Food is a concept we can all get behind. It is one the brings us together at restaurants, dinner tables, in front of TV screens and into discussions of policy, human rights issues and the economics abided by the world of humanitarian aid. It is surprising how food can open up so much conversation, especially a conversation on what democracy actually means to all of us.
The book, “World Hunger: 10 Myths” by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, talks about food and food aid, and at the same time, it lends itself to let us analyze how the U.S. views democracy. It presents somewhat of an alternative to the current model in the U.S., at least when speaking about everything that comes after casting votes in a ballot box; it’s called a “living democracy.” In my opinion, a living democracy is almost a form of social democracy. The authors of “World Hunger: 10 Myths” did a great job in disguising democratic socialism as living democracy to give it a standing chance on the bookstores, for it to permeate U.S. minds, and anything with the word democracy seems to ring a bell and leave a satisfied underbelly. It is crucial to clarify the fact that the book focuses on political structures in the form of how society is affected by them and what they do for the people of their respective countries.
“World Hunger: 10 Myths” gives us a platform to analyze the current form of U.S. Democracy by relating it to food aid. While it does a good job of presenting a valid critique of the U.S. and it’s lack of humanity and selflessness when it comes to food aid, it finds a way to explain things in terms that essentially go back to the definition of democracy this country has embedded so deeply into its roots. Democracy in the United States could be considered a creator of the greater values Americans possess and not as a system that results from them. The book also gives us evidence of how the United States version of democracy is one that benefits one and only one nation when speaking about the global scheme of things, and that is the United States itself.
Democracy is a term that has evolved throughout centuries, and every part of the globe has its own take on what the word means. Third world countries see democracy as a product of the United States: a continuation of neocolonialism and an almost stagnating economic system. In “the Global South,” “U.S. Democracy” is a term more closely associated with capitalism and the perils that capitalism brings to economic underdogs. Latin America got a great deal of U.S. Democracy during the Cold War, paired with totalitarian dictators and an accelerated modernization of economics that resulted in the U.S. becoming a seemingly eternal super power. Capitalism was implemented in Latin America. Democracy, on the other hand, was not. Here, aid was used as a way to “arm and financially prop up authoritarian governments.”
For Western Europe, democracy is an actual political doctrine, not an economic standpoint. It is a system that allows the welfare state to strive, voices of people to be heard and removes the use of “big private campaign money” as it is seen as having a toxic influence on politics. In the end, democracy should not be ruled by money; it should be fueled by people. And when the U.S. intervened in aid with the Marshall Plan in Europe, it served to create an ally for the U.S. on the other side of the Atlantic.
In the U.S. however, democracy seems to go hand in hand with terms like capitalism, the free market and trade agreements. It is one run by super PACS, corporations, and where the voices of Forbes 100 companies have more weight than those who pay the taxes to buy these companies out. The definition of democracy that is widely used in scholarly texts and school discussions is the Americanized version of the term, seeing that somehow this has become the epitome of a perfect democratic system.
The book states that “a free market is impossible without a democratic government.” In the case of the United States, I completely agree with this statement simply because without the help of its highly democratic government, the U.S. would not have been able to create the laws, trade agreements, aid packages or foreign policies that help sustain a free market in which few thrive. And those who thrive are the ones with greater economic and political power within the U.S. This narrative is one that is overplayed and overdone, drilled into liberals over and over again; corporations are evil and are controlling the market and have taken over democracy. I say that the democracy the U.S. employs and the values that this country has had since its conception — individualism, material success, competition and action oriented achievement — are the reasons that corporations have been allowed to run rampant, control Washington and in essence make the world their own little production line. According to the book, “a lot of what the government spends money on directly benefits the economy,” but it benefits an economy in which people who are on the theoretical “level” playing field have the opportunity to keep growing.
This can be seen through how the U.S. administers its aid, especially food aid, because it took something that was a human right and made it into a market commodity.
Many times, when the U.S. gives out aid, or any form of a trade agreement that seems like a lending hand, some conditions come along with it. Democracy has implications and when the U.S. says it is going to help countries, it usually requires an agreement to terms like dismantling government supports, letting the market reign, selling off public assets, and pulling back government services and rules that govern the market.
A perfect example of this was Mexico when they joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1985. By joining GATT they were to “[eliminate] all government subsidies, credit, and other support to the traditional small-farm sector.” The small-farm sector was one that produced most of the country’s staple foods; not only an economic support for the country, but a cultural and historical triumph that dates back to the age of Pancho Villa. The U.S. desecrated not only the jobs and opportunities of thousands of small-scale farmers; but it also made it harder for farmers, an essential part of the agrarian population that makes up most of Mexico, to do what they have done for years. It is a prime example of the regulation the U.S. sets in place to make it easier for transnational and maybe even their corporate interests to thrive within the country. This is simply one example of what it means to be pulled into the free market and to be enslaved to transnationals and multinationals. What is sad about all of this is that the same rules of being virtually imprisoned and becoming the tools in the Master narrative are the rules that apply to aid.
Another example is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In the TPP, “all trade treaties [primarily] require member nations to alter their laws to conform to the treaty or face the likelihood of trade sanctions against their exports.” Other than the issue being that if a country does not adhere to the exact parameters the U.S. sets, which sometimes even includes abolishing unions and creating economic conditions that make it cheaper to outsource jobs, these negotiations have been done behind closed doors. A truly democratic system would allow the people from all the countries involved see how these trade agreements impact them. Half of Americans say that the TPP would essentially destroy U.S. jobs, yet this is not taken into account because of the benefits the TPP brings to U.S. corporations. Mostly, agreements like this benefit the elites of the countries that participate in them, leaving those who had less with even lesser. These trade agreements make sure that the Global South is the workforce that the West needs, which ends up creating miserable working conditions that benefit only those on top.
The TPP and the current agrarian situation in Mexico are some of many examples of free trade agreements that the U.S. has pushed forward. It is also an example of how free trade and U.S. Democracy strives on difference, specifically economic difference within its borders and outside of them. If we are to use democracy as almost synonymous with capitalism and the free market, then it’s not wrong to assume that socioeconomic disparity helps perpetuate this system. The U.S. would be nothing without its corporations, without its working class and elites who make the corporations in the first place.
These disparities also happen on a global stage as well, even more so than domestically. The U.S. form of democracy is one that is sustained through outsourcing and bringing the periphery into its confines with the illusion of a free market, a market that is anything but free. When countries are brought into the free market, they are enslaved by the financial rules and plays set in place by the world’s superpower. In the industrial age, the U.S. had factory towns or cities that would collapse if the plant were ever to close. With free trade and the regulations set forth by the U.S., IMF, and World Bank, the countries that have little to no regulation and have no sense of living wages become those “factory cities.” The difference being that when the multinational or transnational — many of the times headquartered in the West — decides to pull out, then a massive sector of that country’s economy is left open and vulnerable for the next transnational to grab. When the U.S. spreads democracy, it is primarily spreading a system that at a global scale provides the perfect environment for big business to thrive and grow, but at the expense of whom? That’s an easy question to answer: periphery, third world, and developing countries, depending on what exactly it is that you want to name them.
The same rules apply for foreign aid; it is used as “a strategic imperative for America.” Many of the countries the U.S. gives aid to are those who serve the U.S. in some way. Just as the U.S. picks enemies every decade, it picks allies. Some allies are equal to the U.S., creating a relationship that is more that more of a colleague to colleague interaction — in which both parties benefit almost equally, or at least the gap is not that big. At the same time, the U.S. creates allies through providing aid, but these allies are better defined as strategically placed periphery countries. Let’s take Kenya for example. There is a correlation in the increase in aid in Kenya to the conflict in Somalia. Southern Somalia was the home to the Al Shabaab insurgency, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. It is no coincidence that Kenya is the newest addition to the top ten recipients, seeing that its border is one that has access to an area the United States had been trying to get into in 2011 to counterattack terrorism. When then the United States provides aid to these countries, most of it is pocketed by government officials and not distributed to the people. It is a sad reality that most governments that make part of the periphery are corrupt, and take away from aid funds to aid themselves. What might be even sadder is that the U.S. does not regulate this behavior in order to have those in power in a position where if the U.S. were to send troops to the border of Kenya and Somalia, there wouldn’t be an issue in doing so.
Now let us look specifically at how U.S. food aid benefits U.S. companies. 9.5 billion in economic aid went to 172 countries divided into three subcategories: health, humanitarian assistance, and economic development. Economic development in regards to agriculture could mean one of two things, training small-scale farmers “in sustainable, money-saving practices”or “providing a small boost to rural elites and agribusiness.” Essentially, said aid packages benefit agribusiness giants the most because they profit from grain sales to the governments that amount to more than half of the food aid budget. Also, U.S shipping companies benefit from the aid, seeing that they take care of actually getting the food where it needs to go. It’s all about the market economy — i.e. democratic values — the U.S. stands so strongly behind.
In 2012, when the G8 Summit decided to pledge $22 billion in food aid that was budgeted to lift fifty million people in the African content out of poverty and hunger by the year 2022, it created a stir in seed giants like DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta. This is most likely and almost certainly because of the fact that “the World Bank [had] estimated that sub-Saharan Africa’s agribusiness market [would] be worth $1 trillion [dollars] by 2030.”
The problem with this aid package is that because of the position the U.S. has in the G8 and it’s pledge to the New Alliance (the aid program) it can determine who has access to land and what exactly gets produced. The issue with this is that what gets produced and sent over is not necessarily what the country needs, it is more of a meter of what food companies DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta push and sell. The book makes the excellent point that this deal is one that was created, shaped and endorsed by the interest and voices of a “multibillion-dollar consortium of foreign donors, private corporation, and African governments.” These are the same voices that have unfortunately neglected the overwhelming percentage of voices that exist in the realm of poverty. The needs, opinions, and voices of the small-scale farmers, whom this aid package directly affects, have not been a part of the conversation that will ultimately alter how they go about their farming, changing even the simplest notion of selecting seeds. All of this has happened behind closed doors, and if it were a genuinely democratic process, the doors would be open. If the U.S. version of democracy were was one that was were faithful to the original values of democracy, then the negotiation of a $22 billion dollar package would be open to the public it so widely affects. There would be space for collaboration with all sectors of the plan, especially by part of the farmers who this deal has such an impact on. The fine print needs to be blasted and bolded to truly have a transparent system in which these small range farms are not subject to the contractions of the free market, corporations and U.S. democracy — words that at this point could all be synonymous.
The book hints at ways in which U.S. democracy could go back to the roots of why this political system was created in the first place. When the book tries to define “living democracy” it is essentially defining democratic socialism, but suggest anything with the word socialism to a die hard American and we might find ourselves being accused of being a communist, and disregarded from the debate entirely. When talking about living democracy, the book gives us examples of various grassroots movements worldwide, how they have worked as well as their shortcomings. World Hunger: 10 Myths emphasizes the idea that in this day and age, to be heard you need a whole lot of luck in the grand economic and political sphere and enough people with the same vision and message to make a change. Yes I realize that sounds idealistic and cliché but the roots of democracy fall upon the inclusion of citizens, and today, although there are disparities globally and within countries borders, we have reached a point where all are considered citizens — well if they have at least a passport to show for it if we’re going to talk strictly legal terms.
“World Hunger: 10 Myths” argues that a living democracy is “a set system of values, including fairness and inclusion, the essentials of human dignity.” I agree with the statement because I argue that U.S. democracy is based on the values of individualism, market and monetary success, like aforementioned earlier in this paper. Democracy itself is much larger than a political system because of how so many countries have different forms of democracy. Living Democracy is a way of almost going back to the essence of democracy; the people, while at the same time implementing some socialist ideals. I feel that the authors could not make these socialist thoughts prevalent because of the people who were to buy this book, but they are found between the lines of many examples that they give.
Lappé and Collins talked about Andhra Pradesh, a region in India, in which farmers refused to use pesticides in their crops, and in turn, created an agricultural revolution. The farmers started planting more and diverse foods, without the harmful toxins of the pesticides and began meeting and talking to decide what to do next. Communication and collaboration are essential pillars of democracy, and in this particular case, there was both. A perfect example of a microcosm that works for its people and not the interests of corporations.
Grassroots movements that empower small farms have sparked all across the world, like Campesino a Campesino in Latin America and the Regreen farms all across Africa. Living Democracy seems to be bases on people’s movements — as all democracy should be — and how these “movements gain and grow power as they spread laterally, reaching out and sparking others growth.” It will be interesting to see if this form of democracy and values take off worldwide, and what the U.S. response will be.
U.S. interests are threatened by different economic models, economic models that are entrenched in cultural values. Because of this, a way to introduce new economic models it to attack these values – something that the U.S. did in Latin America during the Cold War, and is doing now in the middle east by targeting Islamic culture. And although what the U.S. is doing in regards to Islam does not directly relate to economics and capitalism and I have not quite been able to make the connection of how that particular case relates, to both political ideology and attacking Muslim religion and economic turmoil I’m sure there is a connection somewhere in the politics they are trying to set forth.
Will raising grassroots movements by small farmers be the new threat to U.S. national interest? Will they gain so much power and momentum they can do away with monsters like Monsanto and topple the delicacy of a market underlined by tariffs, sanctions and fear? Maybe not in our lifetime, but it sure is nice to think about the world evolving into something that works for its people and not intangible tyrants protected by patents, copyrights and articles of incorporation.
Isabella Grullon Paz is a junior journalism major at Ithaca College from Colombia and the Dominican Republic. She has a double minor in International Politics and Business Administration which she hopes to use to begin her own independent media company one day. Isabella has interned at El Pais, Spain’s international newspaper, bringing U.S. race issues to a European audience. She has an interest in reporting on foreign affairs and relations as well as tackling the military-industrial-media complex. Upon graduation, she wishes to start her masters in international relations and do freelance work on the side.