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Hunger Pangs: Cooperating on the Things People Long For, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Nov

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Let him who has not a single speck of migration to blot his family escutcheon cast the first stone. José Saramago

Once you set out from shore on your little boat, once you embark, you’ll never truly be at home again. What you’ve left behind exists only in memory, and your ideal place becomes some strange imaginary concoction of all you’ve left behind at every stop.  Claire Messud

Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice. Jeremy Harding

At times it seems as if the whole world has become a refugee and the few of us, who are privileged enough to wake up to the sound of an alarm clock instead of a siren, those of us who are enveloped by a veil of safety many of us fail to appreciate, have become desensitized to the migrating numbers, to the images of the dead, shrugging them away as a collective misery that this ailing part of the world must endure.  Aysha Taryam

This past Tuesday, the UN convened a special meeting bringing together the President of the General Assembly (PGA), María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, and the heads of various UN agencies tasked with addressing food insecurity and promoting Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals – End all forms of hunger and malnutrition by the year 2030.

On the surface, and given some of the complexities of funding and indicators afflicting other SDGs, this one would appear to be an utterly achievable goal.   Supermarkets in the US and Western Europe are bursting with fresh and prepared foodstuffs, and those foods are trending in the direction of fewer pesticides and greater nutritional value.   Agricultural technology offers the promise of crop yields even on lands that have long since been abandoned. It seems difficult to imagine that there is another side to food access that is actually growing and, in the case of Yemen, becoming more and more grotesque as military assaults and climate-related events gouge any and all prospects for local food security.   While walking the aisles of our superstores, it is more challenging than it should be to think about the often-devastating impact of bombing raids and rainless seasons on small holder farmers, male and female alike, whose labors are essential to the stability of local communities from the Sahel to Syria.

There are times when heartbreak where we have made our homes simply becomes too much to bear.  As we see now in the midst of the California inferno, this can be true even for people in more affluent settings. For those in settings closer to the margins, we find many family members and neighbors doing all they can to ensure stability and nourishment for the children in the places they come from. But for millions, when the sea waters rise and the tsunamis come ashore, when the landmines explode and the rains refuse to fall for yet another year, they simply can do no more to keep those places.

Tuesday’s UN event was based in large measure on a resolution of the General Assembly supplemented by some excellent (if a bit more abstract) analysis on the conflict and climate triggers of our growing hunger challenge offered by senior UN officials from the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development as well as from several member states led by Italy.  The resolution covers these triggers in good detail (as did many event speakers) and lays out a strategy that involves more innovative support for rural areas, including for small holder farmers, such that people can better cope with political and environmental hazards and increase the chances that families can somehow remain in their communities of origin.

What was new about this particular event, and happily so, was the migration-focus of much of this discussion. The aforementioned resolution does not mention migrants at all, but this omission was rectified as speaker after speaker made the migration-hunger connection. As PGA Espinosa Garcés, put it, we are in serious need of a “course correction” when it comes to our global commitment to end hunger, more specifically to eliminate food security among migrant families, with a special concern for forced migrants. This requires adoption of a formula that more than a few who labor within the policy world of the UN would advocate: offering mindful hospitality , ensuring  consistent, comprehensive and rights-based migration governance, and doing more to end violence and mitigate risks that undermine even the most ardent attempts by farmers and families to maintain the homes of their youth.

These are responsibilities, like so many others in the world, that mandate a careful blend of national ownership and implementation together with cross-border and multilateral cooperation.  The “go it alone,” “take care of our own” mentality that seems to be spreading like the plague in these times sounds tough-minded but mostly ensures that families will experience the miseries of migration compounded by malnutrition, and that children will face the option of being rejected at borders or abandoned in detention facilities in societies “that have learned to see generosity as a vice.”

The gist of this insight was reinforced by my colleague at Global Action, Claudia Lamberty, who has given quite a bit of thought recently to the decisions by several states, most notably the US, Austria and Hungary, to reject the upcoming Global Compact on Migration which will be signed by (hopefully) many ministers and heads of state in Morocco in just a few weeks.  In a document which she produced to help us prepare for our own GCM participation, Claudia listed potential economic and political factors that might lead states to make a decision like this about a “compact” which is comprehensive in scope but has no legally binding authority.  Her conclusion is that this decision is as much about multilateralism as about migration itself, in essence a “poke in the eye” to a system that has been long on promises and, at times, short on results, a system which seems to some governments intent on trespassing on the affairs of small and mid-sized states (but mostly not the large states) in matters that are highly sensitive to some national governments.  Inadvertently, the now vast movements of migrants and their many needs – including for food security – have provided some of the fuel for this multilateral backlash, this seemingly appealing choice in some national capitals to promote “protection over principle.”

As we have written previously, the UN is taking pains to counter such threats to its core legitimacy.  This week in fact, the Security Council itself got in the act as China (November president) hosted a debate on effective multilateralism during which state after state took the floor to affirm the importance of the UN to resolving a range of thorny global problems – albeit with occasional interjecting (spoken and implied) of migration-related caveats.

But affirmation itself (with or without caveats) is insufficient to cure the suspicion of some states that the UN’s structure and culture innately privilege powerful governments thus ensuring that many core promises for which the world literally hungers are more likely to go unfulfilled.  Indeed, if the human race is not to dissolve back into some nationalist-stimulated tribalism, we must demonstrate – over and over – the tangible benefits of a system of cooperating states and stakeholders, governments that resist the temporary allures of nationalism and stakeholders who insist that they do just that.  As with migration itself, food security is both a global challenge and a national policy responsibility. As noted in the aforementioned GA resolution, as important as global consensus on such matters is (and it is), plans for addressing these challenges must be “nationally articulated, designed, owned, led and built.”

I am in Germany now about to join a team of experts in reviewing our options and responsibilities in the area of small arms and light weapons.  Increasingly, there is recognition of a symbiotic, if nefarious, relationship between our common insecurity courtesy of a world awash in both weapons and political enmity and the food insecurity courtesy of major external factors that affect harvests — especially for small holder farmers – including climate related events such as drought and flooding that can diminish yields beyond the tipping point; but also armed violence and landmines which can render farmland useless and ratchet up vulnerabilities impacting all community members, especially so for women.

There are many things in the world now for which people legitimately hunger:  for an end to violence, for meaning and purpose, for basic security of food and domicile, for adventure beyond the familiar, for potable water and accessible health care, for justice when abuses occur.  But as the PGA reminded delegates on Tuesday, “eating is a special act,” a fundamental and even primordial right.  As so many in “developed” societies build their fat reserves and clog their arteries through what Italy referred to on Tuesday as “suspect” food choices, we find ourselves in a world of deepening and evermore complex food insecurity that turns the act of eating for millions — including millions of migrants — into an ultimate “hit or miss” proposition.

Fortunately, this complexity is still within our competency to resolve successfully – together as nations and multilateral stakeholders — both for the sake of those who seek to remain at home and those who are driven to follow the promise of more fertile pastures elsewhere.