Interview with His Excellency Ambassador Jean Feyder of Luxembourg and the author of “Hunger Kills”

Jean FeyderHis Excellency is an engaging man. For many years he has been a strong advocate for the least-developed countries. One of the topics that is really close to his heart is the right to food. In this respect, he has been tireless in his efforts, and which now have resulted in a new book entitled “La Faim Tue” (Hunger Kills), published by the prestigious Parisian publishing house L’Harmattan. We will also soon have the pleasure of reading it in English. Let us briefly mention that he arrived in Geneva in 2005 after having served for seven years as Luxembourg’s Director for Development Cooperation. From 2006 until 2010, he was the President of the Sub-Committee for the Least-Developed Countries at the World Trade Organization (WTO), and in 2011 he was elected to the post of President of the Council of the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD). In June 2011, he chaired the Committee on Social Security during the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference. Now we leave the floor to his Excellency
Q : How did you get the idea of writing a book on famine ?
The book is the result of a dialogue I had with a German publisher who was interested in publishing a book on the problem of world hunger. It is through friends here in Geneva, in UNCTAD that the contact was established. We started to talk about the problem of world hunger, and I was asked why there are now 1 billion human beings who suffer every day from hunger or malnutrition. I explained what I saw as the causes of the problem and, finally, they told me that what I had said deserved to be published.
Q : How long did it take you to write this book ?
I was given a period of five months. It was late November 2009 that this conversation took place and I was told that by 1 May 2010 it would be desirable to have the manuscript. I must say that they made an interesting proposal offering me to write the manuscript in French. They would organize the translation into German, so that it would be ready to be presented at the Annual Book Fair in Frankfurt in October 2010. And this was indeed what happened.
Q : As a busy ambassador in Geneva, how did you find time to write ?
Writing a 300 pages manuscript in such a short period was extremely challenging. But I was given quite a unique and a very motivating opportunity –– to put in writing the analysis and insights that I had developed over the years. As you might be aware, before coming to Geneva, I had served as the Director for Development Co-operation in Luxembourg, a position I held for seven years. During these years, I had the opportunity to see in which way Luxembourg, with an ODA level of over 1,00 % of GNP, could contribute to the fight against poverty. This is a goal that is pursued by all countries in the world. What was less known however, and what I found out was who were the vast majority of the poorest and of those suffering from hunger : the people from the rural areas, the small peasants. I therefore had been working on this issue for a number of years.
In the first half of 2005, when Luxembourg assumed the Presidency of the European Union, we organized a large conference on food security and policy coherence. We invited personalities like the former French Minister Edgar Pisani or Pascal Lamy, senior officials from various departments –– development, agriculture and trade –– eminent professors from India, France, etc., including representatives of NGO’s and peasants’ associations. It was a very important event and a very rich experience. .
Arriving here in Geneva, the challenge for me was to see in particular what role international trade played in this question. It was interesting to note that in the WTO’s Doha Round negotiations agriculture was the “big” issue !
Q : For a long time agriculture has been a neglected area in development policies, especially in Africa. In your opinion what are the reasons for this ?
Yes, indeed ! I explain in my book that since the 1980s, a large number of developing countries were in debt. They needed loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. They received them but they were asked to “put their houses in order” through the so-called “structural adjustment programmes”. In other words, it was explained to them that their economy would be better of if it were driven by market forces, and if States and governments withdrew from all economic activities, including agriculture.
The consequences were, first, that governments were invited to withdraw from all economic activities. Second, governments were requested to suppress subsidies and agricultural support measures, whether this concerned the purchase of seed, fertilizers, support for maintaining prices, land reforms, etc. Thirdly, and above all, the IMF and the World Bank told these governments : “you should focus on agricultural products for which you have a competitive advantage, especially for export, such as coffee, tea, bananas, cotton, palm oil, etc… With regard to food production, you should favour imports so that your consumers can have access to cheap food. To that effect you should open your borders and lower your tariffs.” This was the approach that was recommended and which prevailed for several decades, with the obvious result that food production was not considered important.
The consequences were dramatic ! The expertise that existed in the Ministries of Agriculture went elsewhere, often to the private sector. Another result was that the part of development aid, which was always reserved for agricultural development, dropped heavily, from 20 % in 1980 to 4 % in 2004.
A further important consequence of the liberalization of the markets around the world was an important decrease in agricultural prices. The price the producers receive has followed a downward trend for decades, with the exception of the 1974 food crisis. Between 1980 and 2004 prices for agricultural products that the producers receive have dropped by 60%. The result is that these payments are below production costs. If you get a payment below your production cost, you have no incentive to produce more and you will even become discouraged and brought to give up. This is what has happened. A major change occurred with the 2008 world food crisis : food prices have exploded and, more recently another problem has arisen and that is a heavy price volatility seriously affecting hundreds of millions of poor consumers.
Q : If I understand you correctly, farmers are the losers, while multinational companies are the winners ?
Yes. I think the big winners in globalization are the big groups –– the transnational and multinational corporations who had the opportunity to invest in agricultural structures, or in the areas from which the States had been requested to withdraw. And when you open up the markets for imports, somebody has to handle this business. National small and medium enterprises were not capable to do that, and therefore it was the multinationals who took over. These large groups have obviously greatly benefitted from these developments and have become extremely powerful.
Q : In your book you also talk about Western hypocrisy regarding the export of agricultural products to African markets.
It is extremely difficult for me to understand –– and I speak as a convinced European. At the beginning of the European integration we set up a common agricultural policy. Our founding fathers said with clarity : “We do not want to depend on food imports. We are not going to be dependent on others. We want to produce our own food ourselves.” That’s the reason why we have implemented the Common Agricultural Policy, of which one of the pillars is the so-called Community Preference. We still apply tariffs between 50 and 85% for our most sensitive products, such as meat, dairy products and grains.
At the same time, through the World Bank and the IMF, we recommended a policy to the developing countries which is very different. We were saying : “Staple food agriculture is not important for you.” On the contrary : “Open your borders and import”. (The Europeans might also have had the idea at the back of their minds to get rid of some of their over-capacity products !) However, the fact is that in this way agricultural development and development itself were entirely neglected. When the 2008 food crisis arrived, it became evident how unfounded and illogical this approach has been.
In most poorest, especially African countries, the means of production of their small producers and local industry are extremely modest. It’s the small producers who work on small plots of land –– mostly less than two hectares, often without equipment, without tractors –– and they are unable to face international competition. Many are condemned to ruin and to abandon their production because of increasing subsidized food imports at very low prices.
Q : What do you see as the solution ?
First developing countries have to give a new priority to the development of agriculture – staple food agriculture -, in their development strategies. Governments have to work out the required policies in participation with all concerned parties including peasant’s associations. More investment has to be provided to develop rural infrastructures and research, to facilitate access to inputs, credit and knowledge.I
Second, donor governments have to encourage and support such a reorientation of development and set aside a great deal more funds for the development of agriculture.
Third, agricultural markets or the poorest countries need to be better regulated . If we want that small peasants can survive and face international competition they must be protected and enabled to sell their goods on the local, regional and national markets. .
Fourth, marketing boards could be set up with the aim of buying agricultural products from the producers at a fair price and selling them to their consumers at affordable prices. These structures should be managed in a transparent and effective manner and free from corruption. .
I also recommend the development of storage capacities at the local, national and regional level. These countries are not immune to the risk of crop failure or climate change, so this could be a way to shield them from such vulnerabilities.
Then you have the problem of landless peasants, also neglected for too long. There are several hundreds of millions of them, and they earn their living by working for other owners, often in extremely miserable conditions. Many of them are living in South Asian countries like India. I think that we cannot help these people out of extreme poverty without an agricultural reform and granting them access to land.
This problem is worsened because every year, thousands of peasant farmers are the victims of expropriation of land, forced evictions and displacements – a situation that is reaching an unprecedented level owing to the new phenomenon of the global “land grab”
Finally, another major challenge of our time is climate change. Agriculture is one of the causes of climate change. But agriculture is, at the same time, also a victim of CO2 emissions, and the degradation of other eco-systems like biodiversity, desertification, water pollution, water depletion etc. For all these reasons, we need a new global approach to agriculture, a new way to produce and to consume.
A less intensive approach is increasingly advocated, moving progressively towards organic agriculture. Agro-ecology offers a promising approach to address these environmental problems in an effective way.
Q : Your book has been welcomed by the general public and by your African friends in particular ?
The book was first published in German, and I was surprised by the reception from the German media. Last summer it came out in French published by L’Harmattan, and I think the reception was very warm too. I have been asked several times to speak at conferences in Luxembourg, Belgium and France, and this will continue. I have been invited four times by the European Parliament . I was quite pleased to see this broad interest in the subject, and that it’s developing at different levels. We are now working on an English version of the book which should come out very soon.
Albina Goossens