The FAO had to cancel the second world food summit which should have been held this month. Yet 800m people in the world do not have enough to eat. If the present economic order does not change, it will stay that way.
We are all familiar with the statistics: 36m people died of hunger or its immediate consequences (deficiency diseases, kwashiorkor) last year. Yet world agriculture is easily capable of feeding 12bn people and we are only half that. It easily means everybody gets 2,700 calories of food daily.
So death by hunger is not inevitable ? it is genocide. Fifty years ago Josu de Castro wrote: "Those who have money eat. Those who have not die or become invalids" (1). For every victim, there is a murderer. But the United Nations, NGOs and civilised nations are responding differently to these silent deaths. There are two opposed positions.
The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 proclaimed economic, social and cultural rights. Equal in status and universal, they were additional to the civil rights proclaimed in 1948. The right to food is first among the new rights, which have been accepted by every country except the United States, and it says: "The right to adequate food is realised when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. It implies the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals and acceptable within a culture. It is indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person" (2).
Endorsed by the World Food Summit organised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1996, the right to food was a novel thought. Before that, production, distribution and transport of food was left entirely to the market, and a sack of rice, a litre of milk, or a quintal of wheat were considered commodities like any other, the preserve of the capitalist free market. The Chicago Commodity Stock Exchange has set the prices of the principal foodstuffs every working day. Six transcontinental agro-industrial and financial corporations dominate that stock exchange and, usually, its daily prices are the outcome of complex speculation involving forward contracts and pyramids of derivatives.
With the ever growing number of those who suffer from malnutrition and hunger, most countries now believe that food distribution can no longer be left to supply and demand. The emergency humanitarian aid dispensed by governments and NGOs (World Food Programme, Unicef, etc) periodically rescues the market´s casualties. But that is not enough.
In April 1990 the UN Commission on Human Rights appointed a special group to draw up the new standard of international law and report on how to make it effective (3). But the US, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the largest transcontinental private corporations favour what is called the Washington Consensus (4) as their response to the right to food. This has four precepts that apply globally at any time to any economy: privatisation and deregulation, macroeconomic stability and budget cuts.
The Washington Consensus was a series of gentleman´s agreements reached in the 1970s and 1980s between the international financial organisations and the US Federal Reserve, with the aim of gradually abolishing the regulatory measures imposed by governments on financial markets and, ultimately, of completely liberalising markets (5). For the officials of the IMF, WTO, World Bank and the US Treasury Department, the Consensus is holy writ. It determines their daily practices. Its articles of faith are the basis of the monetarist creed. For the peoples of the third world, the consequences of the opposition between the right to food and the Washington Consensus are a disaster. The Bretton Woods institutions, the WTO and the US Treasury have powers of constraint, financial clout, far greater than the FAO, the WFP, Unicef, the World Health Organisation or the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Take the case of Niger, the second poorest country in the world according to the UN Development Programme´s human development index for 2000. Home to some of humanity´s most marvellous cultures ? Hausa, Djerma, Tuareg, Fulani ? the country covers an area of 1.2m sq km. But only 3% of its land is arable. After two military coups in the last decade, its democratic institutions now appear sound. But the IMF and food shortages afflict Niger. Last year´s harvest was poor and the shortfall in stocks is more than 160,000 tonnes of millet. By tirelessly lobbying international organisations, western governments and Japan, Hama Amadou´s government is managing to make up the food deficit. So far, no one has died of hunger. But with Niger´s external debt exceeding $1.6bn, the IMF is imposing a draconian structural adjustment programme involving all-out privatisation and liberalisation.
Thanks to the professionalism of its farmers and its salt-rich soil, Niger´s cattle, sheep and camels are famous throughout the Sahel. Many of its 20m head of livestock of all kinds are exported to the sultanates of northern Nigeria, to Bamako (Mali) and to the cities of the Atlantic coast. Millions of families rely on the income from their animals. But the privatisation of the National Veterinary Office is having disastrous consequences. Many farmers can no longer afford the exorbitant prices that private traders now demand for vaccines, vitamins and antiparasitic drugs. There are no longer any checks on the age of veterinary products. Niamey is nearly 1,000 km from the Atlantic ports of Cotonou, Lomé and Abidjan. Traders often sell vaccines and drugs that have passed their expiry date. Animals die. Families are ruined.
Rampant privatisation is also threatening Niger´s National Food Products Office (ONPVN). The ONPVN has a fleet of high-performance trucks with experienced drivers. This vast country has 11,000 scattered villages and permanent encampments, many hard to get to. The ONPVN has carried seed and emergency supplies to the villages in times of famine. Now these services are under threat and private transport companies are taking over. The private companies operate for profit and drivers are sacked on the spot if they take the slightest risk with their trucks on potholed tracks. So many villages are no longer supplied.
The WTO rightly requires that no animal may be exported from a region where there is an epidemic or a source of infection. But under the rod of the IMF, there is no longer a central laboratory worthy of the name to provide farmers with non-contamination certificates. Animals are sold to traders from Nigeria, Benin and Mali at Belayara´s weekly market, and those traders use the lack of a certificate to force down prices.
What is happening in Niger also happens, with variations, in Guinea-Conakry, Mauretania, Chad and elsewhere in the third world. Structural adjustment programmes imposed by the IMF are affecting food supply and social conditions in most of those countries. Oxfam has investigated the programme imposed on Zambia in the early 1990s. It found that the country´s gross national product had not increased since 1991, the economy had not been stabilised, per capita income had fallen and 70% of the population was now living in extreme poverty (6).
Over development, the UN is split. Every summer, the Economic and Social Council meets in Geneva to ensure that the agencies aid and investment programmes are coordinated and not in conflict. All the directors of the UN´s specialised agencies, programmes, funds and other bodies are present. But the IMF and the World Bank, which are part of the UN (not the WTO), fight for the most efficient possible operation of the most liberal possible financial market, challenging the right to food. They constantly frustrate small advances in human development achieved by Unicef, the FAO, WFP, WHO and other agencies in the South.
Courage and determination
Should we, as several authors do, among them Joseph Stiglitz, winner of this year´s Nobel prize for economics and former chief economist at the World Bank (7), blame lack of political leadership in the UN? Far from it. The secretary-general, Kofi Annan, is doing what he can with courage and determination. But how do you fight the combined might of the transcontinental financial oligarchies and their mercenaries of the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO? Annan is a determined advocate of the right to food. But it is hard for him to reform the World Bank and the IMF, stand up to the WTO or bring the US Treasury Department to its senses.
That is why he decided to appeal to the world´s business leaders direct with the suggestion that they sign a Global Compact between themselves and the UN. He presented the idea for the first time at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 31 January 1999. The Forum is an annual meeting of the heads of the 1,000 most powerful transnational corporations. To join the Club of 1,000 (its official title), you must run a banking, industrial or service empire with an annual turnover above $1bn. The compact has nine principles. Each is explained in the official document drawn up by the secretary-general. They cover environmental protection, employment, civil liberties, social justice and North-South relations.
In the congress bunker that January, Kofi Annan asked the world´s masters "to embrace and to enact" the compact, to apply its principles in their activities and support their implementation by public authorities and governments. His words asked the lion to lie down with the lamb. The barons of Davos loved it. They gave him and his compact a standing ovation of several minutes. And not without reason. Every corporation that signs up gets the right to display the UN logo on all its documents: a PR and marketing goldmine. Signatories include the largest transnational food corporations. The problem is how to check if or whether the transnationals that have signed up for the compact apply its principles.
How will the battle between the right to food and the Washington Consensus end? Nobody knows. But the mobilisation of a new global society and its commitment to the battle will be decisive.
Writer, lecturer at the University of Geneva, United Nations Commission for Human Rights special rapporteur for the right to food, author of La Faim dans le monde expliqué à mon fils, Seuil, Paris, 2000
(1) Josué de Castro, The Geopolitics of Hunger, Monthly Review Press, New York and London, 1977.
(2) General comment 12 on Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UN document HRI/GEN/1/Rev 5, 26 April 2001.
(3) Resolution No 2000/10 of 17 April 2000, 52nd meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 2000.
(4) See Moises Naim, "Fads and Fashions in Economic Reforms: Washington Consensus or Washington Confusion?", Paper prepared for the IMF conference on second generation reforms.
(5) For a critical interpretation of the Washington Consensus, see "A la recherche d´alternatives ? Un autre monde est-il possible?", Alternatives Sud, vol VIII, 2001, No 2, Centre tricontinental, Université de Louvain-la Neuve, L´Harmattan, Paris, 2001.
(6) Oxfam, Liberalisation and poverty. An Oxfam research project, London, 2000. Appendix B: Zambia.
(7) Joseph Stiglitz, in New Republic, New York, 4 June 2000.