Dec 302008

syedmaliInstitutions like the World Bank have emphasised the need to conclude the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, even though little has been done by such processes thus far to lessen unfair agricultural subsidies in the developed world, or to promote sustainable agricultural practices

The outgoing year has proven rather turbulent for the world economy. The financial crisis which had started in 2007 intensified significantly by the time it led to a banking crisis in the United States and Europe in September 2008. Developing countries in particular have become increasingly vulnerable to the consequences of high commodity prices that have been accompanying this global turmoil. Increasing costs of fuel have further added to cost of transporting already more expensive food items.

The combined rise in food and energy prices between 2005 and the beginning of 2008 has estimated to have increased the number of people already living in absolute poverty across Africa, South America, and in East and South Asia.

Besides the growth of poverty, the annual cost of lifting incomes of those living below the poverty line around the world has also increased by nearly $38 billion, according to the latest World Bank estimates. Moreover, the financial capacity to fund this additional cost is also declining.

For the coming year, the World Bank predicts that global GDP growth is likely to decline to 0.9 percent. Developing economies themselves are expected to be expanding more slowly as well, by around 4.5 percent on average, which is well below the 7.9 percent growth rate recorded in 2007. Moreover, international trade may also decelerate sharply, reducing investments within developing countries.

Such predictions do not bode well for the capacity of the developing world to lift its people out of poverty, at a time when the developed world will be increasingly preoccupied with getting its own house in order.

Yet the world seems not to have learned the lessons from previous economic crises, given that the ongoing measures being debated to enable the world to once again secure higher trajectories of growth are again ignoring the available opportunities to put the global economy on the alternative track of more sustainable and equitable growth.

The scientific consensus warns that climate change will become an even more serious problem if the business-as-usual strategies to achieve growth are not altered, since they are destabilising the climate with reckless abandon. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has been stressing the need for developed countries to take more responsibility for reducing their own emissions and to also provide financial and technological support to developing countries to be able to do so.

Poor farmers in developing country farmers are already losing the fight against climate change. ActionAid’s research in five countries (Bangladesh, Brazil, Ghana, Malawi and Vietnam) indicates how small farmers lack adequate resources and information to combat falling yields, severe floods and droughts, and unpredictable growing seasons.

The global food crisis needs to be addressed urgently. Governments and aid agencies must take concrete steps to increase investment in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and development and agricultural extension services. Massive investment in organic and low-input agriculture, combined with binding emissions cuts for industrialised countries, may be the only way to avert a food security catastrophe within a few years time.

Eco-friendly agriculture techniques can boost food security in the face of adverse weather and soil conditions. Farmers, which comprise a significant proportion of the population of the developing world, need to be helped to re-discover traditional methods for diversifying crops, cutting the use of chemical pesticides and conserving soil. However, a lack of adequate resources, technology and information prevents them from doing so on a significant enough scale.

Yet there are some on-ground instances of this occurring, as in Ghana, where farmers have started mixed cropping to increase the chances that at least one crop will survive; but even these encouraging initiatives need supplementary government action on issues such water harvesting or access to credit to secure timely agricultural inputs.

In terms of proposed remedies to contend with the ongoing global upheaval, institutions like the World Bank have emphasised the need to conclude the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, even though little has been done by such processes thus far to lessen unfair agricultural subsidies in the developed world, or to promote sustainable agricultural practices.

Multilateralism within the agricultural sector has been instead encouraging transnational agribusiness concerns to further penetrate the agricultural sector of poorer countries. It has already flooded markets of the developing world with cheap agricultural produce that has been subsidised by their rich governments, lessening the capacity of farmers within the developing world to make a decent living producing food. Rather than eroding the food sovereignty of poorer countries, industrialised nations should be making binding commitments to pay for adaptation in the world’s most vulnerable countries of sustainable agricultural practices.

Instead, however, the world leaders have shown impressive expediency in signing astronomical cheques — worth nearly 2.7 trillion dollars — to help solve the ongoing financial crisis. Yet when it came to providing funds to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for attacking poverty and promoting sustainable development around the world, the panel which had suggested a relatively modest estimate of 50 billion dollars, the rich nations of the world scoffed away the proposal, and subsequently have not done much to provide increased support for the MDGs.

These same rich countries seem much more willing to show magnanimity towards helping bail out institutions largely held responsible for the near collapse of the entire global economic system, instead of helping alleviate worldwide disparities and the worst forms of human suffering.

The increasing urbanisation of the world, accompanied by the multidimensional issues of environmental pollution, as well as the prevailing economic models in use which simultaneously exacerbate accumulation and scarcity, have led us to go well beyond the tipping point of sustainability already. The extractive behaviour of our productive processes has now overwhelmingly overtaken the capacity of the surrounding natural environment to replenish its resources. The apparent degradation of cultivable areas, forests, coastal regions and mountains provide apparent evidence to this effect, and the poorest people of the world have unfortunately been facing the brunt of this degeneration.

The time to implement more effective strategies for management of these irreversible damages is right now. The current global turmoil provides as good an opportunity as ever to mend our ways, before it is too late.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at

Reproduced by permission of DT


 Posted by at 12:56 pm

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