Then and Now; the Shifting ‘Poverty Battleground’

As she spoke of her life long struggle, it occurred to me that nothing has really changed, I realised that fighting poverty is not about the ‘issue’ at hand, housing, hunger or health… but has always been about power
which, as Susan George argued, manifests in different ways on constantly shifting battlegrounds. Could it even be the same ‘power’, the famous, faceless “they” to whom we like to ascribe every evil we care to imagine? I have chosen specifically to speak of a battleground as opposed to battlefield – which historically was a distant place away from civilization where men met in formation to fight it out according to prevailing rules and codes, to their families, it was an imagined, abstract place where boys became men and heroes were made. Whereas battleground is the geographic and metaphoric space where this particular fight takes place, usually atop of, within and around civil and social space with concrete outcomes and consequences. Speaking at the ISS Food Sovereignty Conference, Susan George gave a historical outline of how this fight has shifted over the years, of what scholars and activists were preoccupied with in the past and what (or where) the debate has shifted today to paint a “then and now” narrative. Speaking specifically of food and hunger, George began with the premises that; (i) without a means to access land to produce food and without money to buy it, people will go hungry, it’s that simple. (ii) No level of human suffering in and of itself will ever cause policy to change. It’s not starvation, poverty and suffering that moves policy makers, it is only a change in the balance of power.

Legendary Scholar and activist Susan George and TGN's policy director Mbongeni Ngulube at the ISS Food Sovereignty Conference, The Hague
Legendary Scholar and activist Susan George and TGN’s policy director Mbongeni Ngulube at the ISS Food Sovereignty Conference, The Hague

I have found this to be true, and particularly striking that even within poverty policy itself, seldom are those rules changed because of the suffering of the poor, regardless how many ‘shocking’ images we circulate – ‘poverty porn’ as it is called these days. It never matters what the poor think or say themselves, despite voices like Chambers who try to “put the last first”. In fact, I argue that poverty is generally misunderstood and what we call poverty, what we actually see, ‘the issue’ – the homeless, the hungry, ill and oppressed, these are only symptoms of poverty; without understanding its systemic cause(s), the picture is not complete. George correctly demonstrates that it is power, financial power, and other forms that produce and in fact depend on the production of poverty to sustain that balance of power. Therefore, with this consideration it is not surprising that while the battleground keeps shifting, the fight has remained the same. It is “they” on one hand (the greedy and power hungry) against the powerless on the other hand – the poor, the activists and some scholars. Through this lens George recalls how for example, “debt emerged in the 1970s as a new factor in hunger and poverty, how structural adjustments were revealed, how ‘they’ did it, ecologically, financially, the big corporations, the think tanks etc.” – so what’s changed in the past four odd decades?

First, the concept of Food Sovereignty didn’t exist then, “we spoke of how cash crops overtook food crops, with the notion of the right to food”. Now, thanks to a peasant movement there is a much richer concept which not only elucidates the causes and real solutions to hunger; it simultaneously reveals the structural lines of power which oppress the powerless (the peasants in this case). The concept questions the entire industrialised value chain, these food empires that have emerged to dictate and devalue the world’s food (I discuss this concept more closely elsewhere). It has also particularly shown how limited FAO’s definition of Food Security really is, since it doesn’t discuss the oppressive power of food empires and this way, ignores the actual cause of hunger – it only discusses ‘the issue’ of ‘being hungry’ and effectively leaves this oppressive structure in place. It is precisely for this reason that food empires are known to support the concept of Food Security, for its ambiguity and also why so much harm has been done in the name of Food Security.

Second, “in those days – despite the Stockholm Conference of 1972 which pointed us towards climate change, very little environmental consideration was taken, even by those of us who worked on hunger”. The conference is now considered the birth place of global warming and climate change policy – wherein the Secretary General Maurice Strong rightly outlined that “man is unlikely to succeed in managing his relationship with nature unless in the course of it he learns to manage better the relationships between man and man”. Subsequently, today there is no aspect of food production and hunger, or poverty itself that can be contemplated without considering the practical consequences of global warming – Sustainable Development as we have come to call it today. Yet herein lies yet another battleground, elsewhere I have asked the question ‘exactly what is to be sustained’ in sustainable development? While I agree with the environmental argument surrounding climate change and its “practical consequences” (the issue), it is the policy derived from it and its implication which speaks of sustaining existing power structures. This is exactly the point that China made in Copenhagen and the reason why Strong’s words still hold true today – the power relations between man have a far greater sway to policy and action than rational arguments, even those that clearly spell doom for us all.

Third, “we then had the Green Revolution, which was an American invention driven by industrial interests based on (not GMOs yet) the invention of lab developed high yielding crop varieties. All this resulted 40 years later, in damaged soils that were poisoned with chemicals, the elimination of small scale farmers and landless labours (in India for example where farmer suicides hit a world record). Today, the idea of ‘cooking in the lab’ has taken new meaning through the private ownership of life in the form of seed patents and the multinationals that wield them. What’s new is the bridging of species integrity, where a species of plant and animal can be artificially ‘married’ producing something that, strictly speaking, doesn’t belong to or in nature. We no longer eat vegetables, rather an odd plant/animal substance that is neither this nor that and its effects are yet to be realised. But like the revolution before it, we anticipate great ecological and social damage at a global scale this time.

Fourth, all these changes contributed to a large population shift and a very different poverty landscape, famines for example used to be localised, paradoxically, in the rural areas where peasant farmers lived and were predominantly due to climate and farming practices. Today, new factors such as financialisation cause famines to occur largely because of price volatility such as the 30 odd food riots that took place in 2008. In addition, they are global and connected through ‘market contagion’ from Bangladesh to Bolivia. Also, these riots predominantly took place, not in the rural areas, but on the peripheries of large cities, the new subaltern urban space, the area where former peasants and landless now live – this is also shaping the future structure of our cities.

Fifth, the riots also call to mind the late 1970s to 1990s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) and their market orthodox dogma enshrined in the Washington Consensus which still sends a chill down the spine of many a developing country policy maker. At their height, these policies were religiously enforced with a cultish belief in the market, and yet today we know that to this religion, many are called but few are chosen. These SAPs primarily oriented developing countries towards repaying their debts in ‘hard cash’ – which meant no Shillings and no Pesos or Rupees, for this they included an order to produce cash crops (not food crops) in order to earn forex. This worked brilliantly for the West since everyone exported to them and competed to do so, and silly enough, since everyone produced the same things more or less, it resulted in an oversupply which drove down prices and forced developing countries further into debt. Today we are seeing the debt boomerang as debt has come full circle, only it’s now called Austerity and affects the West itself. As a result “20% of children in the US and the UK are malnourished and Greek pensioners are scrounging in waste bins by the 15th of the month due to the debt crisis”. The privatisation that eroded the Third World State has been creeping into the West forcing them to lay on the very Procrustean bed they have made, at the mercy of the market. In fact, some developing country leaders such as Brazil’s Lula celebrated what they believed to be an equivalent of the IMF for the West.

Sixth, capital behaviour has also changed tremendously, “previously, capital moved strongly out of the production end of the food value chain because land and farming were considered as high risk. Mostly, capital investments went into the supply and control of inputs (seed, fertilizers etc.), and into post-harvest technology which included food refinement and marketing”. Today however, capital has swung back into the production sector and ‘land grabs’ have become a common phenomenon as land is bought and sold under opaque circumstances in the developing world. While starvation was the issue then, today obesity has grown to an epidemic scale in the West and increasingly so in developing countries as well. This is mainly due to the consumption of cheap, highly processed industrialised ‘junk food’ as a result of capital’s experiment with post-harvest investment in the form of food empires. Finally, changes in the law, particularly in the United States has greatly influenced capital activity resulting in increased hunger and poverty. Examples such as the Glass-Steagall Act which emerged out of the 1929 depression, had been in place since 1933 and had effectively separated commercial finance from private savings. Under this act, banks were prohibited from speculating using people’s private savings accounts resulting in, though ‘less efficient’ but stable banking system. This law was repealed seven decades later, in 1999 under Bill Clinton and banks quickly drew on private savings to finance what has come to be called ‘casino capitalism’ resulting in a near banking collapse in 2008. Many economists blamed the financial crisis on this development, since the crisis, the act has been reconsidered in the form of the Dodd-Frank Act, as a means to discipline Wall Street, though it is not as stringent and has not gone without a fierce fight from speculators and lobbyists.

m ngulube + s george
“I lived my life the way I pleased and did exactly what I wanted” Susan George

These considerations are useful in explaining why things have evolved into what they are today and why poverty and injustice are such moving targets that seemingly can’t be reached. I do admit here that I have painted “they” and “the system” as a congruent evil thing with very bad intentions which is not really true. First, intent itself is a difficult thing to prove and for this reason The Global Native does not believe in fist fights and ranting about “the man”, who is omnipresent and never rests day and night hatching plans to ruin the lives of the poor. We also don’t consider this capital system as one homogenous monolith with a figure head somewhere, in fact the way it’s developing these days seems to suggest that no one is in charge if anything. For this reason, The Global Native sees the inevitable lacunae in the system as clues that can assist the ‘powerless’ in their protracted struggle for justice. It is for this reason that we turn our attention to an analysis of the systemic structural causes of poverty and not on the victims of poverty in what we have so far called Social System Capture, which I elaborate elsewhere. In essence, trying to ‘clean up’ the poor is only window dressing, but changing the structural cause will enable the poor to change their own state and this means shifting the balance of power. In Zimbabwe, this may be hard to contemplate, a place where power means finance, force and politics wielded interchangeably without separation. I write precisely with this consideration and to that place where capital cannot go, where politics respects local finance and collective practical ‘apolitical’ will for the simple ends of a better life. It is these enclaves that encourage due consideration from what most have called an impregnable doom and gloom scenario. For this reason, The Global Native encourages local partnerships with business, the diaspora and the State to begin building a new form of development which shifts power appropriately, simultaneously for better governance and for a local development produced by the poor themselves.

Concluding our little chat, George ruminated that “really, in the end it is a lifelong fight because where you fight today will simply be moving to a new field and location tomorrow. Though I have to say that this work far outweighs what used to be called a career, it is hard at times I admit, but you know what, in the end I have actually done it all. I lived my life the way I pleased and did exactly what I wanted, I have a happy family and four beautiful children and still stood for the cause(s) I still believe in today.” I hope these sobering yet encouraging thoughts will put the same silly smile on your face as they have mine.

Published by

Mbongeni Ngulube

A Mundus Urbano Scholar under the EU's excellency program, Mbongeni lectures at several universities, including the Technische Universitat Darmstadt, Germany; Universitat Internacionale de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain and University Pierre Mendes, Grenoble, France. He is a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa located at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. His current research focuses on the effect of the African Diaspora and Social Movements on development practice and theory. He also regularly engages in conferences, seminars and high profile policy debates, such as the one at the British Parliament’s House of Commons. Ngulube completed and published a co-edited book titled Reflections on Development and Cooperation published and released in January 2011.

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