Lost in Translation

Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - 10:26

Yesterday, I went with a few other ActionAid staff and some French civil society groups to meet the host of the first gathering of G20 Agriculture Ministers later this week in Paris, French Minister of Agriculture, Bruno Le Maire. It was a cultural experience through and through – it turns out that French government and civil society routinely wear jeans instead of suits to meetings like this – but there was one mystery I couldn’t figure out.

Mr. Le Maire started with a hearty introduction about the challenge of food price volatility and the threat to food security that it poses… and even a bit about the importance of strong leadership by the G20 on this issue. I understood all of that. I have been thinking a lot about the food price volatility issue lately – and the 44 million people in the second half of last year that dipped into extreme poverty because of high food prices are living the impact at a much deeper level. 

But then the Minister insisted several times that the Action Plan coming out of the meeting on Thursday would be “ambitious” and that if it got watered down any more he would opt not to pass an agreement.

He would allow it to fail rather than put forward a “meaningless” statement. 

Here is where I got stuck. You see, the draft Action Plan has been leaked. One can find it on Google groups. And it is swimming with rhetoric and practically devoid of substantive action. My understanding of “meaningful” and “ambitious” would be to take seriously the fact that we are in a food emergency and propose real action to resolve the drivers of skyrocketing food prices. Act now – not later.

My hope would be that the Ministers would commit not only to talk about women smallholder farmers but also to commit to release the resources pledged a year ago to fund food security programs around the world. 

I would hope that the Ministers would go beyond a “hint” (as Le Maire described it) at biofuels. At the last G20, 10 organizations were tasked with identifying the problems leading to food price hikes and biofuels featured prominently. The organizations recommended that the G20 commit to dropping subsidies and targets for biofuels – so it would be my hope that the G20 Agricultural Ministers would agree to that recommendation. Unfortunately, it looks like they will settle with a “hint” and perhaps commission another study. 

Likewise, a study seems to be the most likely outcome on food reserves. Despite the evidence that food reserves have worked to mitigate the last food crisis that tossed 100 million people into poverty in 2008, and that we are again in a period of volatile prices and in great need of urgent action to construct regional food reserves.

If all we get is another study, can you really call that “meaningful”? “Ambitious”? At least give us the pilot program that the World Food Programme has recommended.

The real cultural gap was not a matter of language or nationalities, but the standards used for international politics to define “ambitious” compared to the reality of people coping with food price spikes. In the end the ministers will likely adapt the definition of “meaningful” to whatever they put out in the Action Plan because the only thing more unthinkable than putting gout a “business-as-usual plan” in Le Maire’s rarefied political culture would be putting out nothing at all. I guess my learning is that we advocates need to be interpreters as well, and work to integrate the world of international politics and dubious definitions with the reality where the food emergency is already taking a toll.