Beware UN Food Systems Summit Trojan Horse

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Opinion

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Jul 26 2021 (IPS) – Undoubtedly, the world needs to reform existing food systems to better serve humanity and sustainable development. But the United Nations World Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) must be consistent with UN-led multilateralism.

For the first time ever, the World Economic Forum (WEF), a partnership of some of the world’s most powerful corporations, is partnering the UN in launching the Summit, now scheduled for September, with its ‘Pre-Summit’ beginning today.


Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Food insecurity is primarily due to inequalities and deprivations as victims lack the means to obtain the food they need. The UN should not serve those who cynically use hunger, starvation and deprivation to advance private commercial interests.

UN-led multilateralism threatened
The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and seemingly unchallenged US dominance in the 1990s posed new threats to UN-led multilateralism. The World Trade Organization was set up in 1995 outside the UN system. Later, ‘recalcitrant’ Secretary-General (SG) Boutros-Ghali was blocked from a second term.

The four UN Development Decades from the 1960s ended with the lofty, Secretariat-drafted Millennium Declaration, bypassing Member State involvement. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were then elaborated by the UN Development Programme with scant Member State consultation.

Growing corporate sway in the UN system got a big boost with the UN Global Compact. Such influences have affected governance of UN agencies, now better known as the World Health Organization struggles to contain the pandemic.

Difficult negotiations followed growing developing country disappointment with the MDGs, not delivering on climate finance as promised in 2009, and failure to better address the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath.

Hence, the negotiated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) compromise enjoys greater legitimacy than the MDGs. However, achieving Agenda 2030 was undermined from the outset as rich countries blocked needed funding at the third UN Financing for Development summit in mid-2015.

Summit bypasses UN processes
In the last dozen years after the 2008 world food price spike, the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has become an inclusive forum for civil society and corporate interests to debate how best to advance food security. Unsurprisingly, CFS has long addressed food systems.

CFS’s High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) is widely acknowledged as competent, having prepared balanced and comprehensive reports on matters of current and likely future concern. In the UN system, CFS is now seen as a ‘multistakeholder’ engagement model for emulation. Yet, the Summit bypassed CFS from the outset.

Nominally answering to the UNSG, Summit processes have been largely set by a small, largely unaccountable coterie. UNFSS organisers initially moved ahead without representative stakeholder participation until his intervention led to some consultative processes.

Mainly funded by the WEF and some major partners, they remain mindful of who pays the piper. Hence, they mainly promote supposedly ‘game-changing’, ‘scalable’ and investment-inducing solutions claiming to offer technological fixes.

Agroecology innovation
An HLPE report has approvingly considered agroecology or ‘nature-based solutions’. Many scientists have been working with food producers for decades to increase food productivity, output, diversity and resilience through better agroecological practices, thus cutting costs and enhancing sustainability.

The evidence is unambiguous that agroecology has delivered far better results than ‘Green Revolution’ innovations. A survey of almost 300 large ecological agriculture projects in more than fifty poor countries reported rising farmer incomes due to lower costs and a 79% average productivity increase.

This contrasts with the record of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) launched in 2006. With funding from the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, it promised to double yields and incomes for 30 million smallholder farm households by 2020. Despite much government spending, yields hardly rose as rural poverty grew.

Agroecological innovations have proved effective against infestations. Thus, safer, more effective biopesticides that do not kill useful insects and microbes, and non-toxic alternatives to agrochemical pesticides have been created.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hosted its first International Agroecology Symposium in 2014, before committing to ‘Scaling Up Agroecology’. But for Kip Tom, President Trump’s representative, FAO was no longer “science-based”.

Demonising agroecology
The Gates Foundation has been funding the Cornell Alliance for Science, ostensibly to “depolarize the GMO debates” by providing training in “advanced agricultural biotechnology communications”. Why traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture is only one instance of such sponsored propaganda masquerading as science.

Well-resourced lobbyists are using the UNFSS to secure support and legitimacy for commercial agendas. With abundant means, their advocacy routinely invokes ‘public-private partnerships’ and ‘science, technology and innovation’ rhetoric.

Forced to be more inclusive, Summit organisers are now using ‘solution clusters’ for advocacy. They then build broad ‘multi-stakeholder’ coalitions to advance purported solutions with the UNFSS mark of approval.

With strong and growing evidence of agroecology’s progress and potential, propaganda against it has grown in recent years. Agroecology advocates are caricatured as ‘Luddite eco-imperialists’, ‘Keeping Africa on the Brink of Starvation’, and condemning farmers to ‘poverty, malnutrition and death’.

A public relations consultant has accused agroecology advocates of being “the face of a ‘green’ neocolonialism” “idealizing peasant labour and retrograde subsistence farming” and denying “the Green Revolution’s successes”.

Agroecology solutions are the main, if not only ones consistent with the UN’s overarching commitment to sustainable development. But the propagandists portray them as uninformed barriers to agricultural and social progress. Such deliberate deceptions block needed food system reforms.

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Michael Fakhri alerted UNFSS Special Envoy Agnes Kalibata that agroecology is being dismissed as backward when it should be central to the Summit. Concurrently President of AGRA, with its particular commitment to needed food system reform, she is in an impossible position.

Best Summit money can buy?
Investing in the Summit is securing legitimacy and more resources from governments, the UN system, private philanthropy and others to further their commercial agendas. Meanwhile, many are working in good faith to make the most of the UN Summit.

Nevertheless, it is setting a dangerous precedent for the UN system. It has rashly opened a back door, allowing corporate-led ‘multi-stakeholderism’ to undermine well-tested, inclusive ‘multi-stakeholder’ arrangements developed over decades under multilateral Member State oversight.

UNFSS Science Days on 8 and 9 July indicated the Summit is being used to push for a new food science panel. This will undercut the HLPE, and ultimately, the CFS. Hence, the UNFSS seems like a Trojan Horse to advance particular corporate interests, inadvertently undermining what UN-led multilateralism has come to mean.

As both CFS and HLPE are successful UN institutions, the Summit will inevitably undermine its own achievements. Hence, for many Member States and civil society, UNFSS represents a step backward, rather than forward.

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Global Austerity Alert: Looming Budget Cuts in 2021-25 and Alternatives

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Opinion

Map of countries with projected austerity cuts in 2021-2022, in terms of GDP, based on IMF fiscal projections. Credit: I. Ortiz and M. Cummins, 2021

NEW YORK and NAIROBI, Apr 15 2021 (IPS) – Last week Ministers of Finance met virtually at the Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to discuss policies to tackle the pandemic and socio-economic recovery.


But a global study just published by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University, international trade unions and civil society organizations, sounds an alert of an emerging austerity shock: Most governments are imposing budget cuts, precisely at a time when their citizens and economies are in greater need of public support.

Analysis of IMF fiscal projections shows that budget cuts are expected in 154 countries this year, and as many as 159 countries in 2022. This means that 6.6 billion people or 85% of the global population will be living under austerity conditions by next year, a trend likely to continue at least until 2025.

The high levels of expenditures needed to cope with the pandemic have left governments with growing fiscal deficit and debt. However, rather than exploring financing options to provide direly-needed support for socio-economic recovery, governments—advised by the IMF, the G20 and others—are opting for austerity.

The post-pandemic fiscal shock appears to be far more intense than the one that followed the global financial and economic crisis a decade ago. The average expenditure contraction in 2021 is estimated at 3.3% of GDP, which is nearly double the size of the previous crisis. More than 40 governments are forecasted to spend less than the (already low) pre-pandemic levels, with budgets 12% smaller on average in 2021-22 than those in 2018-19 before COVID-19, including countries with high developmental needs like Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Kiribati, Liberia, Libya, Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The dangers of early and overly aggressive austerity are clear from the past decade of adjustment. From 2010 to 2019, billions of people were affected by reduced pensions and social security benefits; by lower subsidies, including for food, agricultural inputs and fuel; by wage bill cuts and caps, which hampered the delivery of public services like education, health, social work, water and public transport; by the rationalization and narrow-targeting of social protection programs so that only the poorest populations received smaller and smaller benefits, while most people were excluded; and by less employment security for workers, as labor regulations were dismantled. Many governments also introduced regressive taxes, like consumption taxes, which further lowered disposable household income. In many countries, public services were downsized or privatized, including health. Austerity proved to be a deadly policy. The weak state of public health systems—overburdened, underfunded and understaffed from a decade of austerity—aggravated health inequalities and made populations more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Today, it is imperative to watch out for austerity measures with negative social outcomes. After COVID-19’s devastating impacts, austerity will only cause more unnecessary suffering and hardship.

Austerity is bad policy. There are, in fact, alternatives even in the poorest countries. Instead of slashing spending, governments can and must explore financing options to increase public budgets.

First, governments can increase tax revenues on wealth, property, and corporate income, including on the financial sector that remains generally untaxed. For example, Bolivia, Mongolia and Zambia are financing universal pensions, child benefits and other schemes from mining and gas taxes; Brazil introduced a tax on financial transactions to expand social protection coverage.

Second, more than sixty governments have successfully restructured/reduced their debt obligations to free up resources for development. Third, addressing illicit financial flows such as tax evasion and money laundering is a huge opportunity to generate revenue. Fourth, governments can simply decide to reprioritize their spending, away from low social impact investments areas like defense and bank/corporate bailouts; for example, Costa Rica and Thailand redirected military expenditures to public health.

Fifth, another financing option is to use accumulated fiscal and foreign reserves in Central Banks. Sixth, attract greater transfers/development assistance or concessional loans. A seventh option is to adopt more accommodative macroeconomic frameworks. And eighth, governments can formalize workers in the informal economy with good contracts and wages, which increases the contribution pool and expands social protection coverage.

Expenditure and financing decisions that affect the lives of millions of people cannot be taken behind closed doors at the Ministry of Finance. All options should be carefully examined in an inclusive national social dialogue with representatives from trade unions, employers, civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders.

#EndAusterity is a global campaign to stop austerity measures that have negative social impacts. Since 2020, more than 500 organizations and academics from 87 countries have called on the IMF and Ministries of Finance to immediately stop austerity, and instead prioritize policies that advance gender justice, reduce inequality, and put people and planet first.

Isabel Ortiz is Director of the Global Social Justice Program at Joseph Stiglitz’s Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University, former Director at the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF
Matthew Cummins is senior economist who has worked at UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank.

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Austerity, the “New Normal”

Civil Society, Conferences, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Featured, Financial Crisis, Global, Headlines, Health, Labour, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Isabel Ortiz is Director of the Global Social Justice Program at Joseph Stiglitz’s Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University, former Director at the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF, and senior official at the UN and at the Asian Development Bank.
 
Matthew Cummins is senior economist who has worked at UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank.

WASHINGTON DC, Oct 11 2019 (IPS) – While this week Ministers of Finance and economists meet in Washington to confront global economic challenges at the IMF and World Bank Annual Meetings, the majority of the world population lives with austerity cuts and see their living standards deteriorating. World leaders must reverse this trend.


Isabel Ortiz

Since 2010, most governments in both high income and developing counties have been implementing austerity policies, cutting public expenditures. Surprisingly, this trend is expected to continue at least until 2024, according to a global study just published by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University, global trade unions and civil society organizations. Austerity has become “the new normal.”

Based on IMF fiscal projections, the study finds that a new fiscal adjustment shock will start in 2020. By 2021, government expenditures as a share of GDP will be declining in 130 countries, nearly three-fourths of which are in the developing world. The reach of austerity is staggering: nearly 6 billion persons will be affected by 2021.

How are governments cutting their budgets and implementing austerity reforms? In practice, the most commonly considered adjustment measures in 2018-19 include: pension and social security reforms (in 86 countries); cutting or capping the public sector wage bill, including the number and salaries of teachers, health workers and civil servants delivering public services (in 80 countries); labor flexibilization reforms (in 79 countries); reducing or eliminating subsidies (in 78 countries); rationalizing and/or further targeting social assistance or safety nets (in 77 countries); increasing regressive consumption taxes, such as sales and value added taxes (in 73 countries); strengthening public-private partnerships (PPPs) (in 60 countries); privatizing public assets/services (in 59 countries); and healthcare reforms (in 33 countries).

All of these measures have negative social impacts. As a result, in many countries older persons have lower pensions; there are not sufficient teachers, medical and care staff, and the quality of public services suffers; there are less jobs, and people work under more precarious conditions; prices increase while wages are stagnant; and the low and middle classes are squeezed and under pressure.

Matthew Cummins

In perspective, the macroeconomic and fiscal choices made by governments over the last decade are alarming. The G20 alone committed US$10 trillion to support the financial sector in response to the global financial crisis, and then passed the costs of adjustment to populations, with millions of people being pushed into poverty and lower living standards.

The worldwide drive toward austerity or fiscal consolidation can be expected to aggravate the growth and employment crisis and diminish public support at a time of high development needs, soaring inequalities and social discontent.

Austerity is also being used as a trojan horse to induce “Washington Consensus” policies to cut back on public policies and the welfare state. Once budgets are contracting, governments must look at policies that minimize the public sector and expand private sector delivery, including PPPs. There are clear winners and losers from this renewed Washington Consensus, and governments must effectively assess and question these policies.

Austerity and budget cuts do not need to be “the new normal.” There are alternatives, even in the poorest countries. Governments can find additional fiscal space to fund public services and development policies through at least eight options, which range from increasing progressive tax revenues, cracking down on illicit financial flows, improving debt management and using fiscal and foreign exchange reserves, to adopting more accommodative macroeconomic frameworks, reprioritizing public expenditures and -for lower income countries- lobbying for greater aid. All these options are endorsed by the United Nations and the international financial institutions.

It is time for world leaders to abandon the myopic scope of macroeconomic and fiscal policy decisions that benefit few and, instead, look for new fiscal space and financing opportunities to foster a robust global recovery and the achievement of long-term global prosperity for all.