me and my colleagues new things that we did not know before and now we can say that we women can do more than we ever imagined.

Today, Vilma, José, Reyna and other smallholder farmers like them can buy high quality inputs and negotiate fair prices.  Their productivity in many cases has doubled!  They also achieved unprecedented control over production quality, thanks to the collaboration between IICA and WFP:  working together we developed the Blue Box, a simple kit that enables farmers to verify the quality of their grain before they sell it.  Farmers can now ensure their grain meets required quality standards.

And our shared success is now multiplying exponentially.  The Blue Box has been adopted in many other countries.  Farmers’ organizations have invested in technology and reduced post-harvest losses to the minimum; they have put in place strong governance systems, and improved their financial and accountancy skills.  They have invested in technology and in developing business plans. 

Because of these advances, farmers’ organizations can now negotiate with financial institutions to obtain credit for production and commercialization.  And they can sell at good prices!  Smallholder production of basic grains has become something the skeptics never anticipated:  it has become a profitable business.

Throughout this transformative process, IICA has been our steadfast ally and the model for further partnership building.  WFP works closely with experts from other entities, all of us joining hands to ensure production challenges identified across the entire value chain are getting addressed.

We’ve built a proven model of success, a model that governments across Central America, Latin America and the world can now apply in growing their own programmes using food assistance purchases to support a more equitable participation in economic life for people in rural areas, while improving livelihoods and saving lives.

The Government of Guatemala has launched its Triangle of Dignity initiative with guidance from P4P.  In El Salvador, the Family Agriculture Policy that IICA is helping to implement also benefits from P4P experience.

Through these Central American efforts we have proven what can work.  Together we have delivered expertise and agricultural innovation that can be used for the greater benefit of the region and the world beyond.

Now we must work together to leverage that hard-won expertise and knowledge – to harvest our success – because this is not a process that any one of us can accomplish alone.  In this audience I see representatives of many countries with substantial experience, knowledge and expertise that can benefit other countries both in this region and elsewhere.

No one has more credibility in supporting and advocating for effective models to address hunger than those who have succeeded in doing it themselves.  WFP encourages and facilitates the process of sharing these success stories.
That is why we established the Centre of Excellence in Brazil.  The Government of Brazil has made extraordinary investments to address hunger and poverty, developing some of the world’s most innovative programmes.  And the results are unequivocal. By using cash transfers to families, investing in school feeding and supporting family agriculture, Brazil has managed to reduce hunger and poverty by half, well ahead of the 2015 target date set in the Millennium Development Goals.

Brazil’s Fome Zero initiative is inspiring governments around the world.  WFP is working with the Government of Brazil to share their experience, to guide other countries in developing their own successful programmes.

But our opportunities for horizontal cooperation between countries are not limited to Brazil.  We want to invest in a true exchange of experiences and knowledge to further inspire and transform the way we do business.

We need to better align the actions of all interested partners; better alignment between technical agencies and the UN system; and better alignment between governments and donors, to ensure funds are delivering value for money, that they are supporting country-led policies and interventions, and that we are meeting shared goals of increasing incomes, boosting social equality and improving nutrition and creating more food secure families.

That is the kind of collaboration we must keep working to expand and nurture across all countries in this region.  And that is where IICA’s seven decades long engagement with the governments of this hemisphere is making and will continue to make a huge difference.

Director General Villalobos, IICA staff, supporters and friends, I congratulate you on reaching this 70th Anniversary.  We thank you for your vision, your partnership and for your hard work.  We look forward with the highest expectations to our next decades of vitality and partnership – until our common ambition to end hunger is realized.

Thank you