DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — President Barack Obama is pitching U.S. foreign aid and, by extension, an image of a new Africa -- not one of malnourished children with hollow eyes and distended tummies, but one of smiles and plump babies.
Obama on Friday toured a series of booths set up behind his Dakar hotel that were designed to showcase Senegalese agriculture with a focus on nutrition and fortified foods.
At one of the booths, a large poster featured a healthy-looking baby in the arms of a smiling mother.
"That's a big, fat and happy kid," Obama said.
At another, he spoke to a farmer who displayed a sweet potato fortified with beta-carotene.
"This is not just your average sweet potato," Obama said. "This is your super-duper sweet potato."
The message was in part meant for an audience back home, where foreign aid in an age of budget squeezes is often first in line for cutbacks. The food programs get help from Feed the Future, a public private partnership initiated during Obama's first term that the administration says has helped seven million small farmers in 19 developing nations, including 7,000 in Senegal.
"When people ask what is happening to their taxpayer dollars in foreign aid, I want people to know that this money is not being wasted," Obama said. "It's helping feed families, it's helping people to become more self-sufficient, and it's creating new markets for U.S. companies. It's a win-win situation."
Speaking to reporters later aboard Air Force One, Obama said the aid serves as an economic development tool by increasing farmer income that in turn builds a new middle class that can support local manufacturing.
"Our foreign aid budget is around 1 percent of our total federal budget. It's chronically the least popular part of our federal budget," he said while en route to Johannesburg. "But if you look at the bang for the buck that we're getting when it's done right, when it's well designed, and when it's scaled at the local level with input from local folks, it can really make a huge difference."
During the agriculture tour in Dakar, he needled U.S. reporters traveling with him, whose questions have focused on recent Supreme Court decisions back home and on the whereabouts of secrets-leaker Edward Snowden.
"I know that millet and maize and fertilizer doesn't always make for sexy copy," he said. He asked a farmer at a display booth to show reporters some of his rice. "These are some city people," he said of the reporters. Then teased them, as if imparting a lesson: "This is where rice comes from."
As for the rice, he said he'd like to see it served at the White House. "We'll have the White House chef whip it up," he said.