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The democratisation of aid

What is the best way to ensure disaster relief programmes achieve their stated goals instead of simply funding aid-agency bureaucracy, neo-liberal 'restructuring programmes' or even religious extremists? By giving to organisations rooted in the communities affected. The global alliance Via Campesina follows exactly that approach. Here, Peter Rosset and María Elena Martínez explain how Via Campesina works

February 1, 2005
7 min read

When governments and mainstream aid organisations roll into action in the wake of events like the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, it’s hard not to have mixed feelings. While recognising the obvious need for a massive relief operation, you can’t but feel anxious about the Pentagon sending troops to, and building new bases in, the disaster areas, all in the name of ‘humanitarian aid’. You also wonder about the ‘overhead’ expenses of the aid industry, already criticised for dumping GM food in Indonesia, and about aid shipments being received at military airports and used as the ‘carrot’ in counter-insurgency campaigns that carry very big sticks.

Perhaps a more positive approach to helping the fisher-folk and peasants who make up the vast majority of the tsunami victims is being pursued by the Via Campesina Tsunami Relief and Reconstruction Fund. This global campaign is unusual because it is being carried out by grass-roots community groups based in the regions affected by the disaster.

Via Campesina is a unique global alliance of peasant, family-farmer and farm-worker, rural women and youth, indigenous and landless peoples’ organisations, which represent as many as 150 million people worldwide. In the tsunami-affected areas, key Via Campesina members include the Indonesian Federation of Peasant Unions (FSPI), which has a large presence in Aceh and North Sumatra provinces, the areas closest to the earthquake epicentre, the Assembly of the Poor in Thailand, which includes the Federation of Southern Fisherfolk, and the Sri Lankan peasant federation the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform. In this campaign Via Campesina is also working closely with,and sending support to, the member organisations of its sister alliance: the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, which has a strong presence in the affected regions of India and Sri Lanka.

The alliance has been at the forefront of political mobilisation against corporate-led globalisation, untrammelled free-trade agreements, and pernicious World Bank rural development policies since it was founded in 1993. In the political space that Via Campesina has created, family farmers in the US , Europe and Canada have discovered that they have more in common with peasants and indigenous people in India , Mozambique and Mexico than they do with the corporations that drive industrial agriculture in the North. On this common ground family farmers from the North and peasants from the South have stood together at anti-WTO protests ranging from Seattle in 1999 to Cancún in 2003. Now they have turned their collective sights to rebuilding the communities devastated by the tsunami.

Via Campesina’s global fundraising campaign is channelling assistance directly to affected communities of fisher-folk and peasants, for their own relief and reconstruction efforts, through their grass-roots member organisations. The basic principle is that peasants and fisher-folk should be the key actors in relief and reconstruction of their own communities and livelihoods. Thus, in Indonesia members of local peasant groups affiliated to the FSPI are donating fresh, locally produced food to affected communities; and in Sri Lanka the Via Campesina affiliate the National Federation of Fishworkers (Nafso) is organising unaffected people to assist the affected, and is helping local boat builders repair or replace the fishing boats damaged or lost in the tsunami, so people can get back on their feet as quickly as possible.

Local Via Campesina organisations have several concerns about mainstream aid. They fear, for example, that the Bush administration will use the need for humanitarian relief as a pretext for establishing military posts all over the region. They are worried that instead of buying food aid locally, which would strengthen local production and distribution networks, international donors and charities will dump excess GM grain from the US on local markets, thus undercutting the local peasant economy. They are concerned that charities will use the tsunami donations to cover the cost of their international payrolls, and that they will cooperate in using the reconstruction effort to implement World Bank-led ‘structural reforms’ that intensify poverty. They also fear that aid shipments fall into the hands of local militaries.

In contrast to the practice of the mainstream, international aid sector, Via Campesina’s approach follows a tradition of self-help, grass-roots, civil society relief and reconstruction responses to natural disasters around the world. After Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998, for example, peasant organisations and local NGOs were far more effective than government agencies weakened by structural adjustment policies, and helped reign in the worst excesses of government corruption; they also strengthened and empowered grass-roots movements. Much the same was true in the Philippines following the earthquake on the island of Luzon in 1990 and the eruption of the island’s Mount Pinatubo volcano in 1991; and of Mexico City, where a number of radical barrio organisations emerged after the earthquake of 1985, forcing the government to seize 7,000 properties from private landlords, forming citizen watchdog groups to monitor government abuses, and organising their own social services. Local community organisations also tend to have lower costs, as they typically mobilise local volunteers instead of highly paid international staff or costly military institutions.

The lessons of all this are clear. If we want the relatively small financial contributions we as activists can make for disaster relief and reconstruction to be effective, we should channel them to local grass-roots organisations. And if we want these efforts to contribute to the grass-roots mobilisation and political empowerment that is needed to effect structural changes for greater social justice, then we should do so in ways that strengthen people’s organisations at the local and national levels.

Because Via Campesina is a worldwide alliance, contributions and local solidarity campaigns promoted by its member and friend organisations have already come from an impressive list of countries, including the US, France, Norway, Thailand, Belgium, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, the UK, Spain, El Salvador, Italy, South Korea, Denmark and Ecuador. The National Farmers Union of Canada, the Family Farm Alliance in the US , and the European Farmers Coordination have all launched fundraising drives among their members

In everything it does, from demanding that the WTO stops meddling with food and agricultural systems to rebuilding communities and local economies after disasters, Via Campesina member organisations are guided by the alliance’s ideal of ‘people’s food sovereignty’. To guarantee the local food security and political independence of all the world’s peoples, Via Campesina believes that food must be produced through local, diversified, community-based production systems. One of the most basic corollaries of this is that when food aid is needed for crisis situations, it should be procured as locally as possible, thus strengthening local food production and distribution systems. The only lasting way to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty is through supporting local economic development.

As communities devastated by the tsunami disaster rebuild, and as the experience of collective local mobilising for self-help empowers them, the food sovereignty principle should guide them towards local economic development. That means favouring the recovery of fish and farm production for local and national markets by the affected communities themselves. This stands in stark crisis to the situation just reported by Nafso in Sri Lanka , which is warning of a ‘second tsunami of corporate globalisation and militarisation’. Nafso accuses the Sri Lankan government, international agencies, US troops sent for ‘humanitarian’ purposes and the tourism industry of trying to deprive displaced fishing communities of their right to rebuild. The federation says there is a plan to build tourist hotels on the coastline formerly occupied by the fishing communities, and to give the commercial rights to exploit the former fishing grounds to Canada ‘s industrial trawling fleet.Peter Rosset is a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Change in the Mexican Countryside, and María Elena Martínez is coordinator of the International Network of Women’s Funds; they are both also affiliated to the Center for the Study of the Americas, and are frequent collaborators with Via Campesina. For details of how to donate to Via Campesina, and of how your money would be distributed, visit

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