Hanging on the edge: The daily fiscal cliff

Roger Thurow is a ONE agriculture fellow, journalist and author. He was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal for 30 years, 20 of them as a foreign correspondent. He is the author of “The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change” and “ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.” This blog post was originally published on the Chicago Council’s Global Food for Thought blog.

leonidas storage- 30 percent lossThe smallholder farmers of Africa know all about fiscal cliffs.

“Everybody wants money,” Leonida Wanyama despaired as she neared the precipice of her own personal cliff during the hunger season. She had no food in the house and no money, either. Many forces were pushing her to the edge. Her children were being sent home from their classes by headmasters demanding that the school fees be paid.

Photo caption: Leonida’s storage unit for some of her crops.

She was running up a tab at the local pharmacy, where she picked up malaria medication on the promise of future payment. She needed to pay off her credit for maize seeds and fertilizer. Most pressing of all was the daily need to scrounge up something to feed her family now that the food from her own harvest had run out. Every morning when she awoke after a fitful night tormented by worry, she felt the cliff was just beyond the door of her mud-and-sticks house.

Leonida and her neighbors in western Kenya have been peering into the abyss long before the phrase “fiscal cliff” became a buzzword in Washington. Zipporah Biketi, another farmer in western Kenya, told me about the daily battle to pull her children back from malnutrition. The children, she said, “don’t know the hardships that their parents pass through…They just want to eat.”

Leonida with Dorkus- not sure

For a nation like the United States, burdened with debt and budget deficits – and this applies to all of Europe as well – falling over the cliff is a scary proposition. But for the billion or so people who exist on one or two dollars a day – like the smallholder farmers of Africa – it is a daily terror.

Photo caption: Leonida hard at work. Her daughter Dorcas watches on.

If a deficit reduction deal doesn’t get done in Washington by the end of the year, the tumble over the cliff would trigger mandatory across-the- board spending cuts. Programs that support the poor and hungry in the U.S. and abroad have already been hit in previous budget-cutting rounds. New indiscriminate slashing will thus be disproportionately harsh for them. The cuts may be equally applied, but they won’t be equally felt.

Programs that pull people back from their personal cliffs will be devastated. That would be domestic programs like food stamps and women and infant care, and international programs like the presidential emergency AIDS assistance and food for education. The estimated $4.7 billion cut that would befall the International Affairs budget would include nearly $100 million from the President’s Feed the Future initiative, which aims to improve the harvests and profits, and thus the health and nutrition, of smallholder farmers in Africa like Leonida and Zipporah.

In my new book, The Last Hunger Season, we see how agricultural development and nutrition programs can succeed. We see harvests double, triple, quadruple in just one season. We see family incomes rise and health improve. We see farmers suddenly adding the all-important AND to their lives. They can feed their families throughout the year AND pay school fees AND afford medication AND improve their houses AND their farms.

In The Last Hunger Season, we see farmers retreating from their personal fiscal cliffs.

So this much is clear: A deal in Washington to avoid the fiscal cliff needs to get done. And it needs to get done fairly.

America’s deficit wasn’t caused because too much was spent on poverty and hunger programs; in fact, foreign assistance is less than 1% of the federal budget. So cutting here won’t save much at all. What it would do is save fewer lives.

As Bono told a full house of Georgetown students last month, “Budget cuts shouldn’t cost lives.” In his lyrical way, he declared that we shouldn’t let “economic recession become a moral recession.” That, he insisted, would be doubly cruel.

The United States can’t step back from its cliff by pushing millions of the world’s poor over their own cliffs.