“Changing Contexts, Consistent Principles”: A conversation with Walden Bello

Leah Scrivener | 07.25.2013

Walden Bello became an analyst at Food First in 1987 and later served as Executive Director from 1990 to 1994. He then went on to found the Bangkok-based NGO Focus on the Global South and today is a Congressman in the Philippines’ House of Representatives. He spoke with us about his history at Food First and his groundbreaking work in the Asia-Pacific region as a scholar, activist and policy-maker.

Food First: How did you first get involved with Food First, and what was the focus of your work?

Walden Bello: I was first recruited by Frankie [Frances Moore] Lappé and Joe Collins in 1987. About 15 years before that, I had been mainly involved in the movement to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship [in the Philippines]. Once Marcos fell in 1986, I felt that I was freer in terms of new commitments that I could make. So I was asked to join Food First and focus on Asia-Pacific issues. During that period, I did three key studies. The big study that I came in to do was a critical analysis of the newly-industrializing countries in Asia, specifically of Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, which came out asDragons in Distress: Asia’s Miracle Economies in Crisis [Food First Books, 1992].

I was asked to become Executive Director in 1990, at a time when a number of key people had left, and Food First’s staff funding was tight. At its largest, Food First had 20 staff, and we had to cut down significantly. It was a challenge because we had to continue to do good research and analysis, even as we were no longer flush with resources. So I think that my period as Executive Director, from 1990-1994, was in fact a time of streamlining the organization. Some would call it “structural adjustment” [laughs]. But with everybody pulling together, we were able to get through that period. We were able to develop new sources of support and continue doing high-quality research. In 1994, I left as Executive Director, because at that time, I really had to go back to the Philippines to join my family. Peter Rosset took over after I left.

FF: Where do you see Food First fitting into the global food movement?

WB: Food First began by giving a global analysis of the causes of hunger and poverty, and explaining how they are rooted in the corporate economy. Food First offered a critique of the way that food policies were designed not to help people, but corporations. I think from the critique of the global food system, it drew out an alternative paradigm that emphasized decentralized and localized food production. Its research supported food production that respected traditional food technologies, because eons and eons of people’s wisdom had been embodied in it. And it also emphasized healthy food and diversity, as opposed to monoculture. I’ve seen that Food First has become a sort of embedded analytical arm of the localized food production movement by providing quality analysis, direction and support.

I’ve seen that Food First has become a sort of embedded analytical arm of the localized food production movement by providing quality analysis, direction and support.

FF: Could you talk about how you started Focus on the Global South?

WB: Focus on the Global South got started because I was very interested in doing work in the Asia-Pacific region on issues related to corporate control and security. I think my training and my analytical paradigm that I absorbed from Food First was very helpful in terms of structuring the program of Focus on the Global South.

We decided to locate in Bangkok, because we felt that it provided a good site for a regionally focused organization. We were not only involved with Asia-Pacific issues; although the issues that naturally came to us were really Global South issues. The initial work dealt with structural adjustment issues, focusing on South Asia and Southeast Asia. Then we also had an active security program, tracking the development of the military structure of the United States, and military conflicts in the region.

Focus on the Global South came into being at the heyday of neoliberalism and globalization. In 1995, the WTO was formed, and it became immediately one of the targets of our advocacy. We were very deep in the global effort to undermine the WTO, from 1995 to 2005, when the Doha Round collapsed. We were active analytically, in terms of analyzing why neoliberalism and free trade were subverting peoples’ lives. We were also active politically, and we were part and parcel of the whole push against the WTO in Seattle [in 1999].

FF: Could you speak a little more about your current research interests and goals?

WB: I ceased being the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South in 2007. That’s when I ran for the House of Representatives in the Philippines. I did not take my seat until 2009, when the Supreme Court ruled that our party had won the requisite number of votes to have two nominees, and I was the second nominee. Before taking my seat, I had the opportunity to work on the global food crisis. I looked at the different causes of the crisis, and my book called Food Wars came out in 2009, published by Verso Books. That was an effort to try to pull together the different explanations for the global food crisis. The centerpiece of that book was the role of structural adjustment in developing countries in weakening our agricultural economies so that we had become more dependent on corporate-driven agriculture.

In the last four years, I haven’t really had the time to consistently work on a research project, because I was in Parliament and I had to take on a whole range of issues. Migrant workers’ rights was a key issue of mine, and I became head of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs. I also became one of the leaders in pushing the Reproductive Health Bill, which finally passed last year. I’ve been involved in a range of issues, but in the midst of that, I kept on writing about global issues (economic, ecological, corporate) beyond the Philippines. My book Capitalism’s Last Stand [Zed Books, 2013] focuses on the continuing importance of transnational corporations, and demystifying their role in the global economy.

I now have three more years in Parliament because I got re-elected, so that means that I can’t really focus full-time on research, although it’s very important to do that. But I have many of the same concerns: opposing militarism, opposing corporate control of our lives, opposing neoliberalism and promoting alternatives that are decentralized, localized, democratic and participatory. I think those same concerns have remained with me.

FF: It seems that you’ve had a strong diversity of experiences being within activism, and NGOs, academia and now in the government. What has it been like for you to jump between so many different arenas?

It’s important to be able to draw energy from these different milieus (politics, civil society, and academia) because they keep you grounded. I think the important thing is “changing contexts, consistent principles”: you keep your principles and vision stable, but you learn to work in different kinds of contexts and situations.

WB: It’s very important to be able to traverse and draw energy from these different milieus (politics, civil society, and academia) because they keep you grounded. I think the important thing is “changing contexts, consistent principles”: you keep your principles and vision stable, but you learn to work in different kinds of contexts and situations. Even as you have these principles, I think you need a certain amount of pragmatism so that you don’t become ineffective or doctrinaire. You realize that there are certain compromises that need to be made, as long as those compromises don’t harm people and that they eventually advance the strategic objectives you’re promoting.

And you need to be able work with different sorts of people. Certainly, when it comes to politics, there are people you would not have coffee or a drink with [laughs], but you are forced to work with them because you’re trying to craft a law or pass through legislation. And if they support a certain measure that would promote the interest of your community, although you might hold very different values, then you suspend your judgment of them in other areas. You sort of plug your nose in order to get things through [laughs].

So the important thing is to be able to do that, but at the same time, not become a compromiser and lose sight of your goals.