The real winners from today's hunger summit

The real causes of hunger are inequality of wealth and power, not a lack of big business. So the G8 leaders should abandon their efforts to promote the corporate takeover of African agriculture, and instead support the demands of the African farmers’ grou

The venue is a clue. Rather than being hosted at the Department for International Development, the Cabinet Office, or Number 10, today’s hunger summit is being held at the London offices of Unilever. The event, a follow-up to the gathering hosted by the PM during the Olympics, is supposed to be David Cameron’s opportunity to portray himself as a hero for the global poor, even as his government increases inequality and poverty in the UK.

Don’t mistake Unilever’s hospitality as corporate generosity at a time of austerity. A key topic on the hunger summit’s agenda is the progress of the G8’s ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’, a public-private partnership promising to “accelerate responsible investment in African agriculture and lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022”. This ‘New Alliance’ was launched during the US G8 presidency last year. There’s plenty in it to benefit Unilever and the other multinationals – including Cargill, Monsanto and Syngenta – who have signed up, but it’s much less obvious how it will translate into poverty reduction.

The New Alliance provides opportunities for these companies to ‘invest’ in African economies, with support from the public purse of the G8 countries including £395 million from the UK aid budget, while being crowned with the golden halo of social responsibility.

Into the bargain, these companies also get something potentially even more valuable. So far the New Alliance involves Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania, with Benin, Malawi, Nigeria and Senegal set to join imminently. As part of the ‘cooperation agreements’ being set up between G8 governments, multinationals and African governments, the recipient countries of this ‘investment’ are being required to make policy commitments with far-reaching consequences for their farmers. From phasing out controls on exports to ending the free distribution of seeds, the whole initiative is set up to transfer power from domestic producers to big business.

The New Alliance will also push African countries to make it easier for private investors to take over agricultural land. Such land-grabbing has already affected an area larger than Western Europe since the start of the twenty-first century, and its dispossession and impoverishment of small-scale farmers in Africa is well-documented. David Cameron will propose a ‘land transparency initiative’ to G8 leaders in response to calls for action to halt land-grabbing, but the proposals undermine existing initiatives and are woefully inadequate – and will be even more so in the face of the increased land acquisition push hiding under the cloak of the New Alliance.

So it’s hardly surprising that almost 200 African farmers’ and campaigners' groups have rejected the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, calling it a “new wave of colonialism” in a statement sent to G8 leaders earlier this week. Their analysis is clear: “Private ownership of knowledge and material resources (for example, seed and genetic materials) means the flow of royalties out of Africa into the hands of multinational corporations.”

This is also the reason that protests are planned to coincide with the Cameron’s hunger summit, with action in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol and Stroud. Community food activists, growers and campaigners will be creating pop-up community gardens in their cities to oppose this corporate-led approach and highlight the fact that small-scale producers feed half the world’s population, accounting for 80 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s food production.

The real causes of hunger are inequality of wealth and power, not a lack of big business. Small-scale food producers in poor countries need more power and control over the food system – not less. So the G8 leaders should abandon their efforts to promote the corporate takeover of African agriculture, and instead support the demands of the African farmers’ groups. Small farmers need policies which empower them, support for the existing UN food security process which is more democratic and genuinely consultative, and research into agroecological methods. The G8’s approach will only exacerbate hunger and inequality.

Christine Haigh is a food policy campaigner at the World Development Movement.

 

 

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Palm plantations in Cote d'Ivoire. Photo: Getty
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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital