WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama on Friday reached out to the private sector in hopes of lifting 50 million people in the developing world from poverty, as wealthy nations grapple with a budget crunch.
Ahead of talks of the Group of Eight major industrial nations, Obama pledged that the United States will keep providing emergency aid to feed the world's hungry but said that firms had committed $3 billion to improve agriculture.
"As president, I consider this a moral imperative. As the wealthiest nation on earth, I believe the United States has a moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition and to partner with others," Obama said.
"We'll stay focused on clear goals -- boosting farmers' incomes and over the next decade helping 50 million men, women and children lift themselves out of poverty," Obama told a symposium in Washington.
Some 45 firms, from major corporations to African cooperatives, pledged investments on efforts, mostly in Africa, from providing better seeds and storage and helping farmers better predict climate patterns.
The initiative comes as pledges expire from 2009 in L'Aquila, Italy, where the Group of Eight promised more than $20 billion over three years to improve food access to Africans and others hit by the high prices and a global slowdown.
Obama insisted that the initiative, which he called the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, was not a substitute for aid. G8 leaders will hold a special session on food security Saturday at their summit at the Camp David presidential retreat, where the eurozone's woes are set to dominate the agenda.
"I know some have asked, in a time of austerity, whether this new alliance is just a way for governments to shift the burden onto somebody else. I want to be clear -- the answer is no," Obama said.
"As president, I can assure you that the United States will continue to meet our responsibilities so that even in these tough fiscal times, we will continue to make historic investments in development," Obama said.
In a rare public reference to his father's family in Kenya, Obama said that he had seen first-hand how African farmers "can be some of the hardest working people on earth" but still suffer from hunger.
"Fifty years ago Africa was an exporter of food. There is no reason why Africa should not be feeding itself and exporting food again," Obama said in the speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
As part of the initiative, the Noregian global firm Yara said it would build Africa's first major fertilizer production facility. Companies including Pepsi and Dupont also pledged to invest in Africa's small-scale farmers.
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, one of the African leaders invited to the G8 summit, said that his own country's experience showed a vital role for companies.
"The transformation of agriculture cannot be only the business of governments and donors. We need the participation of the private sector," he told reporters.
In her own speech in Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the problem of food security in stark terms as she said nearly one billion people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger.
"By the year 2050, the global population will climb to nine billion and the world will need to produce 70 percent more food than we do today just to feed everyone," she said.
"Seventy-five percent of the world's poor live in rural settings and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods," she added.
"If we can help the rural poor produce more food and sell it in thriving local and regional markets as well as on the global market, we can decrease chronic hunger today, we can build an ample food supply for tomorrow, we can drive economic growth in places where poverty is persistent," she said.
Besides stressing the partnership with the private sector, Clinton also called for improving nutrition, especially for children, and for removing obstacles to women's access to resources in agriculture.
Anti-poverty advocates largely applauded Obama's initiative but voiced concern about broader actions by wealthy nations.
"President Obama made an important commitment to increase US public support for the fight against hunger but we hear other G8 countries may not be prepared to make the same kind of commitment," said Neil Watkins, director of policy and campaigns for ActionAid USA.
"Without a clear pledge to sustain L'Aquila public funding levels, this year's G8 will be remembered as the summit that buried the L'Aquila pledge to fight hunger," he said.
Activists praised Obama for pledging to support nutrition of young children -- which is crucial for their future health -- but voiced hope for more.
"This is an area where we have seen some progress, but unfortunately the G8 missed an opportunity to commit to a concrete target around preventing stunting," said Adam Taylor of Christian aid group World Vision.
Hunger has gone up sharply in recent years for a variety of reasons that experts say include the global economic crisis and climate change.
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died last year in lawless Somalia and neighboring countries on the Horn of Africa due to a drought. In a new crisis, more than 16 million people are said to be short on food in West Africa's desert Sahel region.
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