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Privatizing Hunger: Global Policy-Making at the World Food Summit

The World Food Summit of November, 1996 brought over 180 countries and over 1,000 NGO delegates together to consider solutions to hunger. The results included 15 technical papers, a Declaration and a Plan of Action. Unfortunately there was a disconnect between the policy solutions and the technical requirements identified to reduce hunger. Prescriptions were derived less from professional analyses than from an ascendant neoliberal ideology. The Summit's biggest innovation, a call for greater private responsibility for reducing hunger, rests on dubious foundations.

The idea for the Food Summit was first proposed by Jacques Diouf, new FAO Director-General, in 1994. Partly to fulfill pledges made during his election campaign, Diouf hoped a Summit would help mobilize resources to better address hunger problems. The WFS would do this by taking stock of past successes and failures and then chart directions for future action.

Although prices of food (in real terms) were at historical lows, over 800 million people experienced hunger. For most of the period, supply was not the problem. Throughout the 20th century food production experienced significant gains in efficiency. These gains, spurred by research breakthroughs, were a major factor in reducing hunger in recent decades.

Nonetheless, by the time of the Summit, the question of where future production increases were going to come from was in fact a serious question. Funding for research and investment in agriculture provided by governments in industrialized countries began to decline in the 1980s. By the time of the Food Summit in 1996, serious concern had been raised by agricultural scientists and economists about this shrinking funding for research and investment. Declines were evident in resources made available by both multilateral institutions like the World Bank and bilateral donors.

The Summit's technical papers explored whether growth in food production was sustainable and whether outreach to the poor would continue. Favorable trends faced new threats. The last major hunger conference-- the World Food Conference (WFC) in 1974-- proposed steps that had accomplished significant gains in reducing hunger. Now, however, three trends loomed as problems. These were environmental constraints that threatened to limit the sustainability of food production levels, a rise in emergencies that caused resource diversions, and growing costs associated with further reducing hunger, especially in Africa.

The first problem resulted from awareness of environmental damage from current farming practices. As damage from using marginal land, or from fertilizers and chemicals added to get increased yields per acre, has been better understood, new strategies were deemed necessary to overcome environmental constraints.

A second Summit concern was the rise in emergencies. Civil disorder and the consequent creation of refugees, both internal and international, grew rapidly during the 1990s. Donor food and cash assistance was shifted toward meeting these emergency needs. From the 1960s to 1990, emergency food aid as a percent of all food aid, tripled. The WFS proposed that resources be shifted, as quickly as possible, toward helping victims become independent. Actions, such as "early warning," were proposed to protect development efforts from harm created by emergencies.

A third problem was the increased difficulty encountered in lifting additional persons from hunger. Those most threatened by food insecurity in the 1990s are dispersed in rural areas with little access to transport or in urban areas disconnected from institutional life. Getting food or additional inputs to them is more costly than earlier successful food security measures. The capacity to reduce hunger by half by 2015, a WFS goal, and to achieve a doubling of food production over the next 25 years-- to meet the demand from the expected growth in population and income-- required new policies.

The Summit's Policy Proposals

The representatives that came together in November 1996 all saw the event as an opportunity to shape policy on hunger. By examining future trends and exposing the costs of allowing hunger to continue, the governments and NGOs at the Summit would mobilize support for needed actions. The Summit negotiations produced a set of policy commitments for national governments, NGOs, international organizations, and for civil society. All these "agents" were asked to work in a collaborative fashion.

Agreement on prescriptions, however, proved hard to achieve. Some differences were unresolved in the Summit's conclusions. For example, developing countries wanted more public resources dedicated to alleviation of hunger; industrialized countries stressed government reform and democracy. The core food security idea held by many OECD countries for food insecure states was: government reform-- providing more legal order and less corruption. Developing country delegates disagreed. One noted: "People cannot eat Democracy."

The Summit's results, therefore, were often diffuse prescriptions containing less clear goals than the technical documents. Compromises in wording bridged differences in the interests and causal beliefs of participants. These blurred large variations in conceptions of the proper role for states to end hunger. The dominant outcome at the WFS was clear, however; the position of the richer countries prevailed. This called for greater action by the private sector and less by government. States need to play a less intrusive regulatory and redistributive role while better assuring law, property rights, and an environment helpful to entrepreneurs. The creation of less predatory, more order-providing governments is a crucial step in reducing hunger.

Explaining the Summit's Outcome

What explains this outcome? Basically, it represents the dominance of current neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. The FAO had a difficult task in bringing together parties that held sharply different views. Many developed countries were interested in preventing Summit policy commitments that increased their domestic budgets. They also sought to limit the jurisdictional boundaries of the Summit's prescriptions. For an example, trade issues negotiated under the World Trade Organization (WTO) were held to be outside the purview of the Summit. Trade could be celebrated, not debated. Both fair and free trade goals could be reaffirmed. In the seven commitments, therefore, specific obligations and measures were rejected. Hence, policies over investment, trade, and food subsidies-- among others-- had no targets or quantitative levels set. Among the seven commitments, the few specific recommendations that occurred involved minimal resources, e.g., a pledge to improve emergency preparedness.

Developing countries, especially ones with serious hunger problems, looked largely in vain for enhanced resources. Why did the Summit's policy prescriptions not call for new resources or establish priorities; why did they only minimally acknowledge environmental constraints? Because they were derived from a dominant neoliberal view. This viewpoint saturated key delegations. It controlled policy prescriptions even if the technical analyses for the Summit did not completely support such views.

Food Summit prescriptions illustrate the wide influence of demands for downsizing the state. The Summit's conclusions raise a concern. The recommendation to reduce public sector activity-- less regulation, lower taxes, and less support of welfare-- may not create incentives for private sector agents to do more.

In fact, downsizing the state while urging private sector agencies to solve the world hunger problem creates a governance dilemma. The policy commitments at the 1996 Food Summit ignore the dilemma that weak, strife-torn and corrupt governments are least able to supply basic legal order. The call to empower private sector solutions to food security through improved governance is not self-fulfilling. Nonetheless, Summit prescriptions implying less government and more hunger reduction emerged without specifying means for their implementation.

Public action, in fact, typically sustains the private sector's ability. It empowers local level farmers and traders, for example. It seems likely that without larger national and international public efforts to counter market failures, e.g., by providing infrastructure, private sector capabilities will shrink. Public and private sectors' action to reduce hunger, over at least some range, complement rather than substitute for each other. A simple reduction of states' outlays for programs and employees in agriculture may end up eroding private sector capabilities. The belief that private sector efforts will respond to a reduction of government intervention at local, national and international levels is illusory. The crucial move is more effective government, not less government.

Raymond F. Hopkins is Richter Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College.

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