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Address by President Higgins at University of California, Berkeley

Address by President Higgins at University of California, Berkeley entitled "Ending Global Hunger, Eliminating Poverty - Is this Possible?

“Ending Global Hunger, Eliminating Poverty – Is this Possible”

Address by

Michael D Higgins

President of Ireland

International House, University of California, Berkeley

Monday, 26th October, 2015

A Dhaoine Uaisle,
A Bhalla Dáimhe,

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Members of the Faculty,

It is particularly appropriate to discuss this central political question of our time here at UC Berkeley, a public university with a rich history of activism and political engagement; and at the Goldman School of Public Policy, which I note has recently been recognised as having the premier public policy graduate programme in the United States. I strongly believe that our universities have a crucial role in our public political discourse and UC Berkeley has a proud tradition in this regard.

I have, since becoming President, spoken frequently of the importance of pluralist scholarship and the right, as I see it, of young people to have access to the fullest range of models of connection between economy, society, ecology, and moral thought. This is not a circumstance that prevails in the modern period in the majority of third level institutions. In many, whether consciously or unconsciously, they find themselves functioning within a paradigm of thought that is sourced in corporate institutions, one that advocates for the supremacy of an unrestricted market model as appropriate to our lives.

A few weeks ago at New York University I spoke of the difficulty scholars and policy makers seem to have, not only and not escaping, from a failing paradigm of connection between economy and society, but of even submitting it to critique. In re-capturing the pluralism which we so urgently require in our education and in our thinking, the great public universities such as Berkeley can play a leading role.

I would like to begin this afternoon then by paying a special tribute to a distinguished member of your Center for Public Policy Professor Robert Reich, of whose work I have been a great admirer for many years. In his academic publications Robert Reich has made an immense contribution to the field of political economy and to our contemporary politics and his work on wealth and poverty is directly relevant to my subject today. Robert has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to the discourse of ideas in the public space and has taken up the responsibility of a public intellectual by going beyond the academic world and bringing his work into the realm of politics and public communications.

The theme of my address today is “Ending Global Hunger, Eliminating Poverty – Is it Possible?”.

The question posed in the title of my lecture relates to a global phenomenon that should have ended in the last century – that of Hunger and Famine and the great failure that it is that children still die from malnutrition in a world where there is a surplus of food.

The establishment of the United Nations, here in San Francisco in 1945 was a moment of unprecedented idealism and hope. Despite its limitations and many setbacks, the multi-lateral system that was built in 1945 can point to successes and achievements over the years. There are conflicts that have been avoided and the enduring value of our system of international human rights cannot be overstated.

Nevertheless, the failure of the international community to address hunger and poverty remains the greatest moral failing of humanity. Neither have we delivered in terms of the institutional capacity to restructure international trade, debt, and development in a way that would have bridged the gap between North and South at global level, or between the rich and poor within these regions, and within States.

Recognising that efforts in these areas to this point have not proved adequate, and responding to the urgency of the issues at hand, the leaders of the world have chosen this year, 2015, to try afresh to agree a framework to address the combined challenges of poverty and climate change. The critical political events include the Sustainable Development Summit which was recently successfully completed in New York and the COP21 Climate Change Summit which will take place in Paris at the end of November.

At the outset, I should emphasis that Ireland and the Irish people also have a special historical perspective on the issue of hunger and famine. Between the years 1845 and 1850, one and a half million Irish people died and a further one and a half million emigrated due to what is referred to in our Irish Language as “An Gorta Mór” – The Great Hunger.

Ireland attaches a particular importance to addressing global hunger not simply because we remember our own past, but because we feel that none of us should ignore the tragedy that is famine for a people. We believe that it is simply unacceptable that eight hundred million people are hungry in a world of plenty. We regard hunger as the central moral issue for our time.

Indeed, the issue of hunger has been defined in terms of human rights obligations and the situation of chronic food insecurity has been defined as a violation of the Right to Food, a right that is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This right has been developed over recent decades. 1

In addressing this subject today, I wish firstly to outline the parameters of Global Hunger, and then I will place this persistent problem in its historical and political context, before turning to consider the latest attempts to meet the challenge of universal food security, their prospects for success, and the potential obstacles to their achievement.

The facts of Global Hunger are well known. According to projections from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) some 795 million people are estimated to be chronically hungry. This means that 1 in 9 people on planet Earth experience distress associated directly due to a lack of food, and have a diet deficient in calories, vitamins and essential minerals. The vast majority of these people suffering from hunger (780 million people) live in what are commonly referred to as "developing countries".

Over 90 million children under age five—one in seven children worldwide—remain underweight. UNICEF estimates that 161 million children are chronically stunted, affecting the potential for their physical and mental development, and 51 million children suffered from wasting, a major indicator of acute malnutrition.
We must recognise that here is a political and economic context or paradigm in which strategies to defeat global hunger are to be constructed. Since the 1990’s we are discussing all of these issues in an ideological atmosphere that is hostile to State activity, an atmosphere that also masks its own ideological strong market extremism as some kind of inevitability in human affairs.

I would contend that those who are hungry must not be reduced to the level of a market not yet satisfied but rather must be regarded as global citizens who are not enjoying the right to food, or who are prevented by indigenous or exogenous forces from the capacity to produce food in a form and a manner that fits within their culture. This ideally will mean that in the future it will be from within African States that the policies will come forward that will establish social floors below which their citizens will not be allowed to fall and which will include food sufficiency with adequate nutrition.

Achieving the necessary outcomes will also require putting essential needs ahead of other obligations in the case of a number of States. If I may give an example, is it acceptable to continue asking Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to continue servicing debt at the cost of food security, a basic public health structure or access to education? Yet, in seeking an answer to such a question I frequently hear that such a question is a matter for the IMF. I am left to conclude that servicing the insatiable demand of creditors who are benefitting from global debt is taking precedence over the issue we are discussing this afternoon.

These points of historical and political context serve as background to the present efforts of the international community which are currently being finalised. Recently I attended what became the largest gathering ever of Heads of State and Heads of Government at the United Nations, which had been called together to approve a new plan of action for the world; a plan of action to tackle growing inequality, climate change, social exclusion, violence, poverty and unsustainable consumption of the Earth's resources.

The outcome of the process which was concluded in New York is Agenda 2030, which contains 17 Goals and 169 targets which are aimed at ending global poverty and inequality over the next 15 years. As President of Ireland, I was pleased that Irish and Kenyan diplomats played an important part in the process leading up to the articulation of these new and transformative global goals. Negotiators from both countries skillfully navigated a complicated and challenging process and succeeded in creating an atmosphere of inclusivity and mutual respect among countries, and between Governments and other major groups.

The Agenda 2030 document sets out an ambitious claim,

"This is an Agenda of unprecedented scope and significance. It is accepted by all countries and is applicable to all, taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. These are universal goals and targets which involve the entire world, developed and developing countries alike. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development."

Crucially, the next paragraph of the 2030 Agenda document also states:

"The Goals and targets are the result of over two years of intensive public consultation and engagement with civil society and other stakeholders around the world, which paid particular attention to the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable."

This is significant in a number of ways.

First, as it confirms and further strengthens the precedent of giving citizens organisations a place at the negotiation table. Not as a favour, but as a matter of principle.

Second, it builds on and strengthens States' primary responsibility for their own economic and social development by signalling the importance of active involvement not just of Governments, public institutions, and regional and local authorities, but also of academia, philanthropic organisations, volunteer groups and other citizen groupings.

Third, the express inclusion of non-State actors in the negotiation process recognises the fundamental truth that jumps out of the 2030 Agenda text: That we all live in “developing countries” and that “sustainable development” is a matter of utmost importance to us all, and to all segments of society.

A further significant dimension to the new Goals is the central place afforded to gender equality. Women produce more than half of the world’s food, but have largely been confined to the role of “invisible actors” in developing agricultural and development strategies. In some strategies, for example ones that advanced a role for private banking, proposals for turning previous common land into a set of private titles that could be used as collateral for the private bank has had the effect of sweeping the land from under the women. Yet this proposal is still advanced by some international agencies and NGOs in Africa. All of this exclusion of women must change.

Articulating the moral case for change is essential, and in that regard the process of conceptualising food and nutrition as a human rights issue has been significant. Facilitating and prompting the political will for change is a necessary second step and we have seen in recent weeks the culmination of this second phase of agreeing Goals and Targets at the political level. Mapping a concerted programme of action for all stakeholders is the critical next phase. What elements must be aligned to achieve the ambition of ending hunger and eliminating poverty in your lifetime?

This task is an inescapably political one. We need to combine political campaigning, diplomacy, public advocacy and technical efforts to realise our Goals – and above all we need concerted and sustained efforts, sourced in open political discourse, one that is taken into account by international agencies and which will take direction and receive support from key political leaders.

In taking up this task, we cannot ignore the dimension of power. Our response must recognise that immense power is located in forms of monopoly, a monopoly that so far has escaped regulation and which uses its power to influence both those who are designing policy and those who are seeking to practice at the front line of human need.

In relation to the international institutions, the Sustainable Development Goals remind us that there is a new world of relationships between states to be made. This genuine “society of nations” will not come about of itself. If a new stronger and deeper form of cooperation and solidarity between states is required, new institutions beyond the modest proposals in the Agenda 2030 document will need to be put in place. It will require a new architecture of revitalised and well-resourced multilateral institutions based on mutuality, diversity, and recognition of the intergenerational nature of our collective responsibility towards our shared planet.

There is also need for institutions to monitor compliance with the new targets, and new measurements of what constitutes growth, poverty or development. These are not yet in place. Even as we move to the end of the Millennium Development Goals Kaushik Basu in his book ‘Beyond the Invisible Hand’, a book that does break new ground as far as the World Bank is concerned in terms of the indicators the World Bank uses, Basu wrote “Yet there is no organisation for coordinating policies for the control of poverty and inequality”. This is vital and I know meetings will take place in March towards that end. I also warmly welcome the new International Commission on Global Poverty of the World Bank, to be chaired by Professor Anthony Atkinson and which can make an important contribution in this regard.
The Goals also raise fundamental questions as to the balance that must be struck between responsibilities of the State, the private sector, the voluntary sector, NGOs and others. It is worth repeating that the role of the State must be the lead role. When we look at the history and evolution of human rights, when we look at what has been achieved in the Millennium Goals, we see the best performance across the goals coming from enlightened State activity.

Delivery of strategies can of course involve partnerships between different sectors, but the definition of the policy, and process of addressing issues of development must be one that is drafted primarily in terms of state accountability. Governments, on behalf of their peoples, have signed up to what is a universal project. There is no point in any of us seeking to avoid the contradictions that arise when multinational corporations who are not observing basic principles in terms of extraction, taxation, environmental standards or labour rights seek to define what should be the strategic relationship between donor and recipient countries. Those who decide on the policy and the process must be accountable to those who elect governments.

In this regard, while humanitarian aid will continue to play a role in alleviating emergency situations, there is a real problem when, aid agencies and the NGO sector, a sector that often is excessively dependent on funding from foundations, often have to construct their policies and practices under the influence of, or taking into account strategic interests of multi-national corporations that are not accountable. Philanthropy has a part to play in achieving food security, but it will not and cannot supplant the role of government.

If we are to eliminate global hunger we must not just respond to immediate needs, but we must meet the obligation that is involved in creating the capacity, in different circumstances and cultures, of our fellow global citizens to achieve food sufficiency. There is a clear distinction between an immediate response to famine and hunger that provides essential food, even nutrition, and the creation or protection of the capacity to produce food. What is required is a holistic approach to issues of famine, global hunger, poverty, nutrition and food production.

When we are evaluating policies and strategies we must also be clear as to the consequences of addressing any one of these elements in isolation. The response of the international community must recognise that there will be a wide range of strategies and that they will be at their best when what is a global, universal challenge is knitted to local wisdom and imagination. Production of food is a cultural activity after all and while the integrity of the product is important, the sustainability of the producing community is also important, if frequently neglected in strategies to date. For women in Africa, for example, issues of land security, seeds, technology and access to advice structures are crucial elements of achieving long-term food security.

As to the sufficiency of food available, there is no ambiguity. Even with an increasing world population, per capita food availability, as measured by calorific content of food produced, has increased from 2220 kcal per person per day in the early 1960s to 2790 kcal per person per day in 2006-08. Even in developing countries that level has risen from 1850 kcal to 2640 kcal. In other words, in all regions, the average level of food available is more than is necessary for adequate levels of nutrition for all. The issues are ones of access, suitability of diet, and forms of production.

As for prospects of success – the positive news is that by examining where we are currently making advances, the picture is hopeful. The Global Hunger Index report, launched earlier this month to mark World Food Day (16 October) by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), an Irish NGO Concern Worldwide, and German NGO Welthungerhilfe (English name: “German Agro Action”), shows clearly that, in the developing world, the four GHI components (undernourishment, child stunting, child wasting, and child mortality) have each declined since 2000, although at different rates:

The proportion of the population that is undernourished - in the countries for which GHI indicators are available - dropped 29 percent, from 18.5 percent to 13.1 percent .

The prevalence of child stunting declined by 25 percent since 2000, going from 37.5 percent to 28.2 percent.

The proportion of children who suffer wasting fell by 10 percent, going from 9.8 percent to 8.8 percent.
And the proportion of children dying before the age of five dropped by 40 percent, going from 8.2 percent to 4.9 percent.

Earlier, the United Nations’ MDG Progress Report showed that the proportion of undernourished people in the developing countries has fallen by almost half since 1990, from 23.3 per cent in 1990–1992 to 12.9 per cent in 2014–2016. While it must be acknowledged the largest part of that global improvement took occurred in a small number of stronger performing countries – notably China, and also Brazil - improvement occurred across all regions except West Asia where there was an increase exacerbated by a number of wars in the region.

Indeed, the most striking crisis of the present moment is that of the war in Syria and the resulting humanitarian disaster in the region, and increasingly becoming manifest in Europe. There are other conflicts which have the potential to foment even more acute humanitarian challenges, such as the civil war in South Sudan and ongoing tensions in parts of West Africa. These conflicts present the greatest immediate threat of famine, but each of these conflicts are also solvable.

In the medium term, focussing our efforts on the resolution of wars in these regions must be the priority. In the short term, there is a need to ensure that necessary resources are provided to those fleeing conflict at the point of greatest need. The failure of states to meet their own pledges to the World Food Programme, WHO and other agencies operating at the frontiers with Syria is an indictment of the international community. The issue of providing safe haven – in Europe and also in North America and elsewhere - for those who are fleeing.

It is appropriate that we consider also the impact of extreme weather events and natural disasters on many communities and societies. In fact, although more research is needed in this area, it can be argued that many of the instances of political instability and civil strife that we are witnessing in countries as diverse as Syria, Central African Republic and Sudan have deep roots in the tensions arising from changing weather patterns.

The question of political stability is linked to that of resilience to natural disaster. The strength of the social contract between a State and its citizens, the nature and adequacy of legitimacy, has a direct bearing on the severity of the disasters experienced by its inhabitants. In situations of conflict, where the social contract breaks down, the impact of natural disasters - or of pre-existing natural hazards which under normal circumstances may not trigger a disaster - is amplified and society’s vulnerabilities are exposed.

The importance of climate change and climate justice will be central to the next period of the fight against hunger. While the scale of what is necessary in terms of policy change is enormous, we are now very clear on the scale and urgency of what needs to be done and of how this will affect the issue of food security.

Amartya Sen famously wrote that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”' (''Democracy as Freedom'', 1999). And indeed experience to date, ranging from Ireland’s own experience in the 1840s to Ethiopia in the 1980s and more recently in Somalia, has tended to support this claim, even though the acute malnutrition rates in parts of India and some countries in West Africa show that the link between governance and severe malnutrition is far from linear.

In today’s world, however, the vast majority of deaths from hunger do not occur in times of famine and conflict or exceptional climatic conditions. In fact, most victims of hunger suffer in silence, away from the headlines from long term, chronic lack of access to adequate food. This silent suffering represents, I repeat, the great ethical failure of the current global system and perhaps the most challenging to address.

The source of this hunger is not a lack of food in the world, but the moral affront of poverty, created and sustained by gross inequalities across the world – inequalities of power, economics and technology. While the world has made significant progress in reducing hunger, the vagaries of global commodity markets have meant that the poorest people and communities have had to face higher food and energy prices in many countries.

When many of us are listening to the need to respond to humanitarian crises very often others are having their investments moved around the speculative system seeking a yield from the commodities market. Thus famine and speculation and the commodities market have become more bound together in recent times than ever before. Very often, too high or rising unemployment levels, particularly among young people, have exposed large numbers of people to poverty and malnutrition. This arises in both developed, developing and undeveloped settings.

My belief is that the challenge for the early part of the 21st century is to re-establish a balance of power in a world where the power of the market has exceeded the power of our political institutions. What is needed is the establishment of a new, global, social contract. A new definition of what the purpose and responsibilities of legitimate power are, and which freedoms we as individuals and as institutions are willing to cede to collective decision making, and within what process of deliberative democracy, what accountability we will insist upon and what participation as concerned citizens we must offer.

In many ways, the power inequalities that we are experiencing mirror those of the late 19th century, before the labour movement, government regulation, consumer protection laws and antitrust legislation put limits on the unbridled power of the market. Surely it is time as well to put an end to the myth that the market is the sole source of efficiency and that the State is incapable of efficiency. Indeed the Weberian nightmare of irrational rationality can be instanced in so many places in the corporate world and to suggest that it is immune from such tendencies and inherently superior is simply an ideological assertion.

The present levels of inequality in society are not inevitable. In fact, while the roots of inequality are complex, they are also the result of choices we have made. And it is not beyond us to reverse those choices. With Professor Anthony Atkinson I say that we must not accept the defeatist mantra that there is nothing we can do to change the world.

It is encouraging that more and more world leaders agree and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals mark a new realisation that we can shape our shared future. They are an attempt to achieve the re-establishment the primacy of society over the market; of accountable politics over unaccountable economic policies. This new agenda places the onus for the achievement of this plan of action for people, planet and prosperity squarely on the shoulders of the States that make up the international community. The new global goals constitute an invitation to interrogate the values, the assumptions of the model of a global society that failed so many on our planet.

In advance of the Sustainable Development Summit in New York in September, in July the Third International Conference on Financing for Development was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This Conference was separate from the New York process but it was hoped that it would agree a durable and sustainable financial framework to support the SDGs which were then being finalised.

Some important commitments were made at Addis, and it did facilitate the final Summit and Agenda 2030 agreement being completed. However, there was a strong emphasis from many of the participating states in the potential for private finance to play a greater role in financing the development agenda in the future. Also notable from Addis was the failure of the international community to reach any substantive agreements on the issues of taxation or debt relief – both of which will be essential to allow poorer nations to reach a position of financial independence and competitiveness in a globalised world.

That is why I have stressed the issue of a clear accountability being put in place and of the distance that may arise between the Sustainable Development Goals as discussed and the insatiable appetites of those who may not only not be committed to the values of the Sustainable Development Goals but may be prosecuting a philosophy that contradicts them.

There is a particular problem with the accountability of Multi National Corporations. The current Head of the World Bank Dr. Jim Yong Kim was one of the co-editors with others of a work of a few years ago ‘Dying for Growth’ which included an article by Joyce V. Millen, Evan Lyon and Alec Irwin entitled ‘The Political Influence of National and Trans-national Corporations’ which reviewed a number of Multi National Corporations including those with an issue in relation to child labour. The authors concluded

“As the Saipan case will likely demonstrate, workers can, and more and more often do, win small victories against enormous TNCs. However, the three monitoring structures we have just surveyed – TNC self-regulation, local and national governments, and NGOs – have not as yet succeeded in effectively checking the growing power of transnational corporations, nor in compelling companies to alter their fundamental goals and policies.”

This surely should serve as a health warning for those interested in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

When we look back on the history of what has been achieved in development – not only in the developing world but also in the North – we must question the track record and indeed the capacity of the private sector to be the driver of the scale of change that is needed to meet our ambitious goals. If we can agree that the basic necessities of life – food, water, shelter, education, healthcare – are public goods, that should be provided by the state as part of a basic threshold of decent human existence; then it is the State which we should entrust to provide those goods in the developing world. All our experience and evidence shows that it has been through support and assistance to state authorities in developing countries that the greatest advance have been made in this regard.

Finally, a further cause for optimism is the new theoretical work and empirical work in universities in recent years that has added greatly to our understanding of what is possible in the fight against poverty and hunger. This work will be crucial and I have described elsewhere how, in confronting the ethic of individualism and insatiable consumption which is the foundation of inequality and environmental destruction in our world, we will require new intellectual tools, the provision of which, can be the most exciting intellectual opportunity of our time.

The challenges contained in Agenda 2030 are primarily ones for this generation of leaders and thinkers. You will each have the opportunity to play a part in addressing the great issues of this century and I urge you to do so in a spirit of pluralism, openness, passion and ambition. In a world of unequal opportunities, where the influence of power of the wealthy is increasing, those of us who have the benefit of the very best education must accept that we bear a great moral duty to use the power that grants us for the good of our fellow man.

A framework, imperfect as it may be, has been provided in which political action, social mobilisation and academic genius can make contributions, the contributions from which great human achievements can flow. In the spirit of radical UC Berkeley, let us commit together to make with a conserted effort over this generation, that by the year 2030 we will have overcome global hunger, and will have taken some steps on our journey towards getting past, healing, and addressing the enormous contradiction of our common humanity.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

- 1 At the Rome Declaration on World Food Security in 1996 Ireland joined other nations in reaffirming its commitment to ensure the Right to Food is realised at the global level. Subsequently, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights produced General Comment 12 on the Right to Adequate Food in 1999 which sets out the necessary steps to be taken by States and civil society to respect, protect, facilitate and fulfil the right to food. In 2004, the Food and Agriculture Organisation issued voluntary Right to Food Guidelines calling on States to take preventative and pro-active steps to ensure that adequate food is available and accessible to all those in their jurisdictions.