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With health reform now law, U.S. should address global health, climate change and food security

Now that the Obama administration has delivered on health care in the United States, we should think about families around the globe who suffer from malnutrition and lack access to basic maternal and child health-care services, including family plan

Now that the Obama administration has delivered on health care in the United States, we should think about families around the globe who suffer from malnutrition and lack access to basic maternal and child health-care services, including family planning. Minnesotans know these realities well; eight in 10 give to charitable organizations working to solve these kinds of problems around the world.

Over the next month, members of Congress will debate funding for critical international programs, including climate change, global hunger and food security, and the Global Health Initiative. Just one-third of 1 percent of the federal budget is dedicated to addressing these 21st century challenges, despite the increasing frequency of climate-change impacts and natural disasters, rising levels of malnutrition, staggering maternal death rates internationally and a world population expected to hit 7 billion next year.

Vulnerable to environmental change
And make no mistake — these challenges on the ground are massive, both for women and vulnerable communities. The fates of women and poor communities are inextricably tied to the environment, as these populations receive substantial benefits from ecosystem services, are vulnerable to climate and other environmental change, and are essential to achieving long-term sustainable solutions. For example, after decades of neglecting agricultural development in poor countries, over 1 billion people worldwide go to bed hungry each day. Many of these people reside on small farms in Africa. Women produce up to 80 percent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa, but have access to less than 5 percent of land, credit and extension services.

Farmers and poor countries are confronting increasing droughts, floods and erratic growing seasons. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that yields in many African countries could drop by 50 percent by 2020, potentially further exacerbating existing social inequities for women and poor communities. In developing countries, pregnancy can be a death sentence, as more than 536,000 women die annually in pregnancy or childbirth while more than 215 million seek to delay childbearing but lack access to modern contraception.

Unlike the divisiveness of health-care reform, Americans have always stood behind efforts to improve food security, climate, and global health. Seventy-five percent believe that global hunger is a big problem and two-thirds support global health interventions such as family planning, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum.

McCollum, Ellison lend support
Thankfully, the response by Minnesota Reps. Betty McCollum, D-4th District, and Keith Ellison, D-5th District, to these challenges reflects the broad levels of support for smart international investments. McCollum introduced the Global Food Security Act of 2009, which combats hunger by designing a better food-security strategy that involves women on the ground in developing tools (including access to credit and land) to help local farmers feed their communities. The bill also supports research appropriate to local ecological conditions carried out in partnership with local institutions; such partnerships are essential if research is truly going to be useful to those in need. Further, her legislative efforts have recognized the disparate impacts of climate change on women, and she has worked to ensure that U.S. government support for international adaptation increases the resilience of women.

Ellison’s participation in bipartisan initiatives such as the CSIS Smart Global Health Policy Commission reflects his commitment to improving and integrating government responses to maternal health and family-planning issues.

We hope the Obama administration will now work with these congressional champions to make these ideas a reality. These foreign-assistance initiatives can better the lives of women and vulnerable populations on the ground and are a critical part of our foreign policy.

In these tough economic and budgetary times, we’re heartened by the choices made by Minnesotans in charitable giving. We hope that supporters in Congress and the Obama administration continue to advocate for funding and policies aimed at tackling climate change and improving food security and global health, ensuring improved programs on the ground for the millions of women and families who directly benefit from these efforts. 

Thomas Lovejoy, Ph.D., is a board member of Population Action International. Jim Harkness is president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.