International Tug of War Over How to End Hunger

Food First | 07.01.2010

Dublin was unusually sunny and warm last May when the High Level Task Force (HLTF) on the global food security crisis held a consultation at the Malahide resort just north of the city. Dr. David Nabarro, coordinator of the High Level Task Force sought comments from civil society organizations on the Comprehensive Framework for Action to end hunger (CFA). The CFA, hastily written a year ago by a team of experts from 23 bureaucracies within the U.N. system, is a multilateral attempt to create a plan to deal with the growing global food crisis.

Dr. Nabarro, an energetic showman, literally took off his coat and tie and rolled up his sleeves before some 100 representatives from farmer’s organizations, think tanks, non-profits, human rights and food security organizations from around the world. It was a lively two days of struggle around just how the South’s food systems will be rebuilt, who will pay, and who will actually benefit. Getting this right will largely determine whether or not world hunger—now increasing by 100 million people a year—will ever be ended.

Who participated in the Dublin Dialogue and who didn’t, speaks reams about the deep divide over how to end hunger. La Vía Campesina, the international peasant organization fighting for the rights of farmers, pastoralists and fishers around the world, refused to attend; sending a scathing letter denouncing the Dialogue as merely “an exercise of style… to get comments on a set of preset replies.” Via’s letter quickly got to the point:

“[For the CFA] the solutions to the food insecurity are global market, increase in productivity and investments in agriculture by means of industrial inputs and technology, reduction of tariff barriers allowing for a greater circulation of goods, a quick conclusion to the Doha round, and development of private investments to produce agrofuels in developing countries. The goal is to transform peasant agriculture into industrial agriculture as quickly as possible. Yet for many organizations from civil society, those so-called answers are the very causes of the critical food situations encountered by many countries.”

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If civil society is not allowed to lead, the tug-of-war between Rome, New York and Washington D.C. over who will end hunger will end in “business as usual”—not a hopeful prospect for the world’s billion hungry people.

Most of the participants in the Dialogue (as well as many of the organizers, and possibly even Dr. Nabarro himself) agreed on the need to curb global markets and prioritize investments in agroecology over GMOs. Most wanted agriculture out of the WTO and believe Southern countries need to protect their farmers from U.S. and E.U.’s decades-long policy of dumping surplus grain on their national markets. There was much said against both land grabbing and the spread of agrofuels.

But it soon became very clear that this Dialogue would not get the High Level Task Force to drop their assumptions that the global market is the solution rather than the cause of hunger, and priority must be given to the private sector rather than public institutions. The Task Force has yet to seriously address the rash of land grabbing and is unable to control the expansion of agrofuels. Despite the Dublin Dialogue, the HLTF is unwilling (or unable) to allow civil society—the thousands of farmers organizations and civil society organizations actually working on the ground—to play a lead role in the fight against hunger. Everything is up for dialogue, but, as it turns out, few things can be negotiated.

This is because Dr. Nabarro and the High Level Task Force (a team of bureaucrats with no budgetary or decision-making power), for all their good intentions, cannot stray far from the mandates of the World Bank—whose bureaucrats were conspicuously absent from the Dialogue. To do so would result in rejection. By whom? Most likely by the GAFSP-The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program.

The GAFSP is the multilateral trustfund being set up by the U.S., Canada and Spain under the leadership of the World Bank to span the gap between the $40 billion a year needed to end hunger, the $20 billion promised by the G-8 countries, and the $14 billion that is actually forthcoming on these promises. The GAFSP framework is based on the World Bank’s 2008 World Development Report on Agriculture. In direct opposition to the IAASTD (which the Bank funded, but now refuses to support), the 2007 World Development Report recommends more free trade and more public money for the spread of new agricultural biotechnologies.

Unable to win the Global South’s support for these positions, the GAFSP reflects a strategic move by the Bank to shift the locus of the war on hunger from Rome and New York to Washington—firmly under the control of the World Bank. In the image of World Bank operations, the GAFSP will divide support between the public and private sector, with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in charge of long and short-term loans, credit guarantees and equity to support private sector activities. In typical World Bank fashion, the results of the GAFSP will never directly measure reductions in the number of hungry people or measurable improvements to livelihoods. Rather, success will be measured by the numbers of people participating in GAFSP-supported programs. Their faulty assumption is that doing more of the same—i.e., free markets and technology packages—with more people, will end hunger.

Since the World Bank will be holding the purse strings, it appears the High Level Task Force has no choice but to buckle under to the GAFSP. However, there is another important player that may well tip the agenda in another direction: The U.N. Committee on World Food Security—CFS.

The Committee on World Food Security it is not a collection of bureaucracies, but a political body representing 192 governments. Recently reformed, the Committee is a global policy forum on food in which Civil Society Organizations are autonomous and self-organizing. The Coordinating Committee of the Civil Society Advisory Group is run by representatives from the International Policy Committee on Food Sovereignty (IPC), Oxfam and Action Aid.

The possibilities for unleashing the tremendous development potential of farmers and civil society in the war on hunger are more likely with the Committee on Food Security than with either the High Level Task Force or the World Bank’s deep pocketed GAFSP. If civil society is not allowed to lead, the tug-of-war between Rome, New York and Washington D.C. over who will end hunger will end in “business as usual”—not a hopeful prospect for the world’s billion hungry people.

Also in this issue of News & Views: 

  • “Agroecology: Agriculture of the future—not the past” by Eric Holt-Giménez
  • “Food First at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit” by Annie Shattuck