Gates to UN: World must help poor farmers more

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By FRANCES D'EMILIO, Associated Press

ROME (AP) — Bill Gates pressed U.N. food agencies on Thursday to become more efficient in helping poor farmers and to set up a kind of accountability "report card" system for countries receiving aid, as he announced nearly $200 million in grants from his foundation.

The Microsoft founder brought his campaign to fight poverty and hunger in Africa and Asia to a forum of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), one of three Rome-based U.N. food agencies.

He called on the trio of agencies to improve coordination among themselves and to insist that the countries receiving food aid, agriculture technology, know-how and other assistance show what they have accomplished with periodic reports he likened to "report cards" or "score cards."

That could also focus donor attention on what works.

"Without the score card, donors tend to fund fad-oriented, short-order things," Gates said later told a small group of journalists.

Much of some $2 billion spent over the past five years to fight poverty and hunger in Africa and Asia by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has gone toward improving agricultural productivity.

The foundation intially focused on "inequities in global health," Gates said, but expanded to agricultural projects after "we realized that many of the poorest people in the world were small farmers."

The foundation, which he co-chairs with his wife, Melinda, is based in Seattle, Washington.

Gates urged the U.N. agencies to commit to measurable targets for increasing agricultural productivity, but to take into consideration that advances in farming, such as for plant breeding, can take several years. When pressed for time frames, he gave, as way of example, five to six years for lifestock vaccination programs.

But he also advocated taking immediate advantage of high-tech methods — such as genomic science — to improve plant breeding more quickly than with traditional methods.

"(The) use of such techniques can make the difference between suffering and self-sufficiency" for small farmers in developing countries, he said.

Among the projects receiving funding from Gates is one to monitor the effects of agricultural productivity on a region's population and environment. Other grants will build on existing projects, including the release of 34 new varieties of drought-tolerant maize and delivering vaccines to tens of millions of livestock.

Gates has embraced high-tech — and to some critics controversial — solutions for boosting agriculture, including supporting genetic modification in plant breeding as a way to fight starvation and malnutrition.

In separate remarks to reporters, he suggested critics should ask farmers in poor countries who have adopted such techniques in plant breeding, "do you mind that it was created in a laboratory?"

Gates said that setting up a "report card" system within a year is an "ambitious, but not impossible goal," and meeting it would encourage donors to keep up the aid, he said.

He suggested the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization should take on the role of issuing such report cards. "Put FAO on the spot for spreading best practices" among recipients, he said.

He cited FAO's decades-long reputation for being a sprawling, inefficient bureaucracy. In 2007, an independent panel recommended that FAO establish clearer priorities and become leaner. A year later, member countries aproved a reform plan for FAO, including trimming management in favor of technical experts.

Drawing from his foundation's experience in improving poor people's health, Gates cited the availability of disease statistics as a yardstick of a country's progress.

"When I meet with an African leader, I like to have a score card" with health and disease statistics from that country, Gates said. "I know the vaccination rate. I know the measles rate." Likewise, he said, the U.N. agencies, when doling out agriculture assistance, should also demand similar accountability from recipients.

Separately, IFAD announced that the agency signed a "statement of intent" with the Gates Foundation Thursday to "build a stronger partnership" as both organizations work to fund agricultural research and development in the poorest regions of the world.

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