War and Development

Systemic hunger

The Ukraine war exacerbates the dramatic food crises in the global South. Their causes, however, lie much deeper. By Radwa Khlaed-Ibrahim

I look at my hand. It is not particularly big. I imagine a flatbread//pita, as small as my hand. Recently, pictures of people from Egypt circulated, holding a pita bread in their hands. It costs as much as it did a few weeks ago, but it is only half the size. I remember eleven years ago how the outstretched hands with mini pita bread were first raised into fists and then rhythmically into the air to the shouts of "bread, freedom, dignity." In Arabic, the shout is an a-b-a rhyme; melodically, dignity could have been up front. But it was a conscious decision to call for bread first. Actually, Egypt now grows beans and cotton on a large scale for export, while wheat has to be imported. In times of the Ukraine war and cancelled supplies, this is a disaster. The question is why basic supplies in countries like Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia or Lebanon rely so heavily on imports, even though they themselves have large areas under cultivation? How could such dangerous dependencies arise?

In January 2022, even before the Putin war against Ukraine, global food prices reached an all-time high. The reason is the large "catch-up" demand on the world markets after the Covid 19 pandemic subsided. This is reinforced by the increasing use of agricultural products for biodiesel. In addition, poor harvests have reduced the supply of soybeans from South America, wheat from the U.S., Canada and EU, and palm oil from Malaysia. High prices for energy-intensive agricultural inputs, especially fertilizers, and rising international freight costs are doing the rest. Some countries have imposed export restrictions on wheat, beef, palm oil or fertilizers in view of the crisis described above. This, too, is driving up prices. As early as February, ROPPA Afrique Nourricière, an association of local smallholder farmers on the African continent, warned of an impending hunger crisis at the EU-Africa summit. UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke of a looming "hurricane of hunger".

Dreams and nightmares of a developed world

For decades, many African countries have reduced cultivating food to feed their own populations. Instead, the focus has been on crops suitable for export. The export of cotton, beans, flowers and berries does not bring in much foreign exchange, but it does generate more than self-sufficiency. In this respect, they contribute to the gross domestic product, which is conducive to be cooperating with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In the course of local liberalization processes, much arable land was sold or leased to private investors. Speculation became part of the daily falafel bread.

This trend already began in Africa when structural adjustment programs were launched in the 1970s. At that time, African markets were flooded with heavily subsidized agricultural surpluses from Europe. Food was cheaper than ever. Domestic products, however, could not keep up with such artificially low prices. Local markets were destroyed and dependencies created. Since the 2000s, are new instruments in place: Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). EPAs are trade and development agreements between the EU and countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, the so-called ACP states. Supposedly, they are intended to contribute to responsible economic governance. In reality, these agreements between the EU and African countries, are part of a modernized global exploitation. A typical EPA requests to open up markets to virtually all imports from Europe. A "standstill clause" requires African countries to freeze their import tariffs on EU products. A third typical component is the "most-favored-nation" clause: it makes it mandatory for African states to offer the EU the same tariffs they offer other major trading partners. This prevents the development of regional markets for African smallholder farmers. The agreements go so far as to prevent farmers from saving and exchanging seeds - forcing them to be on transnational seed companies.

The ideology of freedom

"Free trade" is a euphemism for the premise underlying such agreements, because it confuses the absence of government regulation with freedom. The reality is wild//disorderly trade that ignores human rights standards and serves the needs of transnational corporations and investments. That is how EPAs contribute to land grabbing: As production becomes more profitable in the global South, the local agricultural sector is put under increasing pressure and the cultivation of crops prioritizes export for "global consumption." This, however, feeds only small minorities. "Free trade" puts a large part of the populations of the Global South in competition with the consumers of the Global North, whose purchasing power is on average 60 times higher. In hunger and malnutrition regions, important land resources are being seized for one percent of the world's population. The survival of the poor is thus made deliberately and completely dependent on international "aid" policies.

A contradiction to the dream of "development"? On the contrary. The UN's former "Millennium Development Goals" and today's "Sustainable Development Goals" support these processes. For they too are not primarily concerned with food sovereignty of the countries concerned, but with their better integration into global economic flows. The latest strategies of global food policies still regard smallholder agriculture as an outdated practice.

Food for international markets is instead to be produced by a small number of large, intensive farms that employ few people and are often tied to global corporations through contracts for seeds and fertilizers. This approach has devastating consequences for people's access to land, water, and resources needed for local food production.

War as a catalyst

All of these contradictions escalate as the war in Ukraine proceeds. Hunger and the fear of a global famine are not merely a product of this war - they are used strategically, as a leverage, as a bargaining chip, as a "weapon" that is - as the deputy head of the Russian Security Council Dimitri Medvedev emphasized back in April - "silent but terrible". That's why grain cargo ships cannot leave port and silos are blown up. Grain and sunflower oil have become a pawn, and each side, up to and including Turkey, is trying to get what it can for itself. The consequences will be deadly, soon or as late as in winter, in this village or that slum. The IMF's policy of cushioning hunger with "resilience and sustainability trusts" for particularly vulnerable states will do little to change this. This is because, in addition to the existing debts, these trusts, like the EPAs, are accompanied by structural adjustment requirements - such as the removal of subsidies for important foods. Here we come full circle.

Suppose there were some form of compromise or the Ukraine war ended: Global food insecurity would be at least as great as it already was in January. For it is an outgrowth of decades of policies that allow and enable even the most basic goods of survival to be capitalized and exposed to speculation. They are the consequence of a world system that creates glaring inequalities and destroys livelihoods. Global hunger is made - today with blockaded freighters, every day with land grabbing and food speculation, imposed trade agreements and structural adjustments, and many other ingredients of globalized capitalism.

What to do? Immediate aid is needed. But it must be tied to a political project of change. Only then will it be able to do more than donate meager crumbs of flatbread that won't feed anyone.

Translation: Rebecca Renz

Published: 27. June 2022

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