A new prosperity
This future is not certain. Crisis on the scale we are experiencing today almost always leads to change: the Great Depression and the Second World War led to a new world order, the United Nations, the Bretton Woods system, and the spread of welfare states. The oil and economic crises of the 1970s replaced Keynesianism with laissez-faire economics and the Washington Consensus.
The challenge before us today is to seize the opportunity for change and set course towards a new prosperity, an age of co-operation rather than competition, in which the well-being of the many is put before the interests of the few. During the last food price crisis, politicians tinkered at the margins of global governance. This time they must deal with the root causes. Three big shifts are needed:
- First, we must build a new global governance to avert food crises. Governments’ top priority must be to tackle hunger and reduce vulnerability – creating jobs and investing in climate adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and social protection. International governance – of trade, food aid, financial markets, and climate finance – must be transformed to reduce the risks of future shocks and respond more effectively when they occur.
- Second, we must build a new agricultural future by prioritising the needs of small-scale food producers in developing countries – where the major gains in productivity, sustainable intensification, poverty reduction and resilience can be achieved. Governments and businesses must adopt policies and practices that guarantee farmers’ access to natural resources, technology and markets. And we must reverse the current gross misallocation of resources which sees the vast majority of public money for agriculture flow to agro-industrial farms in the North.
- Finally, we must build the architecture of a new ecological future, mobilizing investment and shifting the behaviours of businesses and consumers, while crafting global agreements for the equitable distribution of scarce resources. A global deal on climate change will be the litmus test of success.
All of this will require overcoming the vested interests that stand to lose out. There is growing appetite to do so as these issues rise up the political agenda, pushed by events and by campaigners, or grasped by leaders with a sense of moral purpose. Though the banks fight reform tooth and nail, public outrage has seen legislative measures passed in the USA, and steps toward regulation in the UK and elsewhere. And a financial transactions tax is on the agenda in the EU and at the G20, alongside measures to rein in commodity speculation and reform agricultural trade. Though special interests continue to pervert food aid in many rich countries, a concerted public campaign in Canada succeeded in freeing it to work effectively; Canada now leads international negotiations to achieve the same outcome globally. Though agricultural subsidies remain enormous, some reform has reduced their negative impacts in developing countries. Though dirty industry continues to block progress on climate change, responsible companies have broken ranks with them.7 A growing number of countries are adopting bold greenhouse gas reduction targets or making ambitious investments in clean technologies. In 2009, the USA and Europe added more power capacity from renewable sources such as wind and solar than conventional sources like coal, gas and nuclear.8
But what is needed is a step change. Strong political leaders with unambiguous mandates from their peoples. Progressive businesses that choose to break ranks with laggards and blockers. Customers that demand they do so. And it is needed now. The window of opportunity may be short-lived, and many of the choices that must be taken are already upon us: if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided, global emissions must peak within the next four years;9 if we are to avoid a spiralling food price crisis, fragility in the global system must be addressed today.
Oxfam has been responding to food crises for nearly 70 years – from Greece in 1942 to Biafra in 1969, Ethiopia in 1984, and Niger in 2005, plus countless other silent disasters that play out beyond the gaze of global media. All have been entirely avoidable – the result of disastrous decisions, abused power, and perverted politics. More recently, Oxfam has found itself responding to growing numbers of climate-related disasters.
Prevention is better than cure, and so Oxfam also campaigns against the vested interests and unfair rules that corrupt the food system: rigged trade rules, pork-barrel biofuel policies, broken aid promises, corporate power, and inaction on climate change.
Many other organizations – global civil society, producers’ organizations, women’s networks, food movements, trade unions, responsible businesses and empowered consumers, grassroots campaigns for low carbon living, food sovereignty or the right to food – are promoting positive initiatives to alter the way we produce, consume and think about food. Together we will build a growing global movement for change. Together we will challenge the current order and set a path towards a new prosperity.