World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Forgotten farmers at the WSSD

07 September 2002

by Kevan Bundell (Christian Aid)

September 2002

Politics is the art of the possible, and on those grounds the UK government and others who genuinely looked for progress out of the WSSD can reasonably argue that progress was made. However, the criticism from those of us who are pressing for truly sustainable development - both in terms of the environment and of social justice or equity - must be that the WSSD failed to achieve what was needed.

On the one hand the Summit achieved some significant practical outcomes, on water, sanitation and fisheries for example. Furthermore, it did not, as many had feared, go backwards on some important Rio achievements such as the ‘precautionary principle' and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities' - the recognition that developing and developed countries have different needs and responsibilities, for climate change action for example. Nor did it agree to an attempt to give the World Trade Organisation precedence over multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), or an attempt to gain acceptance of GMOs.

However, the Summit failed to agree on strong international regulation of TNCs, or on a clear statement that the WTO must take account of MEAs, and there was no proper acknowledgement of the problems caused by globalisation. It did not agree to the abolition of environmentally harmful subsidies, nor did it agree on getting rid of rich country agricultural production and export subsidies which undermine developing country agriculture by undercutting prices, or on a right for developing countries to control cheap food imports and protect small farmers and local food security. In a nutshell, it remained business as usual for the current unsustainable and unfair global trade and economic arrangements.

Meanwhile, my task at the WSSD, on behalf of Christian Aid, was to lobby on agriculture issues, including agricultural trade, food security and the needs of small farmers in developing countries, armed with our recent report ‘Forgotten Farmers : small farmers, trade and sustainable agriculture' . It was therefore frustrating to find that, other than on the issue of subsidies, there was little argument about agriculture and the talks move swiftly on to other topics. Furthermore, while subsidies were highly controversial, the EU was not in a position to make any commitments to change beyond its earlier weak promise to negotiate in the future ‘without prejudging the outcome'. Discussions on the issue were therefore effectively blocked. All this despite the fact that at the parallel Civil Society Forum and elsewhere small farmers and landless groups from all over the world were gathered together to argue for their needs and highlight their increasingly marginalised situation.

On the other hand there were a number of ‘side event' presentations of new policy reports on developing country agriculture during the Summit which recognised the importance of supporting small farmers, including one from the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID) , ‘Better livelihoods for poor people : The role of Agriculture.'

For DFID strong support for small farmers and their agriculture is a new and welcome development. It is based on the recognition that the majority of the poor - 800 million people - live in rural areas and that their livelihoods are based on or around agriculture. Its argument is that small farmers need to be supported - with infrastructure such as roads, with credit, with agricultural services, and so on - so that they can improve their production - and their livelihoods - and serve local, national and even international markets.

The report is also highly critical of the negative effect of rich country agricultural subsidies on developing country agriculture and farmers, as well as of the continuing existence of tariff and other trade barriers which severely limit developing countries' ability to benefit from international markets. In other words, it recognises that current reality in global agricultural trade is highly unfair. This of course is also the view of Christian Aid and the whole of the Trade Justice Movement.

However, the report does not offer any proper solution to this state of affairs, other than, implicitly, to wait until the north decides to remove its subsidies and barriers - something which is not likely to take place any time soon. Christian Aid believes that developing countries should be enabled to act now to protect themselves from cheap imports and to provide support to their small farmers. That is they should not be forced to be open to a one-sided and unfair trading system. Clare Short, UK Secretary of State for International Development, however, does not agree.

In her introduction to the DFID report at its launch Clare Short was firm in her denunciation of EU and US subsidies to agriculture for their damaging effect on developing countries and poor farmers. However, when I suggested that the problem of subsidies was only half the problem and that the other half was the inability, under structural adjustment programmes and the rules of the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture, of developing countries to protect themselves against cheap (ie subsidised) food imports or provide proper support to small farmers, she only reiterated her firm belief in open markets and free trade and concluded that Christian Aid and DFID will just have to continue to disagree on this one.

But DFID's position is contradictory. DFID has recognised that tackling rural poverty requires supporting small farmers and yet, by insisting on open markets, it is denying developing countries the means to protect their small farmers, leaving them to become yet further marginalized. In other words, DFID's aim of tackling the situation of the 800 million rural poor is likely in fact be continuously undermined.

Christian Aid's view firmly remains that unless and until global trade rules in general and the rules and conditions in relation to agriculture in particular are changed to recognise that one size cannot fairly fit all, many developing countries and their small farmers will continue to be harmed not helped by global trade.

It was a failure to even discuss trade which caused the FAO's World Food Summit earlier this year to fail. It was the failure of the WSSD to redress the balance on behalf of sustainability against the WTO and the champions of free trade that was this Summit's fundamental failure.


Kevan Bundell
Senior Policy Officer
Christian Aid