Food Security and Sustainable Human Development The Challenge for NGOs

Keynote address by Anwar Fazal at the South East Asian NGO Conference on Food Security and Fair Trade held at the University of the Philippines, held from the 13-16 February 1996.

Imagine the following scenario of a tragedy...

·         Every day, a death toll equivalent to that caused by the Bhopal Chemical disaster.

·         Every week, a death toll equivalent to the Kobe earthquake disaster.

·         Every month, a death toll equivalent to that horrendous event  -  the Hiroshima holocaust.

Such news captured the headlines of the media for days, for weeks and they are still tragedies that get resurrected and reflected on.

Such a tragedy takes place every day silently, painfully, and yet it does not make headlines, not even the obituary columns.

Some 4,000 infants die each day because they are denied access to breastmilk  - a gift of God, a gift of nature and a gift of love. Some 1.5 million young lives a year are destroyed not because they were denied a vastly superior and inimitable food  - mother’s milk and instead became victims of dirt, under-dilution of an inferior product made from processed cow’s milk.

The undermining of the process of breastfeeding is a tragic example of food security’s cataclysmic decline. It was undermined by the technology of mass marketing and the myth of modernisation and fuelled by the unbridled globalisation and cash register ethics.

It required a global campaign by citizens’ group working across special interests and working across borders that lead to the first international UN Code1 that specifically protected consumer rights and set universal minimal standards to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. A global network, the International Baby Food Action Network (IFBAN) led this campaign and, together with the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) continues to chart2 dramatically the behaviour of companies and the responses of governments. I mention this because the way we protect, promote and support the first food gives us I believe essential lessons for NGO cooperation and action relevant to any sustainable human development strategy3 in the food security area.

The deterioration from a “breastfeeding culture” to a “bottle feeding culture” was quite astounding and the first lesson was to know the real dimensions of the issue. These were formulated around five themes which emphasised that breastfeeding 

·         Provides ideal and inimitable nutrition.

·         Provides unique immunological, psychological and health benefits.

·         Provides social and economic benefits through savings and spacing of families.

·         Is good for ecology  - it prevents waste of excess (fodder, cans and fuel).

·         Is a basic human right of the child and the mother.

The themes and their links provided the possibilities of widespread support and also a variety of coalitions which eventually developed into a critical mass that led to the development of a global code and is now pushing for universal compliance in this decade4.

We learned a lot from the Chinese special diagnostic and therapeutic tool  - acupuncture. It needs the understanding of a map which indicate critical points, needles to trigger those points and people trained to prepare and read the maps and use the needles effectively.

The Map

Nothing great happens without a map or a vision and if we look at today’s world, it is characterised by three cruel cultures

·         The culture of violence both of the structural kind that through neglect of provision of essential services, causes death and misery, and the technological kind emanating from products, processes and wastes that maim and kill.

·         The culture of manipulation both from the machines of bureaucratic propaganda and behaviour control exercised by unbridled advertising techniques. These can prevent the free and informed expression of peoples’ participation.

·         The culture of waste  -  garbage has become a good measure of mal - development. Greenpeace estimates that some 3.2 million tons of wastes are exported to developing countries which are playing a role as garbage dumps.

The new vision could instead embody a: 

·         Culture of balance and harmony, representing the cycles and systems so well established by the laws of nature.

·         Culture of trusteeship and stewardship of this earth.

·         Culture of accountability not only in the political and economic sense but also to the future and to many of us, to God Almighty.

In understanding the Food Security issue, I like to share with you are five very strategic documents.

The first is the Seoul Declaration on Food Culture and Trade and the Environment. It gives us the best recent analysis and framework for our actions in ASEAN (see Appendix VI).

The second is a very useful list of 15 tensions that Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy, Thames Valley University, London, gives you in clear terms the challenges we have to discuss and manage (See Appendix VII).

The third is an analysis of the three ecological classes and Democratic Pluralisation by David Korten, author of “Getting into the 21st Century” and a “must read” new book called When Corporations Rule The World (See Appendices II and III). It provides a dramatic visual presentation of the critical actors.

The fourth, is a new book called Trading our Lives Away, an ecological and gender analysis of free trade and the WTO by Vandana Shiva and published by the Asia-Pacific Pesticide Action Network (PAN)  based in Penang, Malaysia.

The fifth is a special issue of the journal, Race and Class published by the Institute of Race Relations called “The New Conquistabors”, and Analysis of the IMF, GATT, the World Bank, Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) and Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). It talks about the reconquest and recolonisation of the South.

For the Future  - The Three  C’s

For the future, we shall be challenged constantly to display even great competence in new dimensions of the health, ecological and economic aspects of the issue, and to devise new tactics and strategies.

We shall be challenged by the new frontiers in communicating with our growing constituency, in developing effective messages in developing interactive systems using best of the ‘tom - tom’ and the new electronic information technologies.

Our work is going to require special courage and conviction as it often is in confronting authorities and ruthless governments and fighting elite power groups, often equally ruthless and greedy. Solidarity will be especially important in this struggle.

The Needles  - the Seven Chakras

In our work in developing the power of ordinary people to challenge the systems that inflict violence against us, we have found seven principles useful. They are like the seven “Chakras” or “energy life centres” of Indian body science. We need to learn to

·         Think Power and Politics  - understanding the nature and structure of power and politics in our society, know how decisions are reached and fully utilise the pressures that make politics work for you.

·         Think Multiplying Leadership  - we have to create not just more followers but more leaders especially among women and youth.

·         Think Lateral -  link with other groups - mass media, women, ecology, youth and religious groups. These, allied with scientific groupings, make powerful synergy.

·         Think Everywhere  -  encourage the proliferation of autonomous self - reliant groups at levels and all places. Little victories have a way of creeping up to become national revolutions.

·         Think Action  - there must be a constant stream of simple, high profile, do - able activities that have specific and visible targets.

·         Think Structural  - look at the root cause of the problems, not just at the symptoms. There is a story I would like to share that helps us to remember this: a man sees a baby drowning in a river. He jumps in and saves the baby. As he is bringing the baby ashore, he sees another baby floating down the river and he rushes in again to save the second one. And then he sees a third, a fourth and a fifth. He is so busy saving the drowning babies that he has not time look up the river to see the person throwing the babies in the water.

·         Think Long Term  - social problems are not going to disappear easily or quickly. We build frameworks, institutions, resources and people who will ensure the stamina for a long struggle.

We have found these seven principles useful in our work, we hope you find them helpful in yours.


I like to end by remembering a great Asian - the Chinese sage, Confucius. I like to share his thoughts from the Record of Rites Book IX. The Commonwealth State.


“When the perfect order prevails, the world is like home shared by all. Virtuous and worthy people are elected to public office and capable persons hold posts of gainful employment in society; peace and trust among all people are the maxims of living. All persons love and respect their own parents and children, as well as the parents and children of others. There is caring for the old; there are jobs for the adults; there are nourishment and education for the children. There is a means of support for the widows, and the widowers; for all who find themselves alone in the world; and for the disabled. Every man and woman has an appropriate role to pay in the family and society. A sense of sharing displaces the effects of selfishness and materialism. A devotion to public duty leaves no room for idleness. Intrigues and conniving for ill gain are unknown. Villains such as thieves and robbers do not exist. The door to every home need never be locked and bolted by day or night. These are the characteristics of an ideal world and the commonwealth state.”


Confucius was born in 551 BC some 2,500 years ago. Will the dawn of what has been labeled the Pacific Rim century make this Commonwealth finally possible? In ASEAN, in working together, we can make it happen.


1 WHO International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, 1981

2 See "State of the Code by Country" and "State of the Code by Company" by IBFAN 1994

3 For full description of the role of citizens’ group in transforming the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, see Allain, Annelies. “IBFAN: On the Cutting Edge”, Development Dialogue, Dag Hammarskhold Foundation (1989-92)

4 See the Innocenti Declaration on the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding, UNICEF, 1990

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