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The Angry Hungry

The food crisis is no 'silent tsunami': the world's poor have been making a noise for decades, but the development industry hasn't been listening

by Raj Patel

If Josette Sheeran, head of the United Nations World Food Programme, is to be believed, the current food crisis is "a silent tsunami which knows no borders, sweeping the world".That's just wishful thinking.

If the tsunami were really silent, then it'd be much easier for cretins to propose trade liberalisation as a remedy, or for Gordon Brown to support genetically modified crops as a way of responding to the disaster.

If the tsunami were silent, these ideas would float unopposed and uncontested. Indeed, it'd be far more convenient for the governments and aid agencies involved if the catastrophe of hunger and poverty were silent, and especially if the hungry didn't keep piping up with their own ideas about what they'd like to see happen. But they do, and their ideas are often at odds with those proposed by the development industry.

If the tsunami were really silent, the fairytales of the international development cabal could be told in nothing louder than a whisper. In these stories, the world's poor people aren't very articulate, and it requires an almost magical skill to divine their needs. The poor like are puppies with tummy aches, whose mute suffering is knowable only to those trained in the art of looking into those big brown eyes and feeling their pain.

I should know. As a graduate student, I participated in just such an exercise for the World Bank as a contributor to a publication entitled The Voices of The Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us?

Billed as a way of "gathering the voices of 40,000 people from the Bank's own assessments", and favourably blurbed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the document is an attempt at an epistemological get-out-of-jail-free card, for no one knows the poor like the World Bank.

It is, of course, an execrable piece of work and one that gets savaged in a number of places, including here (by one of the report's other co-authors and me).

But the tsunami has been noisy for decades. Some of the poorest people on earth have been extremely vocal, ever since the dawn of modern development policies. Via Campesina, one of the world's largest movements of poor people with membership estimates as high as 150 million, has been warning of the dangers of handing over agriculture to the private sector ever since its inception in the early 1990s.

They've long been campaigning for things that aren't on the policy table at the moment - things like state-led land reform. Like grain stores and income support for the poor. Like equal access to natural resources. Like government investment to develop new and sustainable agro-agricultural technologies, as opposed to GM crops - a position recently vindicated by a venerable panel of experts at the IAASTD.

Above all, they demand democracy so that their voices might count. Those voices are articulate and audible. The International Day of Peasants' Struggle happened last week, with protests in over 60 countries, commemorating the massacre of 19 landless people by government forces in Brazil in 1996. Those protests were rich with ideas for food sovereignty.

But the voices have so far been ignored. The most common agricultural response to the demands of landless people and the hungry urban poor is for officials to plant their fingers in their ears.

Meanwhile, the private sector is rubbing its hands at the prospect that this crisis too might be an arena for them to practice a new brand of disaster capitalism.

The tsunami is loud and clear. Perhaps the global wave of food riots their policies have engendered will help to clear the soil out of the development industry's ears.

Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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