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Dr. Ayo Ajayi, Director of the Africa Team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation came to Addis Ababa to attend the 3rd Financing for Development Conference. He sat down with Capital to discuss the foundation’s work in Africa and the SDGs.
Capital: There have been several pledges made by different organizations for the realization of the SDGs. Is the Gates Foundation making any commitments?
Dr. Ayo Ajayi: We have already announced a commitment of USD 75 million. We were also talking about what we need for nutrition, to eliminate stunting and malnutrition. We have doubled our budget for nutrition to USD 776 million for the next six years.
Capital: The MDGs fell short from bringing real change because they only focused on social goals, neglecting the issues of infrastructure, trade and so on. What is your comment on that?
Ajayi: There will always be criticism. There is no question in my mind that the world is in a very different and a much better place in 2015 than it was in 2000. So the MDGs have really done a tremendous job of helping countries to focus on key issues. There has been some criticism and those have been taken on board and will be reflected in the SDGs.
Capital: We are hearing about how Africa is rising, but in most places the growth is yet to be translated into human development, taking into question the quality of the growth on the continent. What is your view on that?
Ajayi: That is in part because we started from a very low base and the human capacities in many of these countries is not there yet. Some of the things we are working on, such as the nutrition goals, and efforts we are making for the next 15 years, it is for the next generation.
There are some countries where 40 percent of children are malnourished so these countries have already been hamstrung. What we are trying to do is to make sure that everyone starts from a level playing field.
Many African countries have grown tremendously over the last decade. Ethiopia is a very good example of that. If Ethiopia sustains its economic growth over the next 15 years, it will accomplish its Growth and Transformation Plan II which is critical for it to become a middle income country. That is doable and the focus should be on political commitment and the resource mobilization that is needed to get it done. It is not going to happen in one day, but you get encouraged as you get closer to where you need to be.
Capital: The SDGs need much more than the MDGs in terms of commitment as well as resources. Do you think the world will achieve these goals?
Ajayi: We will not achieve all of them; we will achieve many of them, including those many believed we will not be able to accomplish. That is what happened in the last phase and that is what will happen in this next phase.
Unless you set yourself very ambitious goals, you don’t know how far you can go. I don’t think all the goals are realistic, but, if you look at the rate of progress we have made in some instances, some goals are quite achievable.
Capital: Tell us about some of your projects in Africa, particularly on agriculture and health.
Ajayi: In Ethiopia, we work with the Agricultural Transformation Agency which is making a huge difference. Our goal is to increase the productivity of smallholder farmers because we recognize in many countries 70 to 85 percent of the agricultural production is by the smallholder farmers.
Our work in health, especially in increasing routine immunization that reduces child mortality, is also very well known. We are very dedicated to eradicating polio across Africa. We want to make sure that the technology that supports the chain of routine immunization is available and countries have the resources to deploy them.
Capital: How do you choose the sectors you work on? Do you look at the country’s need or do you have your own agenda and specific area you want to work on.
Ajayi: We don’t impose anything; we don’t tell countries what to do; but if they already have plans to do things that is consistent with what we identify as being important for the world at large, we will work with them.
Capital: Going back to your work in agriculture, you talk about improved seeds. Does the Gates Foundation promote use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?
Ajayi: The way we generally answer this question is the foundation has many interventions. A lot of people think that the work we do in GMOs is far higher, but it is actually a tiny portion of the amount of stuff that we do from training farmers, making sure they have access to market and so on, GMO is a very small part of that but it is one of the things that we do.
The thing is that we don’t impose it on anybody. Most countries have legislatives that dictate whether or not they would use it. The technology is there, we have some investments there just like we have investments in multiple other interventions in Agriculture.
Capital: GMO technology has received a lot of bad press but some still insist that it is necessary to achieve the goal of ending global hunger and increase productivity, and to ensure food security. Do you think GMOs will get more acceptance during the next 15 years of the SDGs?
Ajayi: Who knows, we will see. It is definitely one of the technologies available to deploy. Not all countries would deploy it but it is something that is available for them to use. What we are looking for is increased productivity for food security and GMO is one component of it.
Better planting technologies are also available. For example, look at Teff. You guys have been planting it the same way for thousands of years and there are better ways of planting, with fewer seeds with greater yields. So it is not just genetically modified Teff we are talking about, we are talking about planting it in a better way and how you can increase irrigation skills that make it possible for you to get greater production.
I think it is very easy for people to get distracted by controversies about GMOs. It is almost as if they are looking for something to go crazy about. The idea of modifying seeds and getting bigger yield has been with us for decades. What we focus on is increasing productivity and the decision on which intervention is to be used to attain that is solely up to countries.