World Congress aims at improving the lot of Africans

A friend forwarded an e-mail from a member of a group of high school students on a service trip in Uganda. The e-mail describes how they helped build a primary school in the Mbale region.

The writer, an adult sponsor on the trip, also gave her impressions of the country, including the “long, long, long horned cows, roosters, trash fires, goats, mud huts, laundry and all that makes Uganda, Uganda.”

Besides helping build the school, the teenagers also donated funds to improve the housing of “families headed by children.” The writer notes the appreciativeness of residents living in mud huts with clothing that “would never make the rag bag. This is definitely another world that looks at life with a different reference point — the research says they are far more satisfied with their lives than Americans,” said the writer, a teacher back in the United States. “We certainly don't use the same logic.”

Her statement seems to highlight the dilemma the world faces in dealing with countries like Uganda, many of whose citizens are among the 800 million who exist on less than $1 a day.

That is, how do you improve the lives of people, who despite their seeming happiness with their “bucolic” lifestyles, are only one step removed from famine or disease.

The World Agricultural Forum is trying to address that question by holding its first World Congress outside the United States. The Republic of Uganda will host the 2009 event in Kampala next Feb. 24-26.

The WAF, based in St. Louis, aims to provide all countries with an equal voice for the discussion of agriculture policies and strategies. Its previous congresses have attracted agricultural experts from around the world.

The organization believes it made the right choice for its first international meeting. “The world's attention to Africa continues to grow, particularly with humanitarian concerns,” said James Bolger, former prime minister of New Zealand and current chairman of the World Agricultural Forum Advisory Board. The WAF is under no illusions about the challenges, says Ray Cesca, president of the World Agricultural Forum and a former executive with McDonald's. “When we go to Africa, it will be to stay,” he said. “We expect to be there for years to come.”

A group of agricultural economists recently said completing the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization was the second most important task the countries of the world could complete to do the most good for the people of the world (providing vitamins to children was the first).

I'm not so sure that's the case given the WTO's track record in handling such issues as the cotton case Brazil brought against the United States. (The WTO's arguments for allowing Brazil to take retaliatory measures against U.S. exports are dubious at best.)

The better approach may be to focus on countries such as Uganda and to improve the lives of its people one village at a time.

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