Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa - The discussion Thursday at the World Food Prize symposium about hunger and poverty in developing nations turned largely from the controversies of global warming and genetically modified crops and focused on governments and their role in solving social ills.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and philanthropist Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, discussed how they and the foundations they've created work in African nations and elsewhere to improve lives.

They were joined by Ritu Sharma, president of Women Thrive Worldwide, a Washington-based advocacy group dedicated to women's equality.

Blair, who left office in 2007, started the Africa Governance Initiative five years ago to help improve governance in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Malawi and South Sudan. He said he has learned through his work that unless a country has a basic capacity at the center of government to make improvements, change will not occur. In some countries, it's as important a need as offering reliable electricity, roads, and other basic infrastructure, he said.

AGI sends teams of people to work alongside leadership in the underdeveloped nations to help implement change.

"If you've got a great agricultural program and you want to deliver it, unless you've got the basic capacity at the center of government to make the thing happen it doesn't happen," Blair said.

He said he has found it surprising how little political leaders are educated about the programs and organizations available to help them but is encouraged that a new generation of leaders in Africa and elsewhere want to learn and accept assistance.

"The surprising thing has been the lack of knowledge of what's out there, and the most optimistic thing is there's a new spirit and attitude out there that says, OK if you've got something to teach me, I'm willing to listen," Blair said.

Howard Buffett said among the bigger challenges are getting the knowledge, farming tools, seeds and techniques appropriate for each country into the hands of farmers and encouraging governments to let farmers make decisions that are best for their own land.

"We have to empower farmers to make good decisions, and to make good decisions they can afford comes down to government policy in the end," he said.

Blair said the World Food Prize Foundation's focus on developing agriculture is essential for developing countries that need to feed growing populations. He said industrialized nations offering help also need to be far less bureaucratic and more creative about solutions they offer.

Sharma said poverty is rooted in peoples' lack of power to change their environment or circumstances.

"You have to address the relative powerlessness of those you're trying to help, and woman are the least powerful among them," she said.

She said she has witnessed men take away productive land after local women aided by organizations were successful in growing crops.

"I see that time and time again. You have to look at what is underlying that poverty. What are the power structures, what are the barriers that any farmer, male or female, is facing and address that at the same time," said.

Making an impact in some cases requires talking with elders to change attitudes or drafting new national laws to permit women to own land.

Blair agreed that successful countries have to overcome attitudes that limit women from seeking education and property ownership.