Alliance of the unaffected


The real causes of hunger and poverty

A favourite quote delivered at NGO/donor conferences enjoins teaching a man to fish so that a self-employing skill that feeds the family serves him for life. The problem today is that there’s little fish left in the oceans by the North’s giant industrial fishing tankers, or the waters polluted by industrial and agro-chemical runoff have poisoned most marine life.

Similarly the best of farmers can grow nothing if they are dispossessed of land and water. That age-old ‘fish’ wisdom applied throughout history when plant and animal life free from nature abounded and community lands for collective food security existed – until colonialism and lethal modern weapons, arrived to exploit faster than nature could regenerate, followed by the World Bank/IMF and the WTO speeding up the process.

Yet, ending hunger and unemployment is the easiest achievement – provided governments allow it. But our so-called elected don’t permit the most basic natural law unless one is wealthy – the right to land to produce food and other necessities. The PPP’s ‘roti, kapra, makan’ promises didn’t work because none of these are possible without land. Furthermore, the female half of our population being marginalised is not a political or human rights issue. Our elected governments have never been class-democratic; they are even less women-democratic.

Consequently, most countries with the greatest natural wealth that should have been enriching are instead among the poverty-stricken, thanks to policies discriminating against the women and the poor – imposed by governments, foreign lenders and foreign investors alike, with an export-oriented economy joined at the hip to global speculators in commodified food.

But none of these were mentioned among causes of hunger and poverty at the recent Islamabad launch of an “Alliance against Hunger and Malnutrition” by the three UN Rome-based agencies the FAO, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Biodiversity International. Founded in 2003, they’ve arrived rather late since hunger here began to soar since the 2008 global financial crash.

The media from all over the country joined several hundred participants, mostly NGOs and development workers, but small food-growers – the backbone of our domestic economy and among the worst-affected – were conspicuously missing, as were the decision-makers.

It was highlighted that 1.3 billion tons of edible food was discarded every year, but not that most is exported to the west from South countries while their own hungry starve. Or that the world over-produces enough to feed two to four billion more than our current seven billion plus population.

This state of affairs was absurdly blamed on distribution, although sellers rarely exclude a reachable market – as long as people have the money to buy with. The root causes were not even acknowledged let alone discussed, until disappointed participants voiced their objections.

The solutions sought were more of band-aid rather than curative nature. It did not include what could bring some visible results within one growing season if the political will existed – to resume and redistribute idle public land, excess private land, and land unlawfully appropriated, towards restoring it to the tillers (promised in 1946 by the then PML), who historically constituted 70 to 80 percent of the population.

Yet organisers felt coy about trying to persuade governments directly – although food insecurity has been dramatically overcome in quite a few countries through traditional organic farming which is necessarily small-scale and employment-creating on a vast scale.

The international ‘Food Tank’, reiterates that food security is impossible without improving gender equity and women’s empowerment, starkly proven by the failure of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) launched 12 years ago. Because gender equity and food security in the MDGs are not intertwined as they should be, neither being possible without the other.

Questionably too, the issue of women farmers, FAO’s gender policy, and the UN’s Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (SWAP) are all absent from the agenda in the forthcoming food security conference in Rome this month. The UN’s huge bureaucracies don’t seem to think alike, or don’t coordinate like so many South governments.

They didn’t even echo De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, who reports that discrimination against women remains pervasive because they result from laws that are themselves discriminatory. When, at the outset, they suffer unequal bargaining position and gendered division of labour within the household, their marginalisation and exclusion from decision-making is complete. Pakistan, we know, is a prime example.

A successful strategy, he notes, requires a “whole-of-government approach, coordinated across various ministries, including those responsible for health, education, employment, social affairs and agriculture” – something that has never entered our political or economic mindset.

As long as Pakistan’s governments believe women’s empowerment for national food security takes last priority, or has to wait until debt and electricity issues are resolved –rather than being an inextricably concurrent issue – the growing famine will become difficult to hide.


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