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Our friends in the South

As we face increasingly international and interconnected crises around food, finance and climate, we need to know more about our global allies in the South. James O'Nions looks beyond the familiar but limited NGOs that stand for North-South relations in the mainstream media

February 7, 2009
11 min read

James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.

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‘Sustainable peasants’ agriculture cools down the earth’ reads the banner outside the conference centre at the UN climate talks in Poznan. It’s an unusual slogan to a British activist. But then La Vía Campesina, an international organisation of peasants and landless movements, despite having member organisations in 69 countries, is not an organisation we hear much about in the UK, including on the left. And while there are development NGOs that work with social movements, few such organisations give us the kind of critical analysis of the world system advocated by Southern-based movements such as La Vía Campesina.

This analysis coming from the South is shaped by directly organising some of the world’s poorest people against the most extreme consequences of 30 years of neoliberalism. It’s also an analysis that is becoming more relevant now that the North is starting to suffer the consequences of trying to turn the world into a corporate paradise. A major financial crisis is overlaid by the worsening of global warming. The North has even begun to feel the effects of the food crisis despite the insulation of relative wealth.

Seen from the South, these overlapping crises appear even more serious. Last year saw food riots in many countries, and while food subsidies produced some temporary improvements, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that 40 million extra people have been pushed into hunger and predicts the food crisis will get worse in 2009.

The effects of climate change on the South are less immediate. Yet increases in extreme weather events and flooding, and the melting of mountain glaciers on which a fifth of the world’s population depends for drinking water are already evident. The World Development Movement estimates that by 2050, ten million people in the South will be forced to permanently abandon their homes, with disastrous effects on their livelihoods.

The financial crisis may appear to be more of a Northern phenomenon, but globalisation means it will not stay that way for long. Economies that were encouraged towards dependency on export earnings will see Northern demand dry up; remittances from migrant workers that sustain countries such as Haiti will certainly be affected; and capital investment is likely to drop off as banks pull out of the periphery to shore up the centre.

Social movements and globalisation

A huge range of social movements and grass-roots organisations has emerged in the South in the past two decades to deal with the problems caused by the free market dogma at the root of the current crises. These movements tend to have a much stronger critical analysis of the system and what changes are needed than the big Northern-based development agencies like Oxfam, Cafod and Save the Children.

For instance, while aid agencies have worried that overseas development aid will drop off as Northern governments deal with recession at home, Jubilee South, based in South Africa but organised across the South, is among the networks seeing this moment as an opportunity for the more fundamental changes to the financial system it has been advocating for years. Jubilee South is a coalition that was set up as a counterpart to the Jubilee movement in rich countries, who were calling for debt cancellation at the millennium. Yet it calls not for debt ‘forgiveness’, but for Southern governments to repudiate their debts to the North.

Through processes such as debt audits, Jubilee South members put pressure on indebted governments to act, a tactic that has recently borne fruit in Ecuador when President Correa stopped payment of some the country’s ‘illegitimate’ debt. With climate change becoming increasingly important, Jubilee South is also trying to stop the World Bank getting its hands on financing for adaptation, and proposing that an ecological debt is owed from North to South for the destruction wreaked by global warming.

Peasants and the food crisis

For La Vía Campesina, the food crisis vindicates their belief that food for export is a problem rather than a solution to global poverty. La Vía Campesina is a global federation of small farmers’, agricultural workers’ and fisherfolk organisations. Mainly, though, they identify as peasants, a term with negative connotations in English, behind which, as the campesinos are all too aware, lies a modern contempt for small producers.

No one, neither Marxists nor neoliberals, anticipated the re-emergence of the peasantry as a social force in the world, let alone as a progressive rather than conservative force. Yet this is the flip-side of agricultural globalisation, which compounded centuries-old inequalities in land distribution with the dominance of agribusiness and open markets. It’s by no means a homogenous organisation, bringing together the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST, see right) with the small farmers of the French Confédération Paysanne, but the vast majority of its 148 member organisations are from the South.

The struggle of small producers for dignity and livelihood means taking on monoculture agrofuel plantations, biotech seed companies and the World Trade Organisation. For La Vía Campesina it also means tackling the under-representation of women both in its own political structures and the world at large. But La Vía Campesina is perhaps strongest not in what it opposes, but in what it proposes: agroecology, a basically organic agriculture, and ‘food sovereignty’.

The idea of food sovereignty came from discussions in La Vía Campesina itself, and in that sense is very grass-roots. The basic tenets involve seeing food as a basic human right rather than a commodity, and prioritising local and national consumption over global markets. It also weaves in democratic control of the food system, protection of natural resources, agrarian reform and social peace. As a result of this work, when the food crisis hit, La Vía Campesina had a worked out, human-centred alternative to agricultural commodities speculation. For Mohammed Ikhwan of La Vía Campesina member the Indonesian Peasants’ Union, food sovereignty is important because ‘it’s not just a “no”. It is a real alternative from the people against the destructive neoliberal food and agriculture model.’

Climate justice

Not only will the South be worst hit by climate change, but the agenda for dealing with it is dominated by Northern and corporate concerns. This has led to the foundation of Climate Justice Now (CJN), a coalition of social movements and NGOs working to ensure that justice is at the heart of the world’s response to global warming.

Those taking part in CJN are not solely motivated by concern over the impact of climate change. They see an injustice in the refusal of the rich world to deal with a problem it created. This is true not just in UN negotiations, but in the host of false solutions such as carbon trading, agrofuels and the ‘clean development mechanism’, which usually result in more social and environmental costs for marginalised communities while letting Northern corporations carry on polluting.

Focus on the Global South, an NGO based in Thailand, India and the Philippines, has been a key facilitator of CJN, just as it has been at the heart of international networks on trade and resisting foreign military bases. While Focus’s central concept of ‘deglobalisation’ points to the need for Southern states to reclaim their sovereignty, it also puts considerable emphasis on grass-roots and non-state groups as agents of social change; hence its role in these networks and in the World Social Forum.

For Herbert Docena of Focus on the Philippines, this is part of the organisation’s rationale: ‘Our aim is to strengthen the global justice movements by helping us make the connections across complex issues and across our fragmented movements.’ This is in marked contrast to many Northern NGOs, which tend to ‘dumb down’ issues to their audiences while simultaneously ‘professionalising’ the response to them.

The view from the North

Despite their significance for activists, social movements in the majority world are relatively unknown in the UK. Knowledge about actual organisations, what they do, and how we might act in solidarity with them is often limited to the staff of those development organisations who work with them on particular projects.

Since the development sector in the UK is dominated by the inheritors of the tradition of Victorian philanthropy, social movements do not figure heavily in their marketing materials. When they do, it’s often in copy about what a difference your money is making, not about how their partners view neoliberal capitalism.

Organisations on the Marxist left, meanwhile, often talk generally about the ‘anti-capitalist movement’ while ignoring many of its most significant components in the South. Even the World Social Forum, a global gathering of social movements and other organisations, attracts mainly NGO professionals and progressive academics rather than grass-roots activists from the UK.

Some Northern NGOs, of course, have a social movement orientation to their work and a conception of solidarity at the centre of it. The Transnational Institute, based in Amsterdam but international in operation, is one such body. Though it was conceived as a progressive international think-tank of critical ‘scholars’, its campaign work has seen it support global demands for water to be a human right rather than a commodity and develop a thorough-going critique of carbon trading as well as being an important intellectual resource in the critique of the WTO and the inequalities of the neoliberal relations of ‘free’ trade.

Attac was originally founded in France as a campaign for a tax on financial speculation, and quickly spread across Europe. It now has a broader remit, working on most aspects of corporate globalisation and with some national sections in the South too. It was one of the first networks to respond to the financial crisis with radical alternatives. There are many reasons why the UK is the only major European country without an Attac group, but the dominance of the ‘charitable’ response to injustice is surely one.

Friends of the Earth International, a mixed North-South NGO federation whose 77 national affiliates differ greatly in the extent to which they critique the current economic system, have nevertheless entered into an interesting partnership recently with La Vía Campesina, especially over the food sovereignty agenda. Whether this will filter through to local Friends of the Earth groups in the North remains to be seen. Yet it illustrates that a real solidarity relationship must go both ways: the ‘Southern’ concept of food sovereignty has important implications for our ideas about sustainability in the North.

A new approach

Many of the fundamental issues activists face in the North are the same as those in the South – corporate takeover, rising inequality, privatisation, casualisation and the erosion of the ‘commons’. Often the same companies operate in the North and the South. The fight against Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta and on Ireland’s west coast is just one example. It is important not to over-simplify these parallels – while water privatisation is the theft of a common good in both Northern and Southern contexts, it is only in the South that it has resulted in the poor losing access to clean water. But if we recognise the differences in context – and in power – links with Southern social movements can only strengthen our organised responses to the financial crisis in the UK.

As activists in the UK, we often seem to face a choice between being active on domestic or international issues. Our relative wealth can understandably make campaigning on Southern issues seem like the more ethical choice. Yet in doing so we are in danger of pursuing what we might call ‘charitable campaigning’. British NGOs can sometimes sound quite radical on certain issues, but usually refuse to generalise political messages to a UK context, and avoid difficult arguments about the real role of Britain in the world.

But if we know more about Southern movements, we can start to see them as ‘those who fight our fight somewhere else’. They can be the ‘other’ in a real relationship of solidarity that helps us to change our society too. As we respond to the fallout from 30 years of corporate globalisation, it’s time to move our relationship with the ‘developing’ world out of the zone of charity.

Read more articles like this and buy our latest issue our now.Don\’t miss 6 Billion ways: Making another world possible

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6 Billion Ways is a day where the arts meet ideas, discussion and action to explore the causes and find solutions to these interlinked global crises.

Including discussions on: the financial crisis and economic alternatives, conflict and liberation in Palestine and Iraq, climate catastrophe and building a green new deal, the future of feminism, the impact of Obama on race politics, when resistance is successful and how to change consumer culture.

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.

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