Monday, March 23, 2009

What is easy, and what is hard

The World Bank is holding a G20 summit in London in two weeks. And the Sunday Observer (UK) reports that managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala says she wants the G20 to help protect the developing world against the worst effects of the financial crisis.

"We have to look at the impact of this on low income countries. Otherwise, without wanting to sound alarmist, social unrest and political crisis could be the result. It's in the self-interest of everyone to prevent that," she told the Observer.

Her stark warning came as a new report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) said the collapse of the global economy would cost 90 million lives, lead to an increase to nearly a billion in the number of people going hungry and cost developing countries $750bn in lost growth.

Apparently there's little hope that the G20 countries will offer even a band-aid:

Downing Street wants to secure a doubling in the resources of the International Monetary Fund, so it can bail out the worst-affected countries; and a promise of new loans to help facilitate cross-border trade.

With budgets tight at home, and noisy demands for help from domestic constituencies, however, [UK Prime Minister Gordon] Brown is concerned many countries are failing even to live up to the promises on aid they made at the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has slashed aid spending in the face of a fiscal crisis.

Read Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times: the US Government obviously intends to throw all the cash it can take from (low and middle-class) taxpayers at subsidizing the bottomless pit of failed corporations in order to protect their executives and investors from "toxic assets." US citizens who lose their jobs and their homes and go hungry don't have, as they say on The Wire, "suction" with the US government. I can't imagine that same government doing much about starving, hungry, homeless people outside its borders: though obviously we will be treated to a chorus of officials speaking mournfully on the subject as the crisis deepens. The one thing the Obama Administration does well is render lip service.

Pardon me if I doubt that the World Bank itself is interested in the predicted deaths of 90 million lives or of a billion people going hungry except as these misfortunes have the potential to generate a threat to that institution's true interests (i.e., preserving global capitalism). Certain US Senate hearings held during the Reagan Ior was it Bush I?) Administration, in which James Baker explained why deaths in Brazil were an unfortunate but necessary corollary to the fiscal austerity measures that the IMF and World Bank forced on developing countries in the 1980s, still linger in my memory.

But hey. I could be wrong! Maybe the World Bank is truly interested in sparing 90 million lives and preventing a billion people from "going hungry" (i.e., suffering from malnutrition): if so, it would bend all its efforts to implementing the measures taken by the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, a city of 2.5 million, that has eliminated hunger entirely.

In Frances Moore Lappé's The City that Ended Hunger she describes a practical approach that the World Bank would do well to encourage elsewhere (but never, of course, would). Here are snippets from her article, which I urge you to check out.

Belo, a city of 2.5 million people, once had 11 percent of its population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a right of citizenship. The officials said, in effect: If you are too poor to buy food in the market-you are no less a citizen. I am still accountable to you.

The new mayor, Patrus Ananias-now leader of the federal anti-hunger effort-began by creating a city agency, which included assembling a 20-member council of citizen, labor, business, and church representatives to advise in the design and implementation of a new food system. The city already involved regular citizens directly in allocating municipal resources-the "participatory budgeting" that started in the 1970s and has since spread across Brazil. During the first six years of Belo's food-as-a-right policy, perhaps in response to the new emphasis on food security, the number of citizens engaging in the city's participatory budgeting process doubled to more than 31,000.

The city agency developed dozens of innovations to assure everyone the right to food, especially by weaving together the interests of farmers and consumers. It offered local family farmers dozens of choice spots of public space on which to sell to urban consumers, essentially redistributing retailer mark-ups on produce-which often reached 100 percent-to consumers and the farmers. Farmers' profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got access to fresh, healthy food.

* * * * *

In addition to the farmer-run stands, the city makes good food available by offering entrepreneurs the opportunity to bid on the right to use well-trafficked plots of city land for "ABC" markets, from the Portuguese acronym for "food at low prices." Today there are 34 such markets where the city determines a set price-about two-thirds of the market price-of about twenty healthy items, mostly from in-state farmers and chosen by store-owners. Everything else they can sell at the market price.
"For ABC sellers with the best spots, there's another obligation attached to being able to use the city land," a former manager within this city agency, Adriana Aranha, explained. "Every weekend they have to drive produce-laden trucks to the poor neighborhoods outside of the city center, so everyone can get good produce."

Another product of food-as-a-right thinking is three large, airy "People's Restaurants" (Restaurante Popular), plus a few smaller venues, that daily serve 12,000 or more people using mostly locally grown food for the equivalent of less than 50 cents a meal. When Anna and I ate in one, we saw hundreds of diners-grandparents and newborns, young couples, clusters of men, mothers with toddlers. Some were in well-worn street clothes, others in uniform, still others in business suits.

* * * *

Belo's food security initiatives also include extensive community and school gardens as well as nutrition classes. Plus, money the federal government contributes toward school lunches, once spent on processed, corporate food, now buys whole food mostly from local growers.

"We're fighting the concept that the state is a terrible, incompetent administrator," Adriana explained. "We're showing that the state doesn't have to provide everything, it can facilitate. It can create channels for people to find solutions themselves."

For instance, the city, in partnership with a local university, is working to "keep the market honest in part simply by providing information," Adriana told us. They survey the price of 45 basic foods and household items at dozens of supermarkets, then post the results at bus stops, online, on television and radio, and in newspapers so people know where the cheapest prices are.

* * *

In just a decade Belo Horizonte cut its infant death rate-widely used as evidence of hunger-by more than half, and today these initiatives benefit almost 40 percent of the city's 2.5 million population. One six-month period in 1999 saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced by 50 percent. And between 1993 and 2002 Belo Horizonte was the only locality in which consumption of fruits and vegetables went up.

The cost of these efforts?

Around $10 million annually, or less than 2 percent of the city budget. That's about a penny a day per Belo resident.

Behind this dramatic, life-saving change is what Adriana calls a "new social mentality"-the realization that "everyone in our city benefits if all of us have access to good food, so-like health care or education-quality food for all is a public good."

What really sticks with me is this:

"I knew we had so much hunger in the world," Adriana said. "But what is so upsetting, what I didn't know when I started this, is it's so easy. It's so easy to end it."

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