Pandora Revisited


Sins of the Father

It is not implausible to think that Africans are probably being punished for some evil deed one of their own committed several centuries ago. Considering the sobering statistics that are often associated with the continent, no one could probably be blamed if they arrived at such a conclusion. Nothing can explain why to this day, there are 49 countries – crudely classified as LDCs – that effectively face the prospect of marginalization unless they hang on to the across-the-board-liberalisation dogma that neo-liberals like to promulgate.

Despite the overshadowing of Genoa violence over a Zanzibar conference on LDCs (to prepare themselves for upcoming WTOMC), there was a lot of coverage about the predicament of the poor in the summer of 2001. Their plight is a very fundamental one – obtaining their daily bread, as well as ensuring that the food they eat does not become an economic burden, but a right as fundamental as is one’s personal security.

Two cases in point are that of  two West African countries – Ghana and Nigeria. Despite high rising prices in Ghana -brought about by the ineptitude of the previous government – a retired Minister of Food and Agriculture is seeing to the dire food situation. He will be opening a six-month course to further investigate the systemic causes of food insecurity.

In Nigeria, too, a government official highlights how for Nigeria – biggest financial contributor to ECOWAS – to grow industrially, she needs to pay particular attention to developing her food industry.

A possible solution could come from two unlikely bedfellows – the regional group of 16 countries, ECOWAS, and the UN’s own Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In fact, ECOWAS Executive Secretary, Lansuna Kouyate, emphasised that agriculture is paramount for West Africa’s development “as 70% of the sub-regions’ population resides in the agricultural sector.” In what was the third meeting between the two organisations, it was agreed that both “will work towards harmonising legislation and regulations, co-ordinate and integrated institutions dealing with agricultural matters.” It eventuated that a regional/continental approach will bring about quick results – and one of these could be a Common Agricultural Policy exclusively for West Africa.

According to an article  “Agricultural Exports of Developed Countries” — agriculture is the cornerstone of not only many a developing country’s economy, but also LDCs. Compared to the industrialised countries’ – especially the EU and its CAP (not excluding the US and its subsidising of farmers) – whose many agricultural subsidies, the article continues, “undermine the competitiveness of developing country products”, the LDCs are lagging way behind. The statistic is staggering — the subsidies of these economies yield nearly $1billion a day. On an annual basis, these subsidies surpass the combined GDP of all 49 LDCs. In fact, it is increasingly becoming clearer that both the EU and the US spend more on agricultural subsidies today than they were spending at the start of the Uruguay Round of world talks in 1986.

Paying Lip Service…

One could be forgiven for thinking that this in itself would be enough to generate some concern for First World officials that something needs to be done. How far this issue has been mooted is questionable. As far back as October 1997, a high-level meeting on Integrated Initiatives for LDCs Trade Development took place. The meeting supported proposals for “increased technical assistance efforts by the WTO itself, autonomous action by WTO members to improve market access for imports from the LDCs and the establishment by six international organisations of an Integrated Framework for their trade-related technical assistance to LDCs.”

Proposed in 1997, there were high hopes for a constructive outcome. The framework was intended to co-ordinate the activities of WTO, UNCTAD, UNDP, ITC, World Bank, and IMF. The agencies actually agreed to co-ordinate assistance to LDCs for trade-related activities. Yet, when it came to the crunch, the agencies themselves had no funds allocated for the Integrated Framework. Put simply, the initiative was made abortive by lack of organisation and political will. Those organisations that had pledged funding no longer showed interest in helping push the project forward. Consequently, there has been no significant funding, which the authors of the article consider “all deeply disappointing”, as it brings home “how trade-related proposals fail so miserably do fit into broader development plans.”

…And Selling an Empty Box

WTO Officials like Philippe Legrain, until recently special adviser to Mike Moore, would have us believe that developing countries “are attracting investment not by lowering their standards, but because they are making the best of their comparative advantage”. This basic tenet of economics in this context remains as specious as the arguments peddled by WTO-philes that “if you hate capitalism, you will probably never support the WTO.”

To use the statistics that GDP per person fell by 1% a year in the ’90s in non-globalising developing countries, while it rose by 5% a year in globalising ones, is making a mockery of those who argue otherwise — such as Australia’s socialist magazine Green Left Weekly. They argued that HDR 2000 statistics are nothing but a litany of lies. According to this article, one set of World Bank data indicates that the ratio of incomes of 20% of the world’s population living in the richest countries to those of the 20% in the poorest was 13:1 in 1960; 18:1 in 1991, but fell to 16:1 in 1997.

Green Left Weekly argues this is biased data, for it includes rapidly industrialising China, with its 1.2 billion people. But an even more sobering statistic hits us in this WTOIL: average per capita GDP of an OECD country was 16 times greater than that of the average LDC in 1985, and 19 times greater in 1998.

Pandora Revisited

Perhaps the most glaring indictment of the UN’s Human Development Report (HDR) comes from two articles . The first, by New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst Dr.Devinder Sharma, entitled “Biotechnology Will Bypass the Hungry”, argues that UNDP’s annual Human Development Report 2001, “Making New Technologies Work for Human Development”, remains “another biotechnology industry-sponsored study” that sings the praises of market-led technology at the expense of the poor – “all in the name of eradicating hunger and poverty.” He maintains that “the reality of hunger and malnutrition is too harsh to be even properly understood.” His argument is that biotechnology, far from assisting the poor, will further entrap them. Sharmas’ criticism is incisive. He writes: “the deft manipulation of the prestigious UNDP’s HDR to push forth the US farm interests, however, will cast a shadow over the credibility of future UN programmes for human development.

Faiza Rady, writing in the second article, echoes a similar sentiment when she writes of how ever since the UN formed alliances with corporations, which partially finance the international organisations’ operations, it has been forced by dint of this association to sing their praises. Ultimately, this chorus of approval for biotechnology remains unequivocally corporate-led, with a mere UN mask. The UN, it appears, feels it has no choice. In what many see as a volte-face by the usually Southern-friendly and apolitical – and indeed a-corporate  United Nations, the HDR is, put simply, seeking “highly controversial solutions” – as exemplified by its promotion of Genetically Modified Organisms – to the very complex problems of food security and hunger in the South. That the UN is now toeing the transnational line is a moot point. If the UN of all organisations has succumbed to the charms – whether by dint of pragmatism or expediency – and strength of private finance, who is to stop these multinationals leaving indefinitely the box that Pandora never closed?


(c) E.K.Bensah, 2001

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