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Summary, Overview & Development Report 4.1

Agriculture, Food Security & the Multinational

Summary, Overview & Development Report 4.1
The Case for United Nations LDC3: October 2001
By Emmanuel.K.Bensah, ICDA Secretariat

Given the rapidity with which the Fourth WTO Ministerial was approaching, October's WTOIL, with focus on UNLDC, provided considerable latitude for what appears to be the fundamental bedrock of the Uruguay Round - agriculture, and its trailing sidekick - food security. For Least Developed Countries, the two go hand in hand like a horse and carriage, for without adequate provision for those LDC economies that subsist on agricultural produce, the ensuing consequence is food insecurity.

According to two articles that featured in WTOIL 1 October, US Ambassador to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation George McGovern, maintains that HIV/AIDS remains one of the biggest threats to food security. That he compares "the impact of HIV/AIDS on agriculture with the devastating affects of 11 September attacks" may very well be true, but comparing the threat of HIV/AIDS to a terrorist attack is hardly being realistic about the real plight. Such analogies only tend to obfuscate the issue into a black-and-white case, totally disregarding the true imbalance that remains at the heart of the UR that the US government - his government - is complicit in holding to at the expense of many lives. As if to add insult to injury, Mr.McGovern tells reporters of Johannesbourg's "Business Day" that US will not go into "a mode of isolation", nine days after the 11 September attacks. Two months on, we know how this statement has remained untrue.

Nonetheless, an article that featured in WTOIL 8 October ("FAO Reports Mixed Performance by Farm Sector) also corroborates McGovern's claim. In the above article, citing Sierra Leone as one West African country that faces the prospect of insecurity -- compared to Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Nigeria that are faring better. It goes on to argue that a 295-page report, produced by the FAO, indicates that "the greatest threat to West Africa's food security" is HIV, because "as able-bodied farmers fall victim to the virus, food production declines".

A poignant article followed the theme of food security in the following week's WTOIL (8 October). The article, entitled, "A Piece of the Pie: World Food Day"', though a year old, provided an interesting insight (and statistics) for this year's World Food Day. Penned by Fatemah Farag for Ahram Weekly, she argues how the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation remains true to its objective of trying to "alleviate poverty and global hunger, by promoting agricultural development, improvement nutrition and the pursuit of food security". Consequently, 16 October as World Food Day is generally a very good day to highlight the plight of the poor and their oftentimes-gargantuan battle to subsist. Nonetheless, their goals are made elusive by failure of national governments to act sufficiently towards this aim, despite the several conventions that have been enacted. She puts it succinctly here: "the fight against hunger is effective when it is not stymied by international apathy."

For the FAO, Farag continues, food production is their top priority, but the UN agency is meeting with difficulty its efforts to live up to its plan to reduce poverty by half by the year 2015. Here are some sobering stats that filled the article:

In Developing Countries:

  • 800 million people are undernourished
  • average food availability / person amounts to less than 2,100 calories /day
  • poorest 1/5th of world population eats 5% of all world's meat and fish
  • In Developed Countries:

  • average food availability / person tops 3,200 calories /day
  • richest 1/5th of world population eats 45% of all world's meat and fish
  • That said, to understand the varying dynamics of the change in food security production, it is important to back to history - to the seventies. Though most developing countries were just slipping out of the shadow of their colonial masters, two "greats" then of African and Arab nationalism respectively - Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah (whose country was the first British colony to achieve independence in 1957); and Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser (who unwittingly exposed the Franco-British-Israeli duplicity at Suez to upset the Canal that he had so abruptly nationalised in the summer of 1956) - paid too much attention to developing industries rather than agriculture.

    Consequently, though "the number of undernourished people in developing countries has declined by approximately 130 million people…and the per capita availability of food grew by 32 percent", between 1960 and the mid-1990s, it was only in the eighties that governments were faced with the problem of distribution. This perhaps explains why a country like Ethiopia "can be an exporter of agricultural produce, and at the same time" be one afflicted with extreme famine. All that said Arthur C.Clarke's very poignant quote resonates throughout these debates over food security when he writes: "The short answer is that there are serious anomalies in the distribution of food. Capricious and uncaring market forces prevent millions of people from having at least one decent meal a day, while others have abundance. There is no shortage of food on this planet; there is, however, a serious shortage of intelligence. And, I might add, compassion."

    Undoubtedly this type of sentiment, differing in varying degrees, prevails among many developing countries. They feel that their voices are not being listened to sufficiently, as evidenced by the audacity of the First World to put on the agenda the issue of investment and competition, which they know DCs do not have the capacity for.

    Small wonder, then, that on the eve of the Qatar Ministerial, three articles (WTOIL 8; 15; 22 October) addressed the African position at Doha.

    The first article to address this issue - "Africans Say DOHA 2001 Should Stick to Trade" - speaks volumes of the position both LDCs and DCs were preparing to take. The following quote from the above article lends weight to the very argument argued above: "we must oppose the so-called…issues namely 'investment', 'competition policy', 'environment', 'government procurement', which will further deny African countries advantages of trade and reverse its development processes".

    The author, Victor Ahiuma, maintains that the reason why the developed countries have so vigorously argued for a "new comprehensive round" is indicative of their motivations. One word sticks out like a sore thumb - the word "new". By promulgating the potential benefits of this so-called "new round", the author contends, they are in reality intending to bring in the new issues of "investment, competition policy, and core labour standards." These inevitably serve to make the multinational companies benefit from the multilateralism that the WTO is supposed to epitomise. If that truly is the case, then who's being hypocritical where?

    It further begs the question of why these issues need to be injected into the new round at all, when as clear as day, the imbalances of the Uruguay Round, tortuous though they may be, have yet to be resolved. John Madeley could not have put it any better when he writes: "the WTO is based on the assumption that it is countries who trade. But in today's global economy it is companies, not countries, that trade."(WTOIL 22 October, "Trading Thoughts on the WTO") He maintains "over two-thirds of all world trade is between transnational corporations, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development [UNCTAD]. Trade disputes are between companies as well as countries", and this train of thought is exemplified by the Banana trade dispute that eventuated between the EU and the huge US multinational, Chiquita, in 1999.

    In fact, throughout the three articles supporting the African view in October's WTOIL, the finger has pointed time and again to the role of the multinational. Madeley starts us off when he writes that the WTO has "no mandate to regulate the major trading players", that happen to be the much-maligned multinational. With respect to the TRIPs agreement, for example, they reign supreme. This Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights', despite the fact that it "grants patent holders the right to protect their intellectual property in WTO member countries", appears to serve these transnational companies the most. This is because they are the ones with more than enough capital to undertake research and development of their products, consequently leaving many DCs - not to mention LDCs completely out in the cold.

    Perhaps crucial to understanding the malaise behind the motives of the multinational is the article, entitled "Africa's No to Doha Trade Round" (WTOIL 15 October), that looked at the case of Kenya. The author, Wanyeki, argues that so far Kenya has been an ardent advocate of Africa's interest with respect to its position for Doha, and should continue to do so in the same vigour as it has so far done. Nonetheless, it does not shake off the ruthless behaviour of the TNC toward developing countries. In the case of Kenya, for example, the WTO is essentially arguing that if Kenya is unable to feed itself, or be self-sufficient, it is perhaps better for it to allow in multinationals that can do the job "better". This flies in the face of competitive advantage, the author argues, because, it basically means that Kenya would be forced to leave open its market for that ever-elusive invisible hand of the market to operate. In short, it would be forced to privatise an area as delicate and sovereign issue as food security for the nation.

    Finally, that only a handful of developing countries able to maintain a mission at the WTO in Geneva is only 23, or half the continent, is not only pitiful, but indicative of the misplaced priorities of the WTO towards the much-touted capacity-building it likes to promulgate.

    In the final analysis, what is paramount that the developed countries take on board is that liberalisation is fine - to an extent. Forcing DC's markets open is not the way of guaranteeing they enjoy 'peace and security'. However, considering, for example, the number of food insecure developing countries -- not to mention that the sharply skewed effects excessive trade liberalisation has on developing countries in terms of their economies, and ability to pay external debt -- it is perhaps time the WTO, and other globaphiles, stopped castigating the developing countries apparently "protectionist" initiatives. After all, as Wanyeki argues, "what could be more protectionist than the patents, trademarks and other forms of intellectual property rights under the agreement of TRIPs"?

    © E.K.Bensah, 2001

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