Thursday, November 12, 2009

The American Betrayal of the World's Rural Poor

Since the late 1980's, there are any number of examples one could choose to symbolize the dramatic failure of the U.S. and its allies to deliver on their utopian promises for market-driven higher living standards in the developing world. Among them are the worse crisis since the Great Depression, increasing economic inequality, destruction of the environment, and rapid declines in several key measures of welfare. However, the stunning lack of progress made in the lives of the rural poor should go down in history as one of the great betrayals of the neoliberal era.

For decades international financial institutions, aid organizations and the United Nations advocated an aid based approach to fighting world hunger. The way to respond, the hungry were told to believe, was through a series of technological 'green revolutions', increased market access and external support. At the same time international financial institutions were shoving their ideology of deregulation and liberalization down the throats of national governments. The result? The number of hungry people has topped one billion for the first time since records were established in 1970. Instead of placing blame on a failed strategy, the aid community is blaming the global recession and food crisis for their inability to eradicate hunger.

In the run-up to the 2009 UN Food Summit, the international aid community announced the boldest betrayal of hundreds of millions of starving people around the world. The UN Food Summit also backed away from any recommitment to halve world hunger by 2015---a key component of the UN Millenium Development Goals. Now the experts are claiming that even that goal may be impossible to reach until mid-2040. Humanitarian groups have rightly protested that the Rome summit was a failure, and that the three-day event was damaged by the absence of many of the world's leaders. The only silver-lining of the summit is perhaps the long overdue rejection of neoliberal paradigms in the final agreement. National responsibility for food security is one of the core principles in the summit declaration, which demands that plans for food security must be “nationally articulated, designed, owned and led.”

"The responsibility for ensuring food security, agricultural and rural development is the responsibility of each government and its people...It’s not the responsibility of the FAO and certainly not the responsibility of a summit. A summit does not have land. A summit does not have farmers. A summit does not have a budget to invest. A summit is a framework for discussion and debate to arrive at consensus solutions in the face of common challenges at the global level.”

In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, American leaders boasted that the global integration of investment, trade, and communication would lead to a diffusion of economic prosperity and human development around the world. In 2009, with all of the enormous global prosperity, free trade, and cutting-edge technology the fact that there are more hungry people now than a decade ago, should make us re-think our basic laissez-faire assumptions about economic development. The prominent libertarian economist Friedrich von Hayek once warned that the social democratic welfare state of the post 1930's New Deal era would lead down the 'Road to Serfdom'. But in fact it is Hayek and the development policy-makers who shared his ideas who have condemned the rural poor to virtual slavery.

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