News  International agencies and their technocrats

Day two of the conference featured a lecture series and panel discussion focused on the roles and responses of international agencies to the ongoing food crisis. Among the high profile speakers were representatives of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) and the World Bank, speaking to an audience of primarily self-described technocrats.

Henk-Jan Brinkman, a senior adviser for economic policy at the WFP, opened his segment by solemnly declaring, “the food crisis is not over, and the global economic and financial crisis has even worsened it over the last year or so…. Hunger has broadened, and it has deepened. There are some green economic shoots, but there are very few social ones.”

Brinkman went on to describe the manner in which a global food “shock,” or a massive sudden increase in prices, as seen in 2008, negatively affects malnutrition and education rates in developing countries as families move to cheaper and less nutritious food, diversify incomes, pull children out of schools, and sell “productive assets.”

The WFP issued an emergency appeal in March 2008 for additional aid from developed countries to meet a $755-million budget shortfall in light of soaring food and fuel prices.

Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 church-based agencies, spoke of the necessity for a mobilized, engaged citizen population in policy-making.

“[Food] will fall out of the news again, it won’t remain, it will slide down. Unless we build a base of support of citizens, I think the possibility of support declining is very real. Technical and technocratic answers wont always get us there,” Cornelius said.

Christopher Delgado, coordinator of the Global Food Response Program of the World Bank (WB), in line with the prevailing attitude of the WB, criticized the protectionist export taxes and bans during a food shortage while praising the effectiveness of lowering food taxes.

Robert Patterson, senior liaison officer for North America in the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), surprised the audience with his disgust for technocratic obfuscation.

Patterson explained that his comments were those of a 30-year FAO employee, and not those of the FAO.

“I’m unqualified [to speak here] because I tend to be institutionally illiterate, and I aggressively pursue and maintain that ignorance,” Patterson said.

“We have been using, over and over again, the words ‘global financial crisis.’ But in the places I work, nobody uses these words. These people have always been poor. You can’t sink into a crisis if you have no money in the first place….Food security and insecurity – the people that I work with never use these euphemisms. The words I hear are hungry, sick, or ‘my child’s belly is empty.’ I think we can get away from some of these euphemisms and talk clearly about what’s going on and encourage people to get active in practical solutions.”