Part 1 transcript

Robert Manne:

I suppose what I really want to say is that I am extraordinarily grateful to our three speakers for coming.  I think we have a wonderful panel to discuss what you here, and thank you very much for coming, must realise is a fundamentally important human question and it’s the purpose of the program that I run to bring together members of the university to think about these issues in a sober but  I hope also a compassionate way.  I’ll introduce the speakers one by one rather than all at once and very briefly.

The first speaker is May Miller-Dawkins.  I said to her before and I’ll say it in public that we have many students in politics and international relations as part of the university I come from who would love to, and aspire to have the sort of career that she is now making for herself.

As I just discovered, May studied law but pretty early in the peace became involved with Oxfam as the Program Coordinator of the International Youth Parliament, connected to Oxfam, and now at a very young age is the Oxfam’s Director/Manager of Research and has recently been involved in two international publications, one to do with the global economic crisis in developing countries, the other to do with Indonesian women and the effect of the GFC.  So for many reasons our first speaker I’m extremely that May agreed to talk.  She’s from Oxfam and she will be the first one to give her perspective and if I could ask you to welcome May to La Trobe University.

May Miller-Dawkins:

Thanks Robert, and it’s great to be here.  So to kick us of I was going to go through some starting points, look a bit at the state of world hunger, talk a bit about the causes of food insecurity, touch on the compound crisis of the global economic crisis, how that has fed into and deepened people’s vulnerability to food price spikes, and then look at just some ideas about how is that we achieve the implementation of the right to food.  So in starting off, in terms of our starting point at Oxfam, looking at food, it’s very much built on the idea that everybody does have the right to an adequate amount of food, which is underpinned in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and which has been further detailed in the more recent FAO voluntary guidelines on the right to food. 

That’s our basic starting point about people’s right to food, and as Paul mentioned, that’s in part because it’s so foundational, in terms of people’s ability to access their other rights, to participate in society, to be able to think clearly, to have energy, people need access to an adequate amount of nutrition.  But the second starting point for me is that we’re moving into a time now, we’re seeing it very clearly over the past few years, of incredible volatility on a range of levels, through fuel price spikes, through food price spikes, through economic recession and volatility, also through the increasing impacts of climate change on agriculture, on people’s health.  And so in all of that we need to think about people’s vulnerability and resilience, to increase risks, strains and shocks.

And in thinking about hunger as part of poverty, I think about it in part and from spending a long time last year talking to people about their experience of the past couple of years in a range of developing countries that it’s really about that sense of anxiety and powerlessness about what the future might bring, about whether or not people can put food on their tables, especially to be able to feed their children. 

So looking at the big global picture and the FAO recently released its State of World Hunger 2009 in which its estimate of the number of people who were hungry in 2009 was just over a billion people.  1.02 billion people.  And if that figure is right it means that we’ve now got the hungriest number of people, the highest level of chronically hungry people in the world since 1970.  Asia-Pacific has the highest absolute numbers but it’s in sub-Saharan Africa that you find the highest proportions, so 1 in 3 people are experiencing hunger.  And there’s a strong gender aspect to this as well.  7 out of 10 of the world’s hungry people are women or girls, and because so many of the world’s poor exist on small scale farming, on subsistence, many of them have become crisis takers in the current food market and many of them are actually net food consumers, and even though they are producing food, because of levels of indebtedness for the inputs they need to put into agriculture, they actually are still needing to be able to buy food themselves.  And up to 80% of these smallholder farmers are women. 

When we look at the actual trends around hunger we see a couple of disturbing things, both that the absolute number of hungry has increased significantly since the mid ’90s until now, and also that there was a really strong declining trend in the proportion of undernourished people in the world.  What we’ve seen very recently is that that trend is declining, so the overall proportion of people who are undernourished is actually starting to go up.  And it’s critical to look at the fact that the number of undernourished in the world was declining in the ’70s and ’80s in spite of rapid population growth.  And at that time we were actually in the wake of another global food crisis in the early ’70s and as a response there were large investments in agriculture, including in scientific research, in rural roads, in irrigation, and that led to significant increases in cereal yields and lower cereal prices.  That in turn significantly reduced people’s food insecurity.  And during those decades as well, there was a high proportion of official development assistance, so aid from governments like our own that was going into agriculture.  So what’s caused this turn around?  And one of the clear points that this started to turn around was certainly the food crisis of a couple of years ago, where we see across 2006 a slight increase in prices and then a really significant sharp spike in 2007. 

And despite the drop in food prices that started in 2008, overall we actually saw food prices remain significantly above 2006 levels during last year.  And I think the critical point is that despite the fact that food prices started to drop, the prices of basic staple foods in a lot of poor countries didn’t actually drop.  So it started with this talk of sticky prices.  We don’t understand when the price of rice or the price of grains is dropping, when people are going to the marketplace it’s still incredibly high.  And, we need to be well aware that it started to rise again through the second half of 2009.  So we are potentially moving towards another increase in prices. 

What this means, I wanted to show a photo but I’m not doing slides, so for people’s shopping baskets, there was an exercise which the Institute of Development Studies did in Zambia in February 2009 and they had people put what they used to be able to buy with 5,000 kwacha, so about US$1.25 on a big piece of white paper and you could see that there were quite a lot of green vegetables, different pieces of grain, different bags of millet, and then you had on another piece of paper what they were able to buy a year later and it had more than halved.  And basically what these price spikes mean to consumers is an enormous drop in their purchasing power, in their ability to put food on the table. 

And critically, as well, it is important to note that when those food prices went up, you might assume that farmers were getting increased income, getting a real benefit from these increased prices.  But in fact many small scale farmers didn’t actually receive a benefit.  It didn’t actually translate through into their income, and I’ll talk a bit more about that later. 

Critically, it is 49 of the 51 least developed countries who are net food importers in the world, so who are incredibly vulnerable to food price spikes.  But I think one of the things we need to note – we were talking just before about how some of the disagreements about hunger, is it a political problem, is it a market problem, what kind of problem is it?  And I think it’s important to look at the way food markets have changed and have failed to address issues of equity, have failed to be able to provide either adequate food for producers or consumers, or an adequate income for producers.  So despite the declining aid that I talked about, there’s been a huge increase in foreign direct investment in agriculture over the past years and it’s increased from about US$600 million per annum in the 1990s to about 3 billion dollars per annum now, pre the financial crisis, 2005 to 2007.  But what that’s also led to is a series of concentrations in markets and in market power.  So you have commodity buyers who have concentrated in part to respond to the requirements of the food industry.  So they’ve concentrated through vertical coordination and increased supply over suppliers.  The processing industry has consolidated and you’ve ended up with a small number of trans-national companies and procurement has also consolidated.  And basically you end up with enormous imbalanced bargaining power.  So a trans-national corporation with a small market share in a country like the UK can exert inordinate power over suppliers from a range of other countries.  And the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter puts it this way:  “Due to the deeply unequal bargaining positions of food producers and consumers on the one hand and buyers and retailers on the other hand, the latter can continue to pay relatively low prices for crops when the prices increase on regional or international markets, and they can continue to charge high prices to consumers, even though prices fall on these markets.” 

So essentially the international price mechanism through commodity markets doesn’t actually translate because of this deeply imbalanced power with the food markets.

And as such I think we can see that access to food, to hunger, is caused by a series of systemic failures and imbalances, which include the increased sophistication of speculation of commodities, incoherent global structures that aren’t adequately regulating trade or access to food, and huge imbalances including the fact that oil and grain markets are now linked through bio-fuels, this imbalance of bargaining power between buyers over suppliers, hugely insufficient investment in small scale agriculture due to a purported preference and an argument from many institutions over the last thirty years that investment in large scale agriculture is sufficient to achieve food security, environmental unsustainability and inadequate social protection. 

I should wrap up quickly, but on top of that I just want to say that we did research over twelve countries on the human impacts of the economic crisis and found, even in countries that appeared to be doing very well at a macro level, like Indonesia or Ghana, that there were pockets of export-dependent workers in manufacturing, or farmers producing goods for export, or indeed, informal workers selling food on the street, dealing with both decreased numbers of people being able to buy that food, and also increased numbers of unemployed people seeking to do the same.  And we found that their major act of coping was through cutting down on their food initially.  And even in countries like Cambodia where food prices had dropped, because of the labour markets shocks through the economic crisis, people’s income had dropped more, so they could still buy less than they’d bought before.

And just to read a few things that people said to us.  So a woman in Indonesia said to me: “For the first three months, my kids found it very difficult to give up rice, tempe and tofu and just eat soup and the cheapest things.”  And this was a woman who’d been dismissed about six months previously, hadn’t been able to find any additional work, and the majority of people we spoke to who had been part of those global supply chains in Indonesia were unable to afford protein, had cut out all meat, all protein, even tofu and tempe, had cut down to two meals a day and often people were foregoing food so their children could eat.  This from a woman in the Philippines: “My husband and I skip meals to make sure our baby has milk.”  And we found this very consistently.  And as Paul said, there are very long term consequences for individuals, for families and also for countries of a large number of people being unable to feed themselves.

That being said, as I was saying to Sisira earlier, we did actually find that things were not as bad as we thought.  There was resilience to this crisis both at the national level of a lot of countries who were able to bounce back or who were able to institute social protection, were able to institute adequate stimulus and also at a household level.  But we found that people were mostly relying on their social networks, on the fact that they could share food with family or friends.  And we certainly found that those who had access to land, or access to natural resources such as rivers, fisheries that weren’t over-exploited, were in a much better position to weather the shocks of unemployment or of reduced remittances, or of reduced income.  Which again for us is a strong argument in favour of role of subsistence, of small scale agriculture, of supporting small scale agriculture as a way of enabling people to be resilient.

In terms of implementing the right to food, we believe there are some immediate things that are needed and also that there are obviously long term changes that are needed to address some of these systemic causes.  In terms of immediate responses, there is a clear need for locally appropriate social protection as a safety net.  So we found a lot of people who were directly affected by the economic crisis for example, were not accessing government assistance, and that’s because there are patchy coverage of social protection and because the kinds of shocks that we think are going to continue actually change patterns of vulnerability.  They don’t just hit the already chronically poor, or they often tip people who are actually near poor in comparatively good employment into really dire situations.

We also think countries need to use food reserves to supply crisis affected populations and to reduce market volatility but donor support is needed for these immediate responses and the food aid must be sourced locally and that there’s a real need to map food insecurity and vulnerability at a national level and part of that is to inform agricultural policy but part of it is also to make sure this social protection catches people who will need it.  In the long term, social protection is long term, relief measures that can be transformative, for looking at issues of minimum wage, protections for people in the informal economy, insurance for unemployment, access to land.  We need to look at economic development from the lens of resilience.  What’s going to build resilience within communities and within countries?  That there’s a need for investment in small scale agriculture and to coordinate national plans for agriculture, food and social protection with citizens’ involvement in which we consider women’s rights as an explicit component.  And lastly, that there’s a great need for stronger global governance.  For much stronger engagement and coordination at a global level around access to food.  And that’s where I’ll leave it for now.  Thank you.