Week 554 – 2008-04-06: National Confrontations for Global Problems

Posted on 6 April 2008. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 554 |

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 554

This is written on the day for which the Sam Rainsy Party had predicted that 5,000 people would follow their call for a demonstration. The demonstration is not only to highlight the plight of the people faced with increasing prices for fuel and food, and to demand “that the government decrease the price of goods or increase the salary for government officials and workers, commensurate with the inflation of the price of goods,” but also to denounce that “corruption and incompetence are the reason behind the problem.” On the other hand, government authorities have criticized the planned demonstration as leading to social instability without offering a solution, as the increase in the price of goods is a global phenomenon. The Prime Minister gave detailed arguments and “rejected criticism concerning the request that the government should fix the price of goods.”

Looking beyond the borders of Cambodia, into the region and into the whole world, is necessary. Doing so makes us painfully aware that the problems faced are much more serious than they appear when looking only at the local situation.

Already on 16 October 2007 – World Food Day – the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Director General Jacques Diouf had asked: “If our planet produces enough food to feed its entire population, why do 854 million people still go to sleep on an empty stomach?” He added that “a right is not a right if it cannot be claimed.”

Since then, more and more elements show that the world is facing a crisis:

  • The world’s wheat stocks are lower than they have ever been during the last 30 years.
  • The price of grain has been rising for the last 5 years.
  • Global food prices rose 35% from January 2007 to January 2008.
  • Australia, one of the main grain exporting countries, has suffered drought for two years, reducing grain production.
  • Concern about climate change, and about the limited nature of oil resources and the resulting price increase, has led to an expansion of the bio-fuel industry. In many countries, more and more agricultural products are being turned into bio-fuel. It is estimated that a quarter of the corn production in the USA is turned into fuel for cars. Many other countries are moving in similar directions – for example, Indonesia and Malaysia turn palm oil, part of the daily food supply, into bio-fuel. The only country which has strongly denounced turning food into fuel is Cuba.
  • Countries which have achieved an enormous economic growth – like China – experience major changes in the quantities and types of food their increasingly wealthy citizens eat. More staple foods like rice, soybeans, and other grains are purchased, and also much more meat and milk than before. In 1985, the average meat consumption per year per person in China was 20 kg, it is now about 50 kg. And to produce 1 kg of meat commercially requires about 7 kg of grain as animal food; the same amount of grain can feed many fewer people if they eat it as meat instead of as grain.

It is no surprise that, during the last weeks and months, the international media have reported about serious tensions and sometimes riots related to the shortage of food:

During the past year, there were disturbances in several states in India because production of onions had decreased and the prices doubled.

  • In December 2007, there were huge demonstrations in Mexico, when the price of corn was raised.
  • There have been clashes over food prices in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Morocco, and Senegal.
  • In March of this year, the president of Egypt called on the army to increase the production of bread, after the market price of bread had risen 26% since the beginning of the year and some people were killed in the resulting social unrest.
  • During the past week, three people were killed and 25 injured during a riot over food prices in Haiti.
  • In Yemen, also during the past week, the government brought tanks to the streets against demonstrators protesting that the price of wheat had doubled since February.

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has noted that this growing crisis may lead to widespread problems – especially for the most vulnerable, the poorer sections of society.

But there are no easy solutions, and probably none can be found in isolation from regional and world wide cooperation. The increasing populations in many countries, and the increasing prices for oil, have cummulative effects: the production of food and its transportation and processing get more expensive. The stronger economies can afford to pay more for oil and food, and the spiral of prices continues.

So the challenge in Cambodia is to find ways to meet these increasing international prolems. First of all, it is surely not adequate to simply dismiss allegations of government corruption and incompetence – it is unacceptable that anti-curruption legislation, which has been in various drafts for many years, and its final presenting to the National Assembly for discussion and adoption had been promised repeatedly, may again not be sent to the National Assembly before it recesses in view of the July national elections. It is also not encouraging that, although detailed allegations of large scale corruption in the telecommunications and electricity industries have been in the press often, it is not transparent to the public what the law enforcement agencies are doing – either transparently investigating and dismissing the allegations, or informing the citizens about how illegal personal enrichment is being brought to justice. Similarly, only open access to information for the media and the public, and decisive action by the government when needed, can adequately answer specific allegations of incompetence.

But attention to alleged problems of corruption and incompetence alone cannot solve the problem of rising food and fuel prices. That requires addressing fundamental question: what kind of consumer and producer society is the goal for Cambodia: What is the vision? What is the framework for a just distribution of the wealth that Cambodia produces? What are Cambodia’s policies and procedures in relation to its own resources, in relation to its neighbors, and in relation to the rest of the world?

The president of Germany said, at the occasion of the World Food Day 2007:

“Hunger is not an inescapable destiny, but it can be eliminated by wise policies.” This requires that governments of developing countries make food security a priority. He said “all people have a right to healthy food, produced in a sustainable manner appropriate to their culture. Democratic participation by the people is the best guarantee that governments will genuinely understand people’s basic needs and will take these into account.” He noted that people should have an adequate supply of food from their own fields and the surrounding region, which requires a type of agriculture based on “ownership” in developing countries and on functioning local structures and know-how.

Maybe such an aim, for as much self-sufficiency as possible, within a realistic understanding of the global context, can be one of the guideposts for the difficult discussions and decisions Cambodia has to make.

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