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Feeding the world via policy into action

In much of the developing world, it takes a lot more than just land, seed and inputs, water, and labor to raise a crop. In many parts of the world where hunger and food scarcity are most common, it sometimes starts from the top down. And working in the halls of high government in a developing nation -- at least when food and agriculture is concerned -- is no easy task, even for a former head-of-state.

"The most surprising thing is how little political leaders are qualified and educated about what could be out there to help them. Again, this is not actually something of a problem for African leaders. One thing I find shocking about my own time in office is how much I learned. There's so much innovation happening around the world," says former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who during and since his role in the U.K. government has placed high priority on sustaining African populations, much of that coming in the ag sector. "One of the things we find with some presidents now is we say to them 'Look, I don't know whether this can help or not, but why not try it in a limited way and let's see what we can learn from it?' Instead of thinking we're going to change the whole of agricultural production, let's take a segment of the country where people are interested and try it."

Blair currently operates the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), an organization dedicated to working with that continent's developing national leaders to foster greater understanding of -- and more importantly, willingness to act on -- critical issues for their growing populations. Blair told World Food Prize attendees Thursday that the bulk of AGI's work comes in education, health care, and renewable energy, most of that relating to smaller-scale projects on the ground level. That work comes first through cooperation between a group like AGI and the leaders of a developing nation, Blair says, but it starts with the latter. Typically, it's the other way around in many situations where aid for a sector like agriculture in the developing world is concerned.

"The fascinating thing is there is a huge amount of information and ideas that are out there that you can use. I think it's absolutely right you have to interact with local people to see which ideas are most beneficial," he says. "The fact is someone, somewhere in the world is getting it right. Someone will say, 'Our problems are very much different.' Yes, they have local characteristics, but the basic processes are the same."

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Setting the right goals

Creating sustainable food and agriculture systems utilizing local innovation is a lofty goal, especially in areas where there may be logistical or cultural logjams to progress. That's why it's important to set not just surgically-specific goals, but also make them realistic in scope and number, adds Howard Buffett, founder of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which works to end hunger around the world. The right context is critical, but so too is the creation and accomplishment of goals within that context. Trying to do too much, in other words, can often undercut any progress when trying to end hunger and malnutrition in developing countries, Buffett said at the World Food Prize on Thursday.

"I think we make goals too big. You can set all the goals you want, and to me it doesn't mean that much. We like to be pretty focused at our foundation. We think if we're focused, it allows us to set higher goals and zero in on them," says Buffett, son of Berkshire-Hathaway chairman, investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett. "We need to understand we're not going to solve all these problems. You have to understand the context. We have to set those goals within that context. AGI goes into countries where the government accepts them and wants them. Dad used to say, 'Don't come and ask me for my advice if you're not going to take it.'"

Adds Blair: "Often you'll go to a country and they'll have some report written by some fly-in fly-out consultants that will outline changes needed by 2030 or by 2060. You're really hedging your bets there. They'll often have 100 priorities. But, I often say to the presidents, to get there, choose five. If you try and do the whole thing, it will just be a mess."

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Taking time and action

Carrying out those goals is the ultimate endgame for the work of both Blair and Buffett's foundations. And, that's something Blair says he's learned a great deal about since his days as prime minister, especially when it's applied to work he undertakes alongside the leaders of developing nations.

"i used to think when I first came into government as prime minister, if I gave an order to someone to do something, something would happen. This extraordinary naivete was replaced over time with the understanding that the biggest challenge in government today for these countries that are sometimes emerging after periods of conflict or other huge problems, one challenge is not just transparency, but it's efficacy," Blair says. "It's getting things done. If you have a great agriculture program and want to deliver it, unless you have that basic capacity in the government, it won't happen."

And, getting communication to translate into action today isn't the quickest process in the world. That's an area where world leaders, both in government and in the food and ag industries, need to develop patience and take a measured approach, Blair says.

"We've always had the best success in countries where it takes us three years to really get going. Countries where we've been there longest, like Sierra Leone or Liberia," he says. "Also, where we've prioritized. One of the frustrating things about government is this priority process."

The friction between when the incubation process starts and the action is carried out, however, could see a trim in the coming years as more technology -- specifically digital and communications tools like smartphones -- becomes more pervasive in developing parts of the world. That technology will fuel more connectivity that can ultimately, Blair says, one day fuel more idea-sharing and inspiration for the world's hungry to take action.

"People are anxious and eager for it. The world is connected. Africans are connected. The explosion in mobile phones in Africa and how their use in empowering people is extraordinary," he says. "The fascinating thing is there is a huge amount of information and ideas that are out there that you can use."

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