Can states be built?

June 24, 2008

The Rights and Wrongs of Food Miles

June 24, 2008

Publication day

June 24, 2008
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That was a long day. Oxfam launched the book on Monday, so I head off for BBC radio’s Today programme at 6.15 in the morning, and finish with Al Jazeera TV news at past 10pm. The interviews are interspersed with interminable debates with the London media’s wonderfully globalized (and opinionated) cab drivers: the BBC guy is from Ghana, has lived in London for 25 years but sends his kids back to Ghana because the schools are stricter there. He owns 5 acres of pineapple farm, and wants to expand into air freighted pawpaws – inevitably, we get onto food miles.

The Scots CNBC driver wants to rid the world of cyclists – he doesn’t seem at all embarrassed when he drops me off at my bike outside Brixton tube. The Al Jazeera guy is wonderfully erudite, but somewhat alarming when we get onto capital punishment or his preferred option of hard labour to ‘make them die a million deaths’…..

The radio and TV interviews are rather less varied, and centre on the core argument of the book: the links between inequality, scarcity and redistribution. On the Today Programme, Michael Spence, chair of the Commission on Growth and Development, concedes that it’s the economics profession (rather than Oxfam!) that has moved towards a greater concern with inequality and redistribution.

The Commission’s ‘Growth Report’ is required reading, and is particularly radical on climate change, arguing that the debate has reached a ‘conceptual impasse’ over what kinds of growth are possible within environmental constraints. It opposes emissions limits for developing countries, and argues that ‘convergence in long-term per capita emissions is both feasible and desirable’ at around 2.3 tons per person. The current global average is 4.8 tons, but is over 20 in the US and Canada. It concludes

‘Finding new ways to create goods and services that people value on a finite foundation of natural resources… is likely to be the ultimate challenge of the coming century. Growth and poverty reduction in the future will depend on our ability to meet it.’

The other subtext that runs throughout the day is the book’s essential optimism over issues like the spread of rights and democracy. This particularly stands out on Al Jazeera, where my interview follows grim footage of the violence in Zimbabwe, fighting in Lebanon, and the plight of Hmong refugees in Laos (Al Jazeera’s coverage of development issues is very comprehensive). The interviewer clearly doubts the book’s message on building effective states and active citizens, but the media (and NGOs’) endless focus on the negative obscures the bigger picture: violence in Zimbabwe or Kenya is horrible, but is a mark of power being contested at the ballot box for the first time in decades. The spread of democracy, admittedly contested and flawed, was one of the great achievements of the 20th Century, and continues today.

So are things really getting better, or had I better stay off the Kool Aid?


  1. Are things getting better ?I’m interested in Latin America and read the bits in the book about Bolivia with interest.

    Is there real evidence in terms of health statistics ,incomes etc that policies like Evo Morales in Bolivia are doing better for poor people than more right-wing governments or is he just riding on the back of a temporary commodity boom?

  2. Have just completed the first (of several) reads of the little red book. Nagging question…

    Why is Oxfam (we) so wedded to a growth paradigm? Is it just the company we keep?

    If we focused on redistribution of the tree, rather than the (very seasonal)fruit, we wouldn’t have to look so hard to find the actual power relations. Less fruit will also be a key part of the response to the looming clouds.

    No-growth with equity. Negative-growth with equity. Mmmmmmmmmmm.

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