Q&A: Food Systems need to Mimic Nature

Current food systems have been focusing more on just a few major staples that are providing calories eg. major cereals, rice, wheat, and maze. Emile Frison,an expert on conservation and agricultural biodiversity and a member of International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), says agricultural biodiversity is absolutely key not only to providing nutrition because it provides for a diversity of micro-elements, mineral vitamins etc that are absent and very poor in the major staples. Irrigated field in Kakamas, South Africa. Credit:Patrick Burnett/IPS

By Samira Sadeque

Despite the World Food Programme (WFP) being awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in addressing global hunger, sustainable food systems expert Emile Frison believes a lot more needs to be done. This includes the rethinking of approaches to agricultural production, establishing deeper relationships between consumers and producers, and taking a wholistic approach towards socio-economic factors.

Emile Frison is an expert on conservation and agricultural biodiversity and a member of International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

Frison, an expert on conservation and agricultural biodiversity and a member of International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), spoke with IPS a week after the Nobel committee acknowledged WFP for its rigorous approach to addressing the issue of hunger and, especially in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, “[demonstrating] an impressive ability to intensify its efforts”.   

“Unfortunately, this is not only looking at short term solutions,” he told IPS. “The WFP has been addressing the [coronavirus] crisis situation which of course is important but as is often the case, not enough attention is going into providing longer term solutions of developing sustainable resilient food systems and production systems. There’s always an emergency that keeps people away from thinking longer term.”

IPS publishes our interview with Frison on World Food Day. Excerpts follow.

Inter Press Service (IPS): In what ways could world leaders and local governments have been better prepared to address hunger issues before the coronavirus pandemic?

Emile Frison (EF): We know that on a global level, we produce enough food to feed everybody and even many more people than we are on the planet right now. The major problem of hunger is not of availability, but of access to food, the issue of quality and inequity in our society. That’s the important thing that has to be addressed if we want to really find long term solutions to the issue of hunger at the same time as poverty problems. 

IPS: You specifically work in the field of sustainable food systems and the deployment of agricultural biodiversity to improve nutrition and the resilience and sustainability of agricultural systems. What role does deployment of agricultural biodiversity have in improving nutrition?

EF: Our current food system has been, over the last 50 years, focusing more on just a few major staples that are providing calories: the major cereals, rice, wheat, maze, that have received the majority of the attention by research. This is leading certainly to providing calories but we know that calories are not providing health and nutrition. Agricultural biodiversity is absolutely key not only to providing nutrition because it provides for a diversity of micro-elements, mineral vitamins etc that are absent and very poor in the major staples, but it also provides for more sustainable systems from an environmental point of view. It allows us to address the climate crisis by being lower in emissions and fixing carbon in the soil and in the vegetation, in a more diverse vegetation including trees.

Agricultural biodiversity is really a key element of reversing the past trend of the last 50 or so years of ultra specialisation and focusing on just the production of these major staples at the expense of the rich diversity that used to be cultivated. It’s been more and more abandoned in development plans in efforts to so-called fight hunger.

IPS: Why has it been more abandoned in development plans?

EF: The whole education system has been focusing on trying to create an artificial environment that is ideal for production instead of understanding how nature is working. The so-called modern agriculture has been trying to create an environment where you see the plants, no longer the soil that feeds the plants. You put these synthetic fertilisers that are directly observed by plants and are actually killing the soil. So the soil becomes an inert substrate that is incapable of feeding plants. So you have to always put more and more fertilisers and because of the uniformity of the crops, the monocultures are becoming the norm. You have more and more pest diseases that are occurring, that are requiring more and more pesticides. And this is a situation not sustainable in the longer term.

We’re seeing decreases in productivity, in those areas that are using a large amount of pesticides and fertilisers. This is not an option and that’s why we have to rethink totally the agricultural paradigm from the one that creates this artificial environment where the fertilisers are feeding directly the plants, pesticides are protecting the plants rather than having an environment in which the diversity is responsible for the resilience. Because one crop will attract some pests and the neighbouring crop will attract others. So you never have the high density of pests in diverse systems that you have in large scale monocultures.

The whole production system has to be rethought in terms of using diversity as a major approach but also to think about rebuilding, and creating an environment where we don’t fight nature anymore, but we mimic nature. In natural forests, you don’t have to have fertilisers to have a very rich functioning natural system. What we have to do is learn the lessons from that through ecology. The approach, called agroecology, is applying these principles to make nature function through agriculture. This is a real rethinking of the production system as a whole using a certain number of principal that goes beyond cultural practices but also is also looking at social dimension of providing greater equity, empowering farmers in policies instead of having technology developed in laboratories that are often not answering the real problems of farmers, to have participatory research and co-innovation with farmers.

IPS: In what ways has this issue been affected by the coronavirus pandemic? 

EF: There have been many lessons: long value chains that have been developing over the last several decades, where ultra specialisation in commodities that are then being traded globally are the basis of the global food system. That has shown us vulnerability, especially in countries that were largely dependent on food imports. What has also been shown is that in areas where there are diversified production systems closer to the consumers and where there are direct links between producers and consumers, the food systems have been much more resilient. All over the world we’ve seen new connections with farmers being put in contact directly with consumers such as online purchase systems.

The COVID-19 situation has shown us what kind of options are there through shorter value chains and diversification of production, to make the whole system more resilient.

IPS: In light of the WFP being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, what role would you say  sustainable food systems play in efforts towards world peace?

EF: What is sure is that in areas where there is hunger, it has been leading to a lot of the conflicts that we are seeing in the last decade – especially ones causing large amounts of migration. What is also clear is that the industrial model of agriculture, with its specialisation and the power of a few major companies that control the input supply and the purchase and transformation of most of the food at the expense of a decent income for producers, is no longer a viable long term solution.

We must adopt a real, different model of agriculture including, bringing back diversity in the system, and applying the lessons we learn from nature and ecological science that teach us how soil is functioning and how the living microsms in soil play an extremely important role in having a productive system. We have demonstrated that agroecological systems are able not only to feed the world in quantity terms, but also doing it in much better quality terms. That is really the way forward and better recognised.

There’s obviously some vested interests that want to continue to sell their products and maintain the current system in place that are trying to fight the mainstreaming of agroecology and more sustainable production systems. But that has to be addressed and that’s a major responsibility for every citizen of the world but especially also civil society organisations that are really looking into these issues and putting these on the table of decision makers.

Food Citizenship: Innovative Partnerships for Healthy Food Systems

Green, healthy, and inclusive Food Systems should become the new normal. But to make this happen we need to reshape the entire food system, with citizens driving bottom-up innovations

Credit: HIVOS

By Frank Mechielsen
RIJSWIJK, the Netherlands, Oct 16 2020 – Food is high on the political agenda. The need to make food systems more resilient to external shocks like climate change and Covid-19 is now well acknowledged among states and other actors. Green, healthy, and inclusive food systems should become the new normal. But to make this happen we need to reshape the entire food system, with citizens driving bottom-up innovations.

No innovation is effective without the participation of its users, which means that citizens and civil society, producers and consumers, should be involved in any decisions about food from the very start.

This World Food Day, we’re looking at how a holistic food system approach involving all stakeholders is key to solving the urgent and interconnected challenges that our world is currently facing.


Lessons from local food systems transformation

The Hivos and IIED Sustainable Diets for All program has championed multi-actor initiatives as a tool for helping drive the change needed. In particular, initiatives that consciously and continually engage stakeholders and that are agile enough to adjust to ongoing learning.

No innovation is effective without the participation of its users, which means that citizens and civil society, producers and consumers, should be involved in any decisions about food from the very start. This World Food Day, we’re looking at how a holistic food system approach involving all stakeholders is key to solving the urgent and interconnected challenges that our world is currently facing

Our Food Change Labs are multi-actor social innovation processes that use a systems approach to address pressing issues in a local food system. They have been a central component of local food system transformation within the program. These Labs bring relevant stakeholders like farmers, entrepreneurs, government officials and food vendors together to collaborate on developing sustainable solutions.

A new retrospective study shows the degree to which the program’s Food Change Labs in Zambia and Uganda used systems thinking to successfully kick-start the transformation of local food systems in these countries.

Moving beyond frameworks and concepts, we implemented and monitored food systems changes involving practical interventions in the field. This helped us develop a set of eight principles to guide other similar programs through their program development and all stages of implementation. These principles form the basis of the assessment in this study and have given us important insights into what further action is needed for realizing even greater change.


Crop diversification

In Zambia, we supported civil society and successfully worked with the government to develop and implement its national crop diversification strategy away from maize mono-cropping. The Beyond Maize study and the short film ‘Life Beyond Maize’ have had a particularly profound effect on policy discussions. Partners also worked to ensure that local-level interpretation of national policy was in line with the spirit of sustainable diets and to foster a greater say for local citizens in issues that directly affect them.


Indigenous crops

In Uganda, promoting the production and consumption of indigenous crops was an innovative approach to addressing malnutrition. The revival of Orugali meals engaged a wide range of stakeholders – from rural households to local politicians – and was crucial in gleaning information about citizens’ needs and priorities. Furthermore, through the Food Lab, Fort Portal became the first municipality to overcome the constraints of Uganda’s 1935 Public Health Act by using local powers to provide an enabling environment for informal street vendors.


Key principles for people-centered transformation

Using what we learned from our experiences in Zambia and Uganda, we recommend the following key principles for setting up a regularly revised monitoring system with stakeholders.

(1) Whole system approach: Consider the food system as a whole, with its economic, societal and natural context. Develop a food system scan at the start of the program, including actor mapping and their relations. Ensure all stakeholders agree on the concept of food systems.

(2) Integrated sustainability dimensions: Draw up outcomes and interventions that integrate health and well-being, the economy, and the environment.

(3) Multi-level approach: Be aware of how policies and actions are framed and constrained by higher levels (i.e. local to regional to national, to international). Identify where systemic change requires higher-level intervention. Select a network of partners with capacity to work at different levels (local, regional, national, global).

(4) Multi-stakeholder participation: Promote multi-stakeholder collaboration through inclusive governance structures, with wide representation of food system actors – both informal and formal – and citizens, especially marginalized groups. We learned it is important to make information available in native languages, and to use facilitation methods that encourage ownership and participation of women and youth.

In addition, we identified four important supporting principles: (5) Evidence-based interventions; (6) Innovation and flexibility; (7) Long-term focus; (8), Monitoring and evaluation.


Harnessing our collective impact

We need to bring people closer to food chains and empower them to influence how food is produced and how it arrives on our plates. We believe that using these principles and connecting the various actors of the food system can be a catalyst for food system transformation all over the world.

We’ve seen first-hand that inviting everyone to participate in these initiatives encourages a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives, interests, and lived experiences. This is instrumental in transforming any system.

In the Netherlands, the Netherlands Food Partnership is celebrating World Food Day this week by urging the Dutch agri-food sector and its international partners to throw their collective weight behind accessible and affordable healthy diets for all.

Including all these voices in the preparation for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit will provide momentum for a food system change based on the needs and perspectives of the majority of people, not a minority of vested interests. Redesigning our food system is a huge task but it’s one we can accomplish together.


This opinion piece was originally published here

Amid COVID-19, What is the Health of Civic Freedoms?

Black Lives Matter Protests, Washington DC, June 2020. Credit: Ted Eytan

By Marianna Belalba Barreto and Aarti Narsee
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Oct 16 2020 – More than half a year after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, governments are continuing to waste precious time and energy restricting human rights rather than focusing on fighting the virus.

Civic freedoms, including the freedom to associate, express views and peacefully assemble, are under threat, with states using broad and restrictive legislation to snuff out dissent.

But people are organising and mobilising to demand rights. In the face of restrictions, civil society continues to fight back, often taking to the streets to do so.

Even before the pandemic freedom of expression was under threat. In 2019, the CIVICUS Monitor reported that censorship was the most common violation during that year, occurring across 178 countries.

Now, under the guise of stopping the spread of what they characterise as ‘fake news’, many governments continue to target the media.

Free-flowing information and unrestricted speech are vital during a pandemic. People need to receive accurate and up-to-date information on the emergency, not least so they can protect themselves and their families.

As frontline workers, journalists have a crucial role to play in disseminating important information, often putting their own lives at risk. But during the pandemic they have faced harassment, arbitrary detention and censorship from governments determined to silence critical reporting about their response to COVID-19.

Often such attempts have been carried out under the guise of tackling so-called ‘fake news’ on the virus.

Even before the pandemic, Turkey was the number one jailer of journalists in the world, with about 165 journalists currently behind bars. The government’s crackdown on the media has continued, with journalists being jailed on charges of ‘causing people to panic and publishing reports on coronavirus outside the knowledge of authorities’.

Thousands of social media accounts have also been placed under surveillance for comments about COVID-19, with citizens being detained for ‘unfounded and provocative’ posts that cause worry among the public, incite them to fear, panic and target persons and institutions’.

People expect to be able to question their government’s handling of the crisis and hold it to account over the decisions made. But governments are resisting this. In Zimbabwe, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was detained and charged for his critical reporting on the government’s COVID-19 procurement.

The need for this was clear when Zimbabwe’s health minister was dismissed and arrested for alleged corruption in medical procurement. But while Chin’ono has been released on bail, the persecution against him continues, despite calls from local and international media watchdog bodies for all charges to be dropped.

Despite these restrictions, people have continued to mobilise and fight for their rights. The pandemic pushed activists to come up with new and innovative forms of protests. Health workers across the world staged socially distanced protests to highlight the challenges within the medical system which have been further exposed by the pandemic; around the world, people found innovative ways to get their voices across.

In Palestine, feminist organisations organised balcony protests against the surge of gender-based violence during the pandemic. Videos show people standing on their balconies, banging pots and pans and hanging banners to show solidarity.

In Singapore in April, young climate activists from the Fridays for Future global school strike movement held solo protests in order to sidestep the country’s restrictive laws on peaceful assembly.

In June in Brazil, human rights groups organised peaceful interventions to denounce the scale of the COVID-19 crisis; protesters in the capital Brasilia put up 1,000 crosses to pay tribute to COVID-19 victims on the lawn in front of key government buildings, calling out President Jair Bolsonaro for his denials of the pandemic’s gravity.

Protests against racial injustice have been staged in all corners of the globe, following the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police on 25 May 2020. Floyd’s death sparked massive protests against police brutality in the USA, under the banner of Black Lives Matter.

As the movement expanded, people from different continents, in countries as diverse as Senegal, Sri Lanka and Sweden, chanted “No Justice, No Peace”, and held placards reading “racism is a virus” to show they had no choice but to protest amid a global pandemic.

But in some countries these protests were dispersed by police using excessive force, with the reasoning that protests would lead to a further spread of COVID-19.

CIVICUS continues to document civic space restrictions, and while many governments are taking advantage of the crisis to suppress criticism, civil society continues to resist, to fight back, and to make their voices heard.

As part of this, journalists are playing a vital role in fighting censorship and sharing information about the pandemic.

What is very clear is that civil society has and will continue to play a vital role in addressing the urgent needs of the people during this crisis. Without a healthy civic space and an enabling environment for activists, civil society and journalists, we will not be able to effectively tackle the spread of the virus and the prospect for rebuilding a more equal and just society will be limited.

This is why people will continue to organise, mobilise and protest.


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What Developing Countries Can Teach Us About How To Respond To a Pandemic

It’s not a lack of recognition that there’s knowledge and expertise outside the developed world; it’s just that such knowledge is not seen as relevant given the structural differences between developed and developing countries. Credit: UNFPA.

By External Source
Oct 16 2020 – Nine months into the pandemic, Europe remains one of the regions worst affected by COVID-19. Ten of the 20 countries with the highest death count per million people are European. The other ten are in the Americas. This includes the US, which has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths in the world.

Most of Africa and Asia, on the contrary, still seems spared. Of the countries with reported COVID-related deaths, the ten with the lowest death count per million are in these parts of the world. But while mistakes and misjudgements have fuelled sustained criticism of the UK’s handling of the pandemic, the success of much of the developing world remains unsung.

Of course, a number of factors may explain lower levels of disease in the developing world: different approaches to recording deaths, Africa’s young demographic profile, greater use of outdoor spaces, or possibly even high levels of potentially protective antibodies gained from other infections.

As industrialised countries have struggled, much of the developing world has quietly shown remarkable levels of preparedness and creativity during the pandemic. Yet the developed world is paying little attention

But statistical uncertainty and favourable biology are not the full story. Some developing countries have clearly fared better by responding earlier and more forcefully against COVID-19. Many have the legacy of Sars, Mers and Ebola in their institutional memory. As industrialised countries have struggled, much of the developing world has quietly shown remarkable levels of preparedness and creativity during the pandemic. Yet the developed world is paying little attention.

When looking at successful strategies, it’s the experiences of other developed nations – like Germany and New Zealand – that are predominantly cited by journalists and politicians. There is an apparent unwillingness to learn from developing countries – a blind spot that fails to recognise that “their” local knowledge can be just as relevant to “our” developed world problems.

With infectious outbreaks likely to become more common around the world, this needs to change. There is much to learn from developing countries in terms of leadership, preparedness and innovation. The question is: what’s stopping industrialised nations from heeding the developing world’s lessons?


Good leadership goes a long way

When it comes to managing infectious diseases, African countries show that experience is the best teacher. The World Health Organization’s weekly bulletin on outbreaks and other emergencies showed that at the end of September, countries in sub-Saharan Africa were dealing with 116 ongoing infectious disease events, 104 outbreaks and 12 humanitarian emergencies.

For African nations, COVID-19 is not a singular problem. It’s being managed alongside Lassa fever, yellow fever, cholera, measles and many others. This expertise makes these countries more alert and willing to deploy scarce resources to stop outbreaks before they become widespread. Their mantra might best be summarised as: act decisively, act together and act now. When resources are limited, containment and prevention are the best strategies.

This is evident in how African countries have responded to COVID-19, from quickly closing borders to showing strong political will to combat the virus. While Britain dithered and allowed itself to sleepwalk into the pandemic, Mauritius (the tenth most densely populated nation in the world) began screening airport arrivals and quarantining visitors from high-risk countries. This was two months before its first case was even detected.

And within ten days of Nigeria’s first case being announced on February 28, President Muhammadu Buhari had set up a taskforce to lead the country’s containment response and keep both him and the country up to date on the disease. Compare this with the UK, whose first case was on January 31. Its COVID-19 action plan wasn’t unveiled until early March. In the intervening period, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, is said to have missed five emergency meetings about the virus.

African leaders have also shown a strong desire to work together on fighting the virus – a legacy of the 2013-2016 West African Ebola outbreak. This epidemic underlined that infectious diseases don’t respect borders, and led to the African Union setting up the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In April, the Africa CDC launched its Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing (PACT), which is working to increase testing capacity and train and deploy health workers across the continent. It’s already provided laboratory equipment and testing reagents to Nigeria, and has deployed public health workers from the African Health Volunteers Corps across the continent to fight the pandemic, applying knowledge picked up when fighting Ebola.

The Africa Union has also established a continent-wide platform for procuring laboratory and medical supplies: the Africa Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP). It lets member states buy certified medical equipment – such as diagnostic kits and personal protective equipment – with increased cost effectiveness, through bulk purchasing and improved logistics. This also increases transparency and equity between members, lowering competition for crucial supplies. Compare this with the underhand tactics used by some developed nations when competing for shipments of medical equipment.

The AMSP isn’t unique. The European Union has a similar platform – the Joint Procurement Agreement. However, a bumpy start together with slow and overly bureaucratic processes led some countries to set up parallel alliances in an attempt to secure access to future vaccines. The AMSP avoided sharing this fate thanks to the African Union handing over its development to the private sector under the leadership of the Zimbabwean billionaire Strive Masiyiwa. He pulled together the expertise needed to quickly develop a well-functioning platform, drawing on his contacts and businesses across the digital and telecoms sectors.

This contributed to the AMSP’s popularity with vendors and created high demand from member states. There are now plans to expand access to hospitals and local authorities approved by member states, and for additional support to be included from donors (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and MasterCard Foundation). Again, a decisive decision, focusing on installing strong leadership, has paid dividends.

Strong leadership on COVID-19 hasn’t been limited to African countries. The Vietnamese government has been widely praised for its clear and engaging public health campaign. This has been credited with bringing the country together and getting a wide amount of buy-in on efforts to control the virus.

Vietnam has also shown that good leadership involves acting on the lessons from the past. The 2003 Sars outbreak led to strong investment in health infrastructure, with an average annual increase of 9% in public health expenditure between 2000 and 2016. This gave Vietnam a head start during the early phases of the pandemic.

Vietnam’s experience with Sars also contributed to the design of effective containment strategies, which included quarantine measures based on exposure risk rather than symptoms. Badly affected countries such as the UK, which received warnings that its pandemic preparedness wasn’t up to scratch years ago, should sit up and take note. Vietnam has one of the lowest COVID-19 death tolls.

Finally, let’s look at Uruguay. The country has the highest percentage of over-65s in South America, a largely urban population (only 5% of Uruguayans do not live in cities) and a hard-to-police land border with Brazil, so it should be a likely infection hotspot. Yet it has managed to curb the outbreak without enforcing lockdown.

Early aggressive testing strategies and having the humility to ask the WHO for information on best practices were among the ingredients of its successful response. Along with Costa Rica, Uruguay also introduced a temporary reduction in salaries for its highest paid government officials to help fund the pandemic response. The measure was passed unanimously in parliament and contributed to high levels of social cohesion.

Of course, strong leadership isn’t limited to the Global South (Germany and New Zealand get top marks), nor do all southern countries have effective leadership (think of Brazil). But the examples above show that good leadership – acting now, acting decisively and acting together – can go a long way to compensating for countries’ relative lack of resources.


Face masks hanging on window bars in Havana, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS


Doing more with less

Necessity is said to be the mother of all invention – where money is in short supply, ingenuity abounds. This has been just as true during COVID-19 as at any other time, and is another lesson the developed world would do well to consider.

Early on in the pandemic, Senegal started developing a ten-minute COVID-19 test that costs less US$1 to administer and doesn’t need sophisticated laboratory equipment. Likewise, scientists in Rwanda developed a clever algorithm that allowed them to test lots of samples simultaneously by pooling them together. This reduced costs and turnaround times, ultimately leading to more people being tested and building a better picture of the disease in the country.

In Latin America, governments have embraced technology to monitor COVID-19 cases and send public health information. Colombia has developed the CoronApp, which allows citizens to receive daily government messages and see how the virus is spreading in the country without using up data. Chile has created a low-cost, unpatented coronavirus test, allowing other low-resource countries to benefit from the technology.

Examples of entrepreneurship and innovation in the Global South aren’t restricted to the biomedical field. In Ghana, a former pilot whose company specialises in spraying crops repurposed his drones and had them disinfect open-air markets and other public spaces. This quickly and cheaply got a job done that would normally have taken several hours and half a dozen people to do. And in Zimbabwe, online grocery start-ups are offering new opportunities for food sellers to retain customers wary of shopping in person.

While these are handpicked examples, they illustrate the importance of the capacity to innovate in conditions of scarcity – what is known as “frugal innovation”. They prove that simple, inexpensive or improvised solutions can solve complicated problems, and that frugal solutions don’t have to involve “chewing gum and baling wire” types of fixes.

The ability to deal with complex problems under resource constraints is a strength that can be useful for all, particularly given the pandemic’s eye-watering impact on high-income economies. Solutions coming out of developing countries may offer far better value for money than the elaborate and expensive “moonshot” solutions being mooted in countries like the UK.


Women in Nigeria collect food vouchers as part of a programme to support families struggling under the COVID-19 lockdown. Credit: WFP/Damilola Onafuwa


Why not follow these examples?

This pandemic is another wake-up call. Since Ebola and Zika, governments around the world have known that they need to up the “global preparedness” agenda. It’s often said that when it comes to pandemics, the world is as weak as its weakest point.

Global action, however, requires moving beyond national interests to identify with the needs of others. We call this “global solidarity”. Unlike relationships of solidarity within nation states – which are based on a shared language, history, ethnicity and so on – global relationships need to recognise the interdependence of diverse actors. Global solidarity is so difficult to achieve because it must accommodate difference rather than rely on commonality.

The pandemic has shown why we need global solidarity. Globalisation has made countries interdependent, not just economically but also biologically. And yet in recent months, isolationist stances have prevailed. From the USA pulling funding from the WHO to the UK’s refusal to participate in the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement, countries are instead pursuing do-it-alone strategies. Within this inward-looking context, it’s little wonder that industrialised nations are failing to capitalise on lessons from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It’s not a lack of recognition that there’s knowledge and expertise outside the developed world; it’s just that such knowledge is not seen as relevant given the structural differences between developed and developing countries. On this point, consider this final example.

Between the start of April and the end of June, the Rural Development Foundation based in Sindh province in Pakistan on its own decreased the spread of infection in the region by more than 80%. It did this by engaging communities through information campaigns and sanitation measures. Community-level approaches have also been successfully deployed in the DRC and Sierra Leone. During these countries’ Ebola outbreaks, rather than relying on tech and apps, authorities trained local people to do in-person contact tracing instead.

These community-level strategies were advocated by developed world experts, including from the UK. And yet, despite the clear current need, tried-and-tested low-cost approaches like this remain underused in high-income countries. They’ve been disregarded in favour of high-tech solutions, which so far haven’t proved to be any more effective.

The problem, as this example illustrates, is the persistence of a pervasive narrative in global health that portrays industrialised countries as “advanced” in comparison with the “backward” or “poor” developing world, as described by Edward Said in his foundational book Orientalism. Europe’s failure to learn from developing countries is the inevitable consequence of historically ingrained narratives of development and underdevelopment that maintain the idea that the so-called developed world has everything to teach and nothing to learn.

But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that these times demand that we recalibrate our perceptions of knowledge and expertise. A “second wave” is already on Europe’s doorstep. Many countries in the southern hemisphere are still in the middle of the first. The much talked-up global preparedness agenda will require responses to be handled very differently from what we’ve seen so far, with global solidarity and cooperation front and centre. A healthy start would be for developed countries to get rid of their “world-beating” mindset, cultivate the humility to engage with countries they don’t normally look towards, and learn from them.


Maru Mormina, Senior Researcher and Global Development Ethics Advisor, University of Oxford and Ifeanyi M Nsofor, Senior Atlantic Fellow in Health Equity, George Washington University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UN Survives a World Turned Upside Down

UN75: The Future We Want, The UN We Need. Credit: United Nations

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 16 2020 – As the United Nations plans to commemorate its annual UN Day, come October 24, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is presiding over a world body which has remained locked down since last March because of the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

“In a world turned upside down, this General Assembly Hall is among the strangest sights of all,” said Guterres last month, describing the venue of the UN’s highest policy-making body.

At its 75th anniversary last month, the UN resembled a ghost town, with not a single world leader in sight. But an overwhelming majority did address the UN—remotely via video conferencing, for the first time in the history of the 193-member Organization.

Still, the United States was notoriously missing in action (MIA).

“It was like staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark,” remarked one delegate, using a Shakespearean metaphor.

The US, which is traditionally given pride of place as host country to the UN, was not represented either by the President, the Secretary of State or the Permanent Representative to the UN (in that pecking order).

The designated speaker for the commemorative meeting was a deputy US Permanent Representative—way done the political hierarchy.

Vijay Prashad, Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, told IPS the United States stands almost alone in its disdain for the UN and for the goals of the UN Charter of 1945.

Disrespect to the UN at the 75th anniversary meeting comes alongside US withdrawal or pledges to withdraw from UNESCO, UNICEF, UNRWA, and the WHO.

Keep in mind, he said, that the US government has sanctioned senior members of the International Criminal Court (ICC), while US unilateral sanctions against countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela are a violation of international law.

There is no surprise that no senior official came for the anniversary meeting; in fact, it is to be expected, he added.

The United Nations remains one of the most important institutions committed to international peace and development, declared Prashad, author of thirty books, including Washington Bullets, Red Star Over the Third World, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Meanwhile, as the lock down continued, the overwhelming majority of over 3,000 staffers at the UN, and its affiliated agencies in New York, are working from home.

Speaking of the 75th anniversary meeting, Barbara Adams, chair of the board of Global Policy Forum and former Chief of Strategic Partnerships and Communications for the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), told IPS: “Yet again people around the world were witnesses to the enormous gap between the well- articulated diagnosis of where we are and what needs to be done not only in the face of COVID-19 but also of pre-existing inequalities, vulnerabilities and multi-dimensional violence.

Could it be, she asked, that the UN has been “captured” as the President of Equatorial Guinea lamented: “We cannot accept [either] that after so many years, the Charter of the UN continues to preserve the primacy of the major powers who trample on the legitimate aspirations of the weak so that they can enjoy the advantages of the UN system.””

Joseph Chamie, a former director of the UN Population Division, and currently an independent consulting demographer, told IPS: “In my opinion I did not hear any significant or noteworthy contributions from world leaders who addressed the meeting.

Their statements were not informative, insightful or inspiring. In brief, their remarks were disappointing and unmemorable, he pointed out.

Chamie said the lofty goals, ideals and accomplishments of the United Nations should have been highlighted and stressed.

During the past 75 years, he argued, the United Nations has accomplished much and contributed greatly to many critical areas, including peace, security, human rights, health, education, women’s equality and development.

“In the next 75 years, the United Nations must promote and expand its essential work for a world population now approaching nearly 8 billion, four times its size when the United Nations was established”.

While many challenges remain, including the current pandemic, this is an opportune time for world leaders to support and strengthen the United Nations and work together on effectively addressing the critical issues of today and tomorrow, said Chamie.

“The spirit, leadership and vision of 1945 can be rekindled and the United Nations revitalized for its indispensable role in the 21st century”, he declared.

The final declaration, which was adopted by the 193 member nations, singled out the UN as the only global organization with the power to bring countries together and give “hope to so many people for a better world and … deliver the future we want.”


“No other global organization gives hope to so many people for a better world and can deliver the future we want. The urgency for all countries to come together, to fulfil the promise of the nations united, has rarely been greater,” the declaration said.

Credit: United Nations, Afghanistan

Mandeep S.Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, told IPS statements by world leaders at the meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary were mostly along expected lines reflecting their governments’ political priorities, and in some cases, their personal predilections.

Notably, there was significant support for international cooperation through multilateralism. The continuing relevance of the key principles of the UN Charter was affirmed even as their realization remains a work in progress, he said.

In a sign of the times, Tiwana pointed out, the United States despite being the host country and as the country whose leaders and visionaries played a key role in establishment of the UN chose to downgrade its representation at the high-level meeting.

The country’s statement was delivered by its deputy permanent representative to the UN whereas other countries were represented by their presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers.

Tiwana said “one thing we’d like to see as an outcome from 75-year celebrations is the creation of an office of a Civil Society Envoy to champion peoples and civil society’s organisations’ participation in the affairs of the UN”.

Such an office could help in enabling (i) more consistent civil society participation across UN forums, agencies and departments, (ii) more inclusive convenings by the UN of various kinds of civil society actors, and (iii) better outreach by the UN to civil society across the globe.

“You’ll probably agree that the call has enhanced significance in light of the 75-year celebrations of the UN Charter and its commitment to ‘We the Peoples’. Coalitions such as UN 2020 and Together First with whom we’re closely associated are pushing for such an office.’

The links follow:

As Adams, of the Global Policy Forum, pointed out the Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amor Mottley, expounded in detail the failure 75 years later to move forward to close the gap between disaster and recovery:

“Surely reconstruction of the COVID shattered economies of our countries is a priority now. Unless we forget financing was found in the form of a Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Europe and financial space was given to war-indebted Britain for over 50 years through bilateral loans and lines of credit at exceedingly low interest rates”.

“It is not beyond the international community’s capacity to develop mechanisms to ring-fence and differentiate COVID related debt and to treat to it with the far-sighted realism that was shown then to the British debt.

“In the absence of such an approach, my friends, it is clear that the debt to GDP ratio of our region and many small island states will be unsustainable and there will be no fiscal room to build the resilience that we need as we stand on the front line of the climate crisis.”

Is the IMF Encouraging World Financial Leaders to Walk Blindly Towards More Austerity?

By Isabel Ortiz and Richard Jolly
NEW YORK and SUSSEX, Oct 16 2020 – This week the world’s Ministers of Finance and Central Bank Governors meet virtually at the 2020 Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and decide on the fate of the world.

This year’s gathering is particularly important, given that the world is confronting an unprecedented crisis. Governments are struggling to finance emergency care and urgent socioeconomic support to cope with the COVID19 pandemic.

Isabel Ortiz

While these short-term expenditures are necessary, countries need more than intensive care units, respirators, tests and emergency support. Governments must continue to invest in long-term public health, universal social protection floors, employment-generating activities and other sustainable development goals.

The funding gap remains vast. However, the budgetary capacity or fiscal space is more limited than before COVID19, as pandemic emergency spending has left governments with higher levels of debt and fiscal deficits.

Many countries received support from the IMF’s Rapid Financing Instruments and other arrangements, or obtained additional loans to cope with the COVID19 emergency, leaving them more indebted.

But now the IMF and world financial leaders are talking about “necessary” fiscal consolidation or austerity cuts after the pandemic.

Austerity cutbacks reduce economic activity and worsen living conditions. The pandemic has revealed the weak state of public health systems – generally overburdened, underfunded and understaffed because of earlier austerity policies and privatizations.

Over the last decade, a majority of countries have implemented austerity policies, resulting in negative social impacts. People have suffered inadequate social security reforms that reduced hard-earned benefits; pay cuts and redundancies for teachers, health staff and other civil servants; reductions to subsidies; labor flexibilization reforms that worsened working conditions; privatization of public services; and the targeting and scaling down of social protection benefits, when the world should be scaling up social protection floors.

Sir Richard Jolly

More than 500 organizations and academics from all over the world have signed a statement requesting the IMF to end austerity.

“The IMF has already started locking countries into new long-term austerity-conditioned loan programs in the past few months” says the statement “… and a significant number of the IMF’s COVID-19 emergency financing packages contain language promoting fiscal consolidation in the recovery phase… Instead of austerity cuts, it is critical to create fiscal space and give governments the time, flexibility and support to achieve a sustainable, inclusive and just recovery.”

People are suffering unnecessarily. They were left behind prior to COVID19; they have been severely affected during the pandemic; and, if ministers of finance agree on austerity cuts, they will suffer from the sharp reductions in government expenditure. In the 1980s and 1990s, structural adjustment and austerity became conditions for Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. The result? Between 1980 and 2000, Latin America had suffered two decades of economic stagnation. In Sub-Saharan Africa, per capita income fell 15 percent.

Poverty and inequality have both increased during the pandemic. Countries now must avoid austerity cuts at all costs, and instead boost social spending. A return to “normal” (pre-COVID19) is not the solution, many were denied a decent living. It is necessary to increase public expenditures and create jobs.

This is feasible. There are alternatives. There are at least eight options for that governments can consider to increase public budgets, instead of austerity.

First, increase tax revenues, in particular -given the growing levels of inequality- increasing progressive income and wealth taxation, corporate taxation including taxes to the financial sector that remains largely untaxed.

Second, increase social security coverage and revenue by bringing workers from the informal economy to the formal sector, thus paying social security contributions – and above all, not cutting employers contributions to social security as sometimes is suggested as this would make social security unsustainable.

Third, fight and claw back illicit financial flows. Substantial public funds are lost to illegal activities such as money laundering and tax evasion. Abating these flows will result in a significant increase in available public funds.

Fourth, if governments need to look at re-allocating public expenditures, austerity cuts to the social sector should be avoided at all costs. Instead, focus must be upon replacing high-cost low-social-impact expenditures such as defense. For example, Thailand have successfully cut military spending to invest in public health.

Fifth, adopt more accommodative macroeconomic frameworks, with some tolerance to inflation and fiscal deficits.

These could be supported by international measures:

Sixth, the IMF should explore reductions in sovereign debt. Given the current high debt levels, it is important to promote debt forgiveness/relief, or at least debt moratoria with restructuring.

Seventh, increases in development aid and transfers, such as the Global Fund for Social Protection Floors.

Eighth, issuing Special Drawing Rights at the international financial institutions, or alternatively issuing fiat money to developing countries via a multilateral consortium under the United Nations to provide liquidity to prevent a global depression.

These policy options are too important to people’s lives to be decided behind closed doors: they must be discussed openly in national dialogue, with all relevant stakeholders, including unions, employers, governments and civil organization.

Austerity can and must be prevented, it is feasible to increase social expenditures and generate jobs. Governments must not accept damaging austerity cuts. Instead of cuts to budgets that have already been pared to the bone, countries can prevent austerity and have significantly larger budgets to fund employment generating economic activities, and bring health and prosperity to all citizens.

Isabel Ortiz, Director of the Global Social Justice Program at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University, USA, was Director of the International Labor Organization and UNICEF, and a senior official at the United Nations and the Asian Development Bank.

Sir Richard Jolly KCMG is a leading development economist who was named one of the fifty key thinkers globally in this field of economics, Honorary Professor and Research Associate of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, UK, and a former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN.


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