Food is not another commodity

February 26, 2009

By David Cronin, IPS

BRUSSELS, Feb 25 (IPS) – Food should be treated differently to other economic goods during international trade talks, a new United Nations report has recommended.

Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, has queried the fundamental approach taken so far by the most powerful players in the Doha round of world trade talks that were launched in the Qatari capital in 2001. 

De Schutter spoke at a meeting in Brussels Feb. 25 hosted by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), an EU-financed organisation dealing with relations between Europe and nearly 80 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. 

Last year the European Union and the U.S. blamed India for the collapse of a meeting aimed at salvaging the talks. The Indian government sought to have safeguards inserted into an eventual agreement that would allow it to block agricultural imports in cases where the country’s farmers could not cope with competition. De Schutter argued that such safeguards are “crucial” because governments “must retain the freedom to take measures which insulate domestic markets from the volatility of prices on international markets.” 

In a report to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next month, the Belgian academic and political activist contends that while only 15 percent of all food produced is traded between different countries, prices fixed on international markets have a “disproportionately negative impact on the ability of small-scale farmers in the world to make a decent living.” 

Efforts to create a ‘level playing field’ between poor and wealthier countries are “meaningless”, he added. Productivity for farm labourers in the world’s poorest countries was less than 1 percent that of rich countries in 2006. Liberalising trade will not bridge that gap unless wages and price levels in poor countries are driven down, with an “inevitable” increase in hardship, he said. 

De Schutter’s report is being hailed as the first by an independent adviser to the UN to assess how the international trade system affects the right to food. In it, he warns against relying on foreign trade to bolster agriculture. As farming accounts for 70 percent of agriculture in countries where at least one-third of the population suffers from malnutrition, there is “no alternative” to supporting small-scale producers, he stated. 

One “major imbalance” identified is that while the international trading system seeks to place limits on the amount of government support that might be given to farmers, it does not limit the freedom of multinational companies to exert their influence on markets. Rules to address this imbalance are required, according to the report. 

The seminar Wednesday heard that vast tracts of arable land in Africa are being taken over by biofuel companies. Philip Kiriro, president of the Eastern African Farmers Federation, said that this is being done “in total disregard” for the concerns of local people. 

In Tanzania, he said, five regions are being targeted as part of a ‘land grabbing’ spree by foreign firms. British Sun Biofuels and the Swedish company Sekab are both seeking land in Mkuranga district, for example. 

Julian Quan, a researcher at the University of Greenwich in Britain, said that “in principle” small-scale farmers can be more efficient per hectare than more commercial farms. “But in practice because of the way global trade works, it is much easier for agribusiness to produce food at a scale that can meet the standards required for global markets,” he said. 

Lorenzo Cotula from the International Institute for Environment and Development in London noted that investment in sub-Saharan Africa has grown from less than 2 billion dollars in 1980 to almost 45 billion dollars in 2007. While extractive industries – particularly oil in Nigeria – account for the bulk of this increase, there has also been a surge of interest in biofuels. In Mozambique around two million hectares have been allocated to biofuels. 

According to Cotula, there is a widespread perception that land is “available” in Africa. Little data exists on who holds the titles for land, he added. 

Paul Mathieu, representative of the Food and Agricultural Organisation, noted that 73 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lives in rural areas and that 90 percent of agricultural production is undertaken by small-scale producers, who have an average holding of two hectares. Titles may not be available for 80 percent of the land concerned, he suggested, although de jure most of this land is in public hands. 

Greater foreign control of land often leads to forced evictions of peasants. “There is a need to secure land rights,” he added. “If land rights are secured, farmers are in a better position to negotiate and to avoid being expelled.” (END/2009)

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Organize for boycott Israel day of action

February 20, 2009

Appeal, Secretariat of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, 19 February 2009 

In December 2008, Israel decided to mark the 60th anniversary of its existence the same way it had established itself — perpetrating massacres against the Palestinian people. In 23 days, Israel killed more than 1,300 and injured at least 5,000 Palestinians in Gaza. The irony of history is that Israel targeted those Palestinians — and their descendants — whom it had expelled from their homes and pushed into refugeehood in Gaza in 1948, whose land it has stolen, whom it has oppressed since 1967 by means of a brutal military occupation, and whom it had tried to starve into submission by means of a criminal blockade of food, fuel and electricity in the 18 months preceding the military assault. We cannot wait for Israel to zero in on its next objective. Palestine has today become the test of our indispensable morality and our common humanity.

We therefore call on all to unite our different capacities and struggles in a Global Day of Action in Solidarity with the Palestinian people and for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel on 30 March 2009.

The mobilization coincides with the Palestinian Land Day, the annual commemoration of the 1976 Israeli massacre of Palestinians in the Galilee in struggle against massive land expropriation, and forms part of the Global Week of Action against the Crises and War from 28 March 28 to 4 April.

We urge the people and their organizations around the globe to mobilize in concrete and visible boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) actions to make this day a historic step in this new anti-apartheid movementand for the fulfilment of the rights and dignity of the people and the accountability of the powerful. In our 30 March BDS actions, we will particularly focus on:

  • Boycotts and divestment from Israeli corporations and international corporations that sustain Israeli apartheid and occupation.
  • Legal action to end Israel’s impunity and prosecute its war criminals through national court cases and international tribunals.
  • Cancelling and blocking free trade and other preferential agreements with Israel and imposing an arms embargo as the first steps towards fully fledged sanctions against Israel.

The time for the world to fully adopt and implement the Palestinian call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions is now. This campaign has to become an urgent part of every struggle for justice and humanity, by adopting widespread action against Israeli products, companies, academic and cultural institutions, sports groups, international corporations supporting Israeli policies of racism, ethnic cleansing and military occupation and pressuring governments for sanctions. It must be sustained until Israel provides free access to Gaza, dismantles the Apartheid Wall and ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands; recognizes the right of the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respects, protects and promotes the rights of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.

The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) includes: Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine; General Union of Palestinian Workers; Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions; Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations’ Network (PNGO); Federation of Independent Trade Unions; Union of Palestinian Charitable Organizations; Global Palestine Right of Return Coalition; Occupied Palestine and Golan Heights Advocacy Initiative (OPGAI); General Union of Palestinian Women; Palestinian Farmers Union (PFU); Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (STW); Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI); National Committee to Commemorate the Nakba; Civic Coalition for the Defense of Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem (CCDPRJ); Coalition for Jerusalem; and Palestinian Economic Monitor.


Focus on Gaza: A Crime of War?

February 20, 2009

AlJazeera, February 20, 2009

Human rights investigators continue to look into allegations that Israeli soldiers may have committed crimes of war during their Gaza military campaign. 

As the first Focus on Gaza A Crime of War? looks at the story of an alleged war crime that occurred during the war in the small village of Khuzaa, half a kilometre from the Israeli border. 

Ayman Mohyeldin speaks with village residents who tell the story of a Gazan woman who was killed with a single shot to the head while waving a white flag as she led children to safety.


Bangladesh to sign bilateral trade and investment protection agreement with Finland

February 20, 2009

Asif Showkat, NewAge, February 20, 2009. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The government has initiated a move to sign a bilateral trade agreement with Finland, mainly to attract more direct investment from the Scandinavian country, official sources said on Thursday.
   

‘As part of the move, the government has taken an initiative to sign the “Bangladesh Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement” with Finland, industry secretary Dewan Zakir Hossain told New Age.
   

He said the government was also working to pursue more countries to sign BIPA to expedite the FDI.
   

‘Two more countries, including Oman, want to sign the BIPA with Bangladesh for protection of its investment,’ the secretary added.
   

Under the agreement the two governments will protect the interests of investors and entrepreneurs.
   

Recently, Bangladesh and India signed a new BIPA, to bolster trade and investment between the two neighbouring countries by removing some of the barriers. Bangladesh has already signed the BIPA with 26 countries.
   

According to Bangladesh Bank data, Bangladesh now maintains a favourable trade balance with Finland. Bangladesh exports garments, vegetable and jute products to Finland and imports machinery.
   

Bangladesh exported Tk 144.28 crore worth of goods to Finland in 2006-07 fiscal year while it imported only Tk 3.72 crore worth of goods from Finland.
   

In FY06, Bangladesh exported goods worth of Tk 130.11 crore while import from Finland was worth Tk 1.65 crore. In 2007, the entrepreneurs from Finland invested 35 lakh dollars in Bangladesh..


More reasons to be suspicious of TIFA than not

February 19, 2009

Tanim Ahmed*, NewAge, February 19, 2009

So far the US has blocked Bangladesh’s attempts for increased market access there at the global trade forum and instead divided the least developed countries successfully gaining support from the African LDCs. If that is the US attitude towards Bangladesh at multilateral forums, the government should not have any hope of securing those benefits bilaterally where the US will be even more blunt and protective


THE government has been anything but forthcoming about the proposed trade and investment framework agreement with the United States. There have been a few reports on certain changes in, or certain features of, the draft agreement. That’s all. Naturally then, the ongoing discussion on the proposed agreement have, by and large, been based on either similar deals between the US and other countries or previous TIFA drafts. While the surge in media coverage of the mooted bilateral framework agreement appears to have subsided, insiders claim that the negotiation process is very much on within the relevant ministries. The proposed agreement, if signed, will ensure increased market access for Bangladeshi products in the US market, so claims the government. The benefit understandably relates to the demand for fully preferential market access in the US markets of products manufactured in Bangladesh, especially apparels.
   

Over the past weeks, most of the pitfalls and potholes, challenges and handicaps of bilateral agreements have been covered more or less, in one form or the other. To recap, the proposed bilateral framework could entail pressure from Washington on Dhaka to fully implement intellectual property rights, environmental and labour standards, and reciprocity in treatment of investment and liberalisation of services, which would also include utilities such as power and water supply, and to remove barriers to trade. It has also been mentioned that such a bilateral agreement between unequal parties, since it presupposes full reciprocity, will be inherently unfair to the smaller and weaker party.
   

Of course, none of the abovementioned will be legally binding; these, even if mentioned, would be in the preamble of the agreement. The main text of the agreement, if the previous drafts and similar agreements between the US and other countries are any indicator, would contain the legally-binding provision for the formation of a joint council for discussion on trade matters. The Bangladesh delegation on the council would be headed by the commerce secretary, suggesting circumvention of political authority.
   

On top of it all, many have observed that Bangladesh is unlikely to secure any concrete benefits from bilateral negotiations with the US, and that the outcome of the bilateral negotiations could potentially undermine Bangladesh’s interests and privileges it has been granted under the World Trade Organisation.
   

This discussion seeks to provide an idea of the US attitude as was evident in previous bilateral and multilateral negotiations. Almost all trade and investment framework agreements that the US has entered into have similar preambles and clauses. Formation of the joint council is also almost identical. The done deals also have an annexure that contains the proposed work programme or items of discussion for the joint council. These almost invariably include issues that are of aggressive interest for the US and defensive interest for Bangladesh. High on this agenda is protection of intellectual property, promotion and protection of investment, facilitation and liberalisation of trade and investment, including non-tariff barriers, regulatory issues affecting trade and investment policies, information and communication technology, and biotechnology. What this means is that the US would use the joint council to open up Bangladesh’s markets or institute certain regulations and policies that would ensure benefits for corporations of the US, Microsoft being only one of them.
   

But even if the previous agreements do not contain these issues and are only mentioned in the preamble, Bangladeshi negotiators should not ignore them solely because of their ‘unbinding’ nature. Declaration of the United Nations climate change conference in Bali in December 2007 should serve as a good example. This declaration, also called the Bali Roadmap, contained in its preamble that all countries should strive to cut their emissions between 25 and 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 to prevent irreversible climate change. The US, along with a few other major emitters, was staunchly opposed to this.
   

It was the US position that it did not want to get into something that ‘prejudged’ the outcome of the negotiations. The European Union, on the other hand, insisted that the range of desired emissions were merely to act as a ‘guiding level’. Those few lines turned out to be one of the major stumbling blocks to the roadmap, and faced with staunch US opposition, swung back and forth like a pendulum, disappearing and reappearing in the preamble until it was finally taken off with a mention of the desired emission cuts as stipulated by official reports on climate change. The lesson here for Bangladesh is that a certain provision should not be ignored as being of little significance only because it is in the preamble.
   

Another good example of Washington’s protectionist attitude could be cited from its position regarding agricultural subsidies during the much-talked mini-ministerial in Geneva in July last year, where a select group of countries were supposedly on the verge of a breakthrough in the stalled trade negotiations under the World Trade Organisation. There, the US made an offer to cut its ceiling of farm subsidies by 70 per cent. On the surface, it actually appeared as quite a surprise then that large developing countries were not happy with that offer. What the offer actually meant was that after 70 per cent reduction on the limit the US would still be able to provide subsidies of about $14.5 billion although the previous year these amounted to only about $9.5 billion. The US government merely ensured that it had enough leverage and space and did not budge from that position.
   

As far as Bangladesh’s own trade interests are concerned, the US has consistently proved itself to be one of the major hurdles. In 2003, at the WTO ministerial summit in Cancun, Mexico, the US vehemently opposed Bangladesh’s meek bids to further multilateral provisions to allow temporary movement of labour under the services agreement. At that time, it was one of the top agendas of the Bangladesh delegation headed by the then commerce minister Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury.
   

At the next WTO ministerial at Hong Kong in 2006, where the least developed countries expected to secure their long-sought zero tariff, quote-free market access to the developed countries, it was, to a large part, the US that opposed Bangladesh’s inclusion for such a privilege. When this issue was raised at a public press conference hosted by the United States Trade Representative, during the summit, and the international media caught on to the story, the Bangladeshi press corps were invited to a separate briefing at a hotel room the next day.
   

The deputy trade representative, currently in a more prominent role, who handled the briefing, declined to be quoted and disclosed his identity only upon the assurance of anonymity. The US trade official clarified there that the US would not provide the fully preferential market access to Bangladesh given its competitiveness. It was the US position that Bangladesh should look into moving away from its current basket of apparel items on to other tariff lines that might enjoy better treatment.
   

Since then the obvious US bid to isolate Bangladesh as a ‘significant manufacturer’ of apparels has been obvious in the bill that was introduced in US Congress. According to the provisions of that bill, Bangladesh would face harsher conditions than other least developed countries. Even at the multilateral level where least developed countries are being considered for fully preferential market access to markets in the developed countries, there is a separate list of adversely affected developing countries that will be provided with certain extra benefits to counter preference erosion. Bangladesh was been excluded from both lists until there was a strong objection.
   

But even then preferential market access for Bangladesh apparels hangs on the balance with a very strong likelihood of not securing extra benefits at all. The Obama administration, which will be predictably more protectionist than the previous Republican government, is even less likely to grant such a privilege to Bangladesh under the multilateral forum, not to mention through bilateral negotiations. So far the US has blocked Bangladesh’s attempts for increased market access there at the global trade forum and instead divided the least developed countries successfully gaining support from the African LDCs. If that is the US attitude towards Bangladesh at multilateral forums where Bangladesh at least has collective voice along with Cambodia and several other least developed countries, the government should not have any hope of securing those benefits bilaterally where the US will be even more blunt and protective.
   

The Sri Lankan and Pakistani experience with similar framework agreements has only been negative, to say the least. It is the contention of experts from both these countries that the framework agreement has not translated into any tangible benefits for either of them. Instead, the agreement has become a tool through which the US can pressure the respective governments for increased market access and business opportunities for US corporations and entities.
   

It should also be noted that neither China nor India has a similar agreement in place, although both the countries are becoming increasingly and integrally linked with the American economy. They do not need one either. And yet a large portion of their exports land up in the US. This could also be interpreted as the framework agreement is used as a market opening tool for US interests but not quite the other way round. The bilateral agreement that the government has, until recently, appeared quite eager to conclude would be used for furthering US commercial advantage. The same would not hold true for Bangladesh.

*Tanim Ahmed writes for NewAge, a leading national newspaper in Bangladesh. Contact: tanimahmed@gmail.com


Thai village’s novel solution to downturn

February 18, 2009

AlJazeera, February 17, 2009 Like many countries around the world, Thailand is battling the effects of the global economic crisis. But residents of one Thai village have found a novel way to shield themselves against the downturn – making their own cash.

Al Jazeera’s Selina Downes travelled to the village of Santi Suk to find out more.


Overhaul of international institutions: Is the G20 willing to deliver?

February 17, 2009

Bretton Woods Project, February 13, 2009

With bleak economic news dominating the headlines, the IFIs are gaining prominence but also attracting renewed criticism. We cover the political response to the financial crisis, the IMF’s lending programmes (see Update 64), the World Bank’s boost in lending (see Update 64 on Bank lending and IFC lending) and reform of the international architecture (At Issue).

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In the wake of a November summit (see Update 63) of the G20 leaders, a grouping of roughly the largest 20 economies in the world, an international work programme of financial reform is taking shape. But the ambition of the discussions will be dependant on both how vocal citizens become and the depth of the economic gloom.

The next G20 leaders’ summit is planned for 2 April in London. It will be preceeded by a specially planned G20 finance ministers meeting in mid-March in Sussex, UK. Britain is the 2009 host country for the G20, which is usually a process only involving finance ministries. The G20 finance ministers’ meeting is normally scheduled for November, but because of the extraordinary circumstances it is expected that several meetings of finance ministers will occur this year.

The meeting in London is increasingly being billed as the “London Summit” rather than a G20 summit, because some rich country governments are worried about the G20 supplanting the G7 as the forum for global economic decision-making.

The G20 working groups tasked with making proposals for financial and economic architecture reform have been announced, covering: accounting regulations and transparency; international cooperation on financial regulation; reforming the IMF; and reforming the World Bank and other multilateral development banks. Each working group is co-chaired by officials from a developing and a developed country. The full composition of the working groups has not been made public. The groups will issue their recommendations to the finance ministers at the March meeting. Inside information indicates that consensus on financial regulation is only likely on narrow changes.

The parallel process initiated by the United Nations General Assembly president Manuel D’Escoto (see Update 63) is also under way. The UN commission, chaired by former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, also has four working groups – on regulation, multilateral issues, macro-economic issues and reforming the global financial architecture. It met at the beginning of January and issued its first recommendations. They noted the deficiencies in the actions taken so far by developed countries and the need to learn lessons from countries that have avoided instability. A second meeting is planned in early March in Geneva.

More money for the IMF?

The UN commission pointed out the “large asymmetries in global economic policies” and called it “imperative that developing countries be provided with funds to enable them to undertake … policies, to stimulate their economies, to provide social protection, and to ensure a flow of liquidity to their firms.” It was also careful to demand that the money “be provided without the usual conditionalities, especially those that force these countries to pursue pro-cyclical policies or to adopt the kinds of monetary and regulatory policies which contributed to the current crisis.”

The IMF has already agreed nearly $50 billion in loans but with heavy conditionality (see page 2). That leaves the Fund with only $200 billion in available capital, plus another $100 billion that Japan agreed to lend it. IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn admitted that the IMF might need an injection of capital: “If in six months from now the crisis has worsened and many other of our members need our help, the demand may be above what we have.” The IMF deputy managing director, John Lipsky, indicated that the IMF wanted to raise its available resources up to $500 billion. The G20 is likely to announce an increase in IMF resources, though it is not yet clear where these will come from.

It’s the power, stupid

Everyone seems to agree – from African finance ministers and the UN financing for development process, to US president Barack Obama – that one element of any reform must be IMF governance.

A coalition of 15 mostly US-based academics wrote to the new US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner at the end of January calling the IMF governance reforms of 2008 (see Update 60) “inadequate particularly in light of the ongoing global economic and financial crisis.” They urged Geithner and Congress to “reopen the package starting in discussions with other governments in advance of the meeting of G20.”

But even broad agreement that global governance is problematic has not led to discussions on international reform being democratic or open. Civil society organisations in several statements and letters have condemned the G20 process for being exclusive and secretive. Biaggio Bossone, a former Italian IMF executive director, noted the legitimacy of the original Bretton Woods agreement. “It is fundamental that world leaders walk the same path that was traced in Bretton Woods precisely not to leave anyone out. They need to renew that same obligation to engage all.”

The British government has different objectives: shoring up support for liberalised economic models. After a call to return trust to the financial markets, a letter from the UK finance minister to other G20 finance ministers states: “Open, innovative financial markets are critical in driving forward economic growth. … Our second objective, therefore, must be to retain and build on the benefits that open financial markets bring to the world economy.”

However the US administration seems more keen on discussing exchange rate policy rather than legitimacy, as the US and China have been trading barbs over the value of the Chinese currency, the yuan. China has been incensed over perceived IMF meddling with the Chinese exchange rate (seeUpdate 57), while the US has been frustrated that the IMF did not do more.

This does not bode well for the proposals from the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Just before Christmas, UNCTAD issued a policy brief stating: “Multilateral or even global exchange rate arrangements are clearly necessary to achieve and maintain global monetary and financial stability.” The idea to return to globally managed exchange rates is unlikely to find backing in the West where interested parties prefer floating rates; nor in Asia, where governments do not trust the IMF to oversee such arrangements fairly.

Continental Europeans have been singing a different tune altogether, talking about stricter regulation and greater international oversight. At a January conference in Paris hosted by the French government, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel called for a “new capitalism,” with Sarkozy leading calls against “immoral capitalism”.

Merkel reiterated her idea for a UN economic council that would sit in parallel to the UN security council. It would presumably oversee international economic institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. However the German leader did not specify what sort of governance arrangements would be supported for such a council, leading to fear that, like the security council, it will be dominated by a few large rich countries. The UN’s existing body, the 54-seat Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) with diversified regional representation, was described by Merkel as not viable.

Merkel has now called for a summit of European members of the G20 – including Germany, France, Italy, the European Commission and Turkey – to take place in Berlin at end-February. She also has invited Spain and the Netherlands to participate. This will be an important venue for European countries to consolidate their position in advance of the London summit, especially to develop their strategy to deal with a US administration that is likely to be uninterested in ceding sovereignty over economic issues to an international organisation

The president of the UN general assembly proposes that a fully inclusive UN conference on the financial crisis take place from 26-29 May in New York. He wants it to include plenary meetings of heads of state as well as ministerial working group meetings.

NGOs’ uphill battle

Civil society organisations have been trying to make their voices heard in these debates. The most noticeable intervention has come from the International Trades Union Congress (ITUC), a global labour umbrella organisation. . In January it organised an 85-member international trade union delegation to meet with the Bank and Fund. As a result, “commitments to strengthen social programmes for workers hit by the economic crisis and to increase action on core labour standards were made by World Bank president Robert Zoellick and IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn,” according to the ITUC.

At the World Social Forum, held in Belem, Brazil at the end of January, there were dozens of workshops and meetings about a response to the financial crisis. The social movements and NGO’s gathered at the event in the end authored a one-page call to action, saying “Let’s put finance in its place!” The statement makes nine specific demands, including a call for a reformed and democratised UN to be put at the heart of any process for reform of the financial system and the implementation of “a global mechanism of state and citizen control of banks and financial institutions.”

In the UK, a coalition of environment, social and development charities is joining with trade unions to launch a mass mobilisation on 28 March under the slogan “Put People First: Jobs, Justice and Climate”. Solidarity actions are being organised in other cities around the world.

John Hilary, director of UK NGO War on Want said: “The governments meeting here in London must realise that this is not just a banking crisis but an indictment of the entire economic model. We’re calling on them to commit to an open and democratic process for rewriting the global financial architecture so that people and the environment are served by finance, and not vice versa.”