Press Room




Sylvia Mathews Burwell - World Food Prize

October 16, 2008
Remarks by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President, Global Development Program

Good afternoon, and thank you for all your efforts and that warm introduction, Ambassador Quinn.

There are so many remarkable people in this room today: scientists and seed executives, farmers and philanthropists, entrepreneurs and policy experts.

You have come from across the country and around the world to honor two leaders and to confront the complex challenges of agriculture, hunger, and poverty.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as many of you know, is relatively new to agricultural development. In fact, it was only a few years ago that I was in Nigeria with Bill and Melinda, trying to do some on-the-ground learning. We were visiting with a cassava farmer who took a chunk of cassava and handed it to Bill. I’m no cassava expert—it’s not exactly a staple crop in West Virginia, where I grew up—but I remembered reading about the possibility of cyanide poisoning from eating it raw. At that moment, I watched as Bill took a bite. And I thought, “Oh, my … I am letting Bill Gates eat cyanide!” Fortunately, Bill is still with us, and he and Melinda didn’t hold it against me. Live and learn.

We’ve learned so much from so many of you, and we have much more to learn and accomplish, together. And so it is with gratitude, humility, and optimism that I speak here today.

To begin, I want to join you in recognizing two great leaders in the fight against world hunger—Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern, laureates of the 2008 World Food Prize.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both of these men, who have dedicated their lives to public service, grew up in small farming communities where people depend not just on their own work and the earth’s bounty—but often each other—to put food on their tables.

In this political season and in this battleground state, these two leaders from opposing parties remind us how much we all have in common and how much we can accomplish when we reach across the aisle and across sectors.

So on behalf of the Gates Foundation, I thank and congratulate Senators Dole and McGovern for their service, their leadership, and their partnership.

I also want to say a few words about Dr. Norman Borlaug and the World Food Prize. Few people in history have done so much for so many people—and done it with such unassuming modesty. Instead of basking in the glow of his well-deserved acclaim, Dr. Borlaug has always worked to redirect that spotlight to a cause much greater than any single person—meeting the challenge of world hunger.

This year, with nearly a billion people going hungry even as we meet, the World Food Prize is more important than ever. So I thank Dr. Borlaug—not just for focusing the world’s attention on this crisis, but for continuing his lifelong effort to marshal the extraordinary scientific, financial, and political resources that are necessary to meet it.

I. A Critical Moment

You’re all aware of the terrible toll that the food crisis is taking. After all, you’ve been on the front lines of this perennial battle for years. We all know that, all too often, where people are hungriest, production is down. And where incomes are lowest, prices are up.

But I believe this moment of acute crisis offers us an unprecedented chance to reverse these grim circumstances around the world, and that there are even reasons for genuine optimism:

  • For the first time in decades, the world has renewed its focus on agricultural development for the poor.
  • Recent advances in science and technology are making extraordinary gains possible.
  • And today, I see here, an energized agricultural community, with the expertise, the resources, and the will to spark a second Green Revolution.
So how do we work together to transform this crisis into a turning point? Individually, the organizations we represent each hold a key piece of the puzzle. The challenge is to fit all of these pieces together, and to enlist still more to join us. And that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

I’m going to tackle that in three parts. First, I want to share a bit about how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation thinks about development and why agricultural development is so central to our approach.

Second, I’m going to highlight a few examples of the innovative and exciting work of our partners around the world, many of whom are here today.

And third, I’m going to outline what I hope we all can do—individually and collectively—to realize our shared vision of a world where even the poorest people can feed themselves, work their way up from poverty, and lead healthy, productive lives.

II. Our Approach to Global Development and Agricultural Development

At the Gates Foundation, our work is guided by a simple belief that all lives—no matter where they are being led—have equal value. We believe that whether a child is born in Dakar or Des Moines shouldn’t pre-determine whether they will have access to health, education, and opportunity.

Of course, this belief is simple to say, and much harder to achieve. But our ultimate goal is to reduce the world’s greatest inequities, so that every person has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.

Initially, this goal led us to focus our global efforts on health, and our domestic efforts on education and access to information through public libraries. But about two years ago, we made a decision to expand our work to encompass global development. In one sense, our focus on development in general and agriculture specifically began just 135 miles west of here in Omaha. In 2006, Warren Buffett informed Bill and Melinda that he was thinking of contributing a substantial portion of his wealth to the foundation.

Warren’s subsequent gift was at once monumental, humbling, and inspiring. It also led to one of the biggest homework assignments of my life—when Warren Buffett makes an investment, he expects a strong return! So my team and I embarked on an intense study to find the most effective ways to make real our belief that every person should have the opportunity to lead a healthy, productive life.

We started with the following mission: to increase opportunities for people in developing countries to lift themselves out of hunger and poverty. That is the purpose of the Global Development Program, which I now lead.

We also started with a few key principles.

  • First, we recognize that philanthropy plays an important but limited role. We can take risks, move quickly, and help catalyze change. But large-scale, lasting change is ultimately driven and sustained by markets and governments. Our work must therefore strengthen or complement these forces, not compete with or replace them.
  • Second, we focus our work on benefitting individuals. There are, of course, many effective ways to approach and quantify development, individual people are the lens through which we view and measure success.
  • Third, we believe we can have the greatest impact by focusing on a few, key long-term issues.
In choosing areas of focus, we asked ourselves the following questions:
  • What issues affect the most people, but receive the least attention and resources?
  • What are the greatest opportunities to help large numbers of people lift themselves out of hunger and poverty?
  • And, where can we have impact that is scalable and sustainable over time?
Time and again, the answer was agriculture.

History has shown us that almost no country has managed a rapid rise from poverty without increasing its agricultural productivity. Today, a majority of the more than 1 billion people who survive on less than $1 per day rely on agriculture for their food and incomes. And in sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture represents two-thirds of employment and about a third of GDP. Clearly, agriculture and prosperity must grow together.

We have already seen the alternative. Over the past 25 years, agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa has stagnated, even as the rest of the world has seen steady and significant gains. That stagnation has come at a tremendous cost. In the 1960s, Africa was a net exporter of food. Today it’s a net importer.

At the same time, there has been a sharp drop in official development assistance for agricultural development. In 1980, about 16 percent of foreign assistance was for agricultural development. Twenty-five years later, that figure was a mere 4 percent. And despite a commitment by African governments to spend 10 percent of their national budgets on agriculture, the average today is also closer to 4 percent.

While the need is clear, the opportunity is also clear. Thanks to the work of the people in this room, and many more around the world, we know that it’s possible to dramatically improve agricultural development. The Green Revolution in Latin America and much of Asia doubled the amount of food produced, saved hundreds of millions of lives, and laid the groundwork for broader development in many countries. While there were some unanticipated negative consequences, the Green Revolution showed that progress can be made at a large scale and offered lessons and inspiration for the future.

As I mentioned, Agricultural Development is the largest part of our Global Development portfolio. By the end of this year, the Global Development Program will have committed approximately $1.5 billion in grants, including more than $900 million for agricultural development. And we are committed for the long-term.

I’d like to highlight a few points about our approach.

Our approach in agriculture begins and ends with the small farmer. Everything we do is focused on him—or more likely, her. We are working with partners to cultivate opportunities for millions of small farmers to boost their yields, increase their incomes, and improve their lives.

The story of one small farmer’s success—of growing, harvesting, and selling their goods—is bound up in the larger story of agriculture. Success requires not only quality seeds, and healthy soils, but also good information, access to markets, and supportive policies.

That’s why we are pursuing improvements along the entire length of the agricultural value chain—from developing quality seeds and improving farm management practices to bringing crops to market and funding research for the future.

And in each of these areas, we are focused intently on women. With the help of Catherine Bertini, the 2003 World Food Prize laureate and a senior fellow in Agriculture at the Gates Foundation, we’ve developed a comprehensive strategy to address gender in our agricultural work.

This is not about a political agenda. It is about a relentless focus on results. We are convinced that agricultural development is more effective when it directly addresses the needs of the women who, in so many ways, manage the food supply in the developing world. When these women are neglected, or treated as an afterthought, agricultural programs don’t get the best results.

How will we know if we and our partners are achieving the results we seek?

We’ll know when we see hard data on the farmers we target indicating steady increases in average household income…a decrease in the number of underweight children… a rise in basic measures of health…

These are some of the metrics that we use in measuring our progress. But our vision for success goes beyond numbers on a spreadsheet.

Our broader vision is to help create a set of circumstances that give small farmers opportunities—not only to meet their families’ basic needs, but also, to go beyond that, so they can work their way out of poverty, permanently.

When a single farmer achieves this independence, it’s a great success story. When it happens for whole communities, it’s development.

That’s our long-term vision, and I hope it resonates with yours. Because we cannot accomplish it without each other.

III. Partnerships are Vital

There’s a saying we take to heart at the foundation: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And it is our unequivocal goal to go far, together.

It’s going to take strong, effective partnerships. Partnerships like those that brought us the first Green Revolution. And new, innovative partnerships that now more closely link the public and private sectors.

We need partnerships between researchers in the developed and developing worlds, so the world’s newest discoveries can benefit farmers growing the world’s oldest crops. And we need all governments—big and small, rich and poor—to start thinking of old problems in new ways.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we value these kinds of partnerships deeply; and they will be the foundation of our success.


The first partnership I want to highlight is also our largest: AGRA, or the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. AGRA brings together private funders like the Rockefeller Foundation, public funders like the UK’s Department for International Development, and African governments, all under one shared vision: revitalizing African agriculture.

AGRA is an Africa-based, African-led partnership. It is chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and its president, Namanga Ngongi—a longtime World Food Programme veteran, and a palm oil farmer himself—is here with us today.

Its first initiative, launched in 2006, aims to introduce more than 1,000 new varieties of African staple crops within a decade. These new, stronger varieties will be researched, developed, and distributed by African institutions that are being created or strengthened. And they are projected to help alleviate the hunger and poverty of 30 to 40 million people.

Purchase for Progress

Another recent partnership we’re excited about is our collaboration with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Josette Sheeran and her team at the World Food Programme on an initiative called “Purchase for Progress,” or P4P.

This innovative partnership has real potential to revolutionize the way WFP buys food in the developing world, giving hundreds of thousands of small farmers access to reliable markets and the opportunity to sell their crops at competitive prices. P4P is a true win-win opportunity that allows WFP to help those who have little or no food, while supporting local farmers who have little or no access to markets to sell their crops.

Combating Wheat Rust

The last partnership I’ll highlight is one that is near and dear to Dr. Borlaug. Earlier this year, we formed a partnership with Cornell University to combat wheat rust—a disease that threatens approximately 80 percent of African and Asian wheat varieties.

Cornell, in turn, is partnering with 15 top-flight institutions from around the world. Together they will mobilize the advocacy, research, and support needed to prevent a plague of devastating proportions. All of us involved in the project were inspired to see Dr. Borlaug make the trip to Mexico, where his career in wheat breeding began, to help kick off this new endeavor. It was his voice that sounded the alarm, so it was only appropriate that he was there to announce this truly global response.

IV. Call to Action

These are just a few of the agricultural partnerships that are working toward scalable, sustainable, systematic change.

In that spirit of collaboration and impact, I want to issue four challenges that I hope we can all unite our efforts behind.

First let’s invest in agriculture. If donor governments follow through on their pledges to increase aid and reprioritize agricultural development; if developing countries governments follow through on their commitments to increase their spending on agriculture; and if nonprofits expand upon smart and catalytic investments; if all of these things happen, then we will have the resources we need to reduce hunger and poverty on a large scale.

Second, let’s also make sure these investments are used as effectively as possible. Improving the effectiveness of our investments is just as important as increasing them. That means, for example, ensuring that funding for crop research flows to the crops that matter most to those living in hunger and poverty. It means investing in local capacity and efforts so that leaders like Monty Jones, the 2004 World Food Prize laureate and an AGRA board member, can do their best work. It means making sure that donor priorities align with the priorities of their developing country partners.

Third, to accomplish this coordination, let’s share data and results more freely and openly. This is challenging, but critical. One small way the Gates Foundation is trying to do this is by piloting a new feature on our Web site that tracks progress and lessons learned—in real time and with real data—on a set of our agricultural development grants. Perhaps the World Food Prize could be the place where people gather each year to share concretely what they’ve accomplished, what went well, and what didn’t.

Fourth, let’s put small farmers front and center. For scientists in the room: Can you help partner with researchers in the developing world so your work is even more effective for small farmers? For grantmakers: can you involve farmers in the design and development of your programs? For business leaders: Can you reach small farmers with agricultural investments that deliver both financial and social returns? For everyone: Can you ensure that your efforts consider the importance of women farmers?

Together, we can meet these challenges. The measure of our success will be the degree to which we can enable small farmers everywhere to do what all of us are so fortunate to take for granted: to feed our families.

V. Conclusion

I started today by telling you about our belief that all lives have equal value. It can be hard to process what this means, so I want to end by telling you how I try to understand and remember it each day.

I have a picture in my office of a little Senegalese girl named Ndeye Ndiaye. She’s 18 months old, and she’s contently sitting in a blue bucket, with her head just peeking out over the top. I give a copy of this picture to every employee that joins the Global Development Program, and I tell them: “This is your boss.”

And I mean it.

This little girl is now "the boss" of more than 125 Global Development employees.

Every action we take should be for her benefit and the benefit of every person for whom the idea of all lives having equal value still rings false. Because ultimately, what we do is not about yields, returns, or markets. It’s about increasing opportunities for hundreds of millions of people to build healthy, productive lives. And that has a value that simply can’t be measured.

Thank you for all that you do, and I look forward to working together.

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