Ertharin Cousin finding less criticism out there about U.S. farm subsidies

ROME -- Foreign criticism of U.S. farm subsidies is diminishing, according to President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations food agencies in Rome.

ROME -- Foreign criticism of U.S. farm subsidies is diminishing, according to President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations food agencies in Rome.

"I find that people criticize American farm subsidies a lot less than they did in the past," Ambassador Ertharin Cousin said in a recent interview in Rome when asked how she is responding to criticism of the subsidies. "They recognize there are places that have no food and, but for American farm subsidies, there are people who would not eat."

Cousin's analysis of world reaction to the U.S. farm program is important because she meets on a daily basis with U.N. officials and agriculture officials from around the world.

A former Chicago grocery and food bank executive who was a senior adviser on Obama's presidential campaign, Cousin could become the most important appointee to that post since former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., was President Clinton's ambassador to these agencies in the 1990s and came up with the idea of a global school feeding program.

Representing U.S.


It was McGovern's job -- and it is now Cousin's -- to represent U.S. views to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which analyzes the world food situation and helps countries develop policies, to the World Food Program, which distributes food aid in countries that have experienced weather disasters and war, and to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which helps farmers in developing countries become more productive.

But after hearing stories of poor children in developing countries dropping out of school to earn enough to eat, McGovern -- a longtime advocate of the U.S. food stamp and school lunch programs -- convinced Clinton to use the Agriculture Department's power to buy some commodities to start some school feeding programs in the poorest countries in the world. The experiment proved so successful that Congress created the McGovern-Dole Food for Education and Child Nutrition program, named for McGovern and former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan. It sends close to $200 million per year in U.S. produced foodstuffs to feed 5 million schoolchildren in 28 countries. The programs, which are run by the World Food Program, nongovernmental groups and foreign governments, are credited with keeping children, especially girls, in school as well as creating an additional market for U.S. farm products.

Cousin now has an equal opportunity to be creative in fighting world hunger and finding opportunities for U.S. agriculture. She has been sent to Rome to help advance the global food security initiative that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched after soaring food prices in 2008 made it hard for people in many poor countries to buy food. The United States has pledged to spend about $3.5 billion during several years on agricultural development and food security measures in poor countries and the G-20 countries have pledged a total of 22 billion dollars.

Exactly what programs are developed under the global food security initiative and what roles the U.N. agencies, the U.S. government, other governments and U.S. agriculture will play have not been decided. Hillary Clinton has said the programs will emphasize agricultural development, which would mean opportunities for U.S. agribusinesses to sell seeds and equipment and for land grant colleges to educate farmers and future agricultural officials from developing countries.

It's unclear what the global food security initiative will mean for U.S. food aid, which is currently limited mostly to U.S. products. Some development advocates, who failed to convince Congress to put food aid in the form of cash that could be used to buy products in other countries, have told the Obama administration that the United States should de-emphasize food aid in favor of spending U.S. tax dollars on agricultural development in other countries. Humanitarian leaders also say food aid still may be needed because so many people in developing countries still don't have money to buy food.


Critics also say "monetization" of U.S. food in developing countries -- the sale of the commodities shipped to those countries, with the proceeds being used for development -- is inefficient and interferes with local markets. But many U.S. humanitarian and some farm groups use the funds from monetization to promote development and say monetization should be continued.

Hillary Clinton and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have been vague about the future of monetization and Cousin said she does not "really have a view on monetization."


Cousin does not have McGovern's relationship with farmers, but she does have a background for the job. She grew up in Chicago, went to college there and studied law under former Secretary of State Dean Rusk at the University of Georgia in Athens and worked in the State Department in the President Clinton's administration. When she returned to Chicago to work in the private sector, Clinton appointed her to the U.S. Agency for International Development's Board for International Food and Agriculture Development.

In Chicago, Cousin was an executive with Albertson's grocery stores and Second Harvest; the food bank network now known as Feeding America. During the 2008 farm bill debate, she organized black churches and women's groups to write letters urging an increase in the budget for food stamps.

And she may have closer ties to the Obama White House than McGovern had to Bill Clinton. An African American, Cousin said she lived near the Obamas in Chicago and used to run into them in the grocery store. Cousin, who is 52, noted that she met Obama when she was working on Democratic campaigns and he was a newcomer to Chicago who was conducting a voter registration drive.

"I was thinking, 'Who is this kid?' He was a little baby. He is almost 10 years younger than me," she said. "He was quite fascinating. He came into Chicago like a storm."

Cousin said she could have had a job in Washington in the Obama administration, but she wanted the ambassadorship in Rome.

"I am serving in this post at the most remarkable time where the administration is focused on agricultural development, multilateralism and the opportunities these institutions in Rome can provide to move forward the U.S. agenda," she said.

Point of view

Some development advocates were disappointed that the World Food Summit in Rome in November didn't result in stronger promises from countries to deliver the money that they had promised at earlier meetings.


But Cousin said, "From our position, the summit was a success. For the first time, as opposed to a declaration with a lot of laudatory but unachievable goals, we have a working document to provide a paradigm shift in how we move forward to combat the problem of food insecurity in the world. There is a commitment to the work, a plan for the work and a requirement for results. It also requires that the developing countries invest in their plans. This is not about what can the donor countries do. It is 'what can we do together?' If it was just about money and how much donor countries contribute, we would have solved this problem years ago."

Cousin said people will know the problem of food security has begun to be solved and the effort deserves more money because "we will see fewer hungry people, fewer food insecure people and changes in economic numbers in countries. What we have incorrectly done in the past is to say here is the global solution for the problem of food insecurity or poverty in the world as opposed to acknowledging that countries drive their own success or failure. The dynamics of leadership and some rule of law and agricultural resources and other economic drivers are all distinct to those particular countries. For the first time, the global community is acknowledging and accepting that as a fact."

Cousin said she is willing to meet with farmers and speak to farm groups on her trips back to the United States.

"Where we can arrange opportunities for me to communicate with farmers, I would love to," she said.

Cousin also acknowledged the contributions of McGovern and former Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, who was President George W. Bush's ambassador in Rome.

"I see them as my partners and my mentors," she said. "George McGovern has offered to go into the field with me and I look forward to taking him up on that."

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