Introduction: Trade, Aid and Development

Peter Mann introduces us to some of the systemic issues compromising sustainable development today as well as offering some sound solutions.

Trade, Aid and Development: Introduction

An alternative sustainable model of development is emerging which is based not only on a productive economy — although that is essential – but also on social justice and fairness (equity), and on a healthy environment. Economy, equity, ecology – these are the interlocking dimensions of truly sustainable development.

The Dominant Development Framework

Our dominant model of “development” is deeply flawed.  For several decades a particular kind of top-down development model has been imposed from outside on “developing” countries in the Global South and increasingly also in the “developed” North. It has led to massive impoverishment for vulnerable populations and is threatening the ecological base on which their food and livelihoods depend.  This kind of development has enriched elites in the North and South, while poor people have fallen into debt, lost wages, and experienced increased hunger, infant mortality, and poverty.  The economic recession since 2008 in the United States and Europe shows that massive inequality, growing unemployment, and increased poverty – “the 99 percent” – is shaping development policy in the rich countries also.

This dominant development framework, sometimes called “The Washington Consensus” or more recently “Globalization,” comprised various key policies. International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) encouraged governments in the South to deregulate policies which supported local food security, while cutting the safety nets which kept poor people from falling deeper into hunger and poverty. Free trade policy was promoted by corporations and governments in the North to compel developing countries to focus on cash crops for export, even if this meant neglecting basic food security for their own people.  Faced with humanitarian emergencies, food aid has been essential to relieving hunger and suffering, but within the dominant development framework it has also been used to undermine local food sovereignty and self-reliance.

An Alternative: Sustainable Development

There is another approach to development which builds on the knowledge, skills, and innovation of people themselves, on social justice, and on a healthy environment. A remarkable example of this is a new vision of small-scale family farmers, what has been called “the rise of the peasantry.” Peasants – family farmers – are not backward, they bring tremendous agricultural skills in difficult situations to growing food in the third millennium. Peasants are not disappearing, they are increasing in most places in Asia and Africa, and a peasant way of farming is predominant in Europe. They have a deep environmental  awareness, a traditional knowledge of shaping landscapes, and are pioneers in agroecology – farming with nature not against it – and agri-culture, which reconnects people to the land and nature. They are increasingly organizing in various social movements to gain increased power from the local to the international level. They are not small in numbers.  Angela Hilmi writes:

“According to different authors (ETC Groups, 2009; Pimbert, 2008) there are 1.5 billion peasants on 380 million farms: 800 million more growing urban gardens; 410 million gathering the hidden harvest of our forests and savannas: 190 million pastoralists and well over 100 million peasant fishers. At least 370 million of these are also indigenous peoples. Together these peasants make up forty percent of the world’s peoples and they grow at least 70 percent of the world’s food (see reference list in (see Angela Hilmi, Agricultural Transition, The More and Better Network, 2012, p.24, see also

Indicators of Development

In the dominant financial and economic system, the indicators of development focus on economic growth, typically expressed in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while often ignoring social, economic and ecological factors which are central to human well-being such as literacy, gender equality and the recognition of human rights. More holistic indicators include the Human Development Index of the UNDP (U.N.Development Program), the GPI (Genuine Progress Indicators), and the HPI (Happy Planet Index) – (see the articles below under Trade and Development.)

In terms of agriculture and the food system, an industrial farm and food system has emerged which produces enormous quantities of food, yet concentrates power in the hands of a few corporations, creates health problems for eaters such as obesity and diabetes, treats farmworkers unjustly, pollutes the environment, and creates horrible conditions for animals in its huge factory farms. An alternative development model empowers the many food movements around the world. Within the “rise of the peasantry” we are learning again the values not only of growing food but also of being resource managers of water and vegetation, and guardians of spiritual and cultural values.

Sustainable Development and Global Trade

Trade between rural-urban areas, cities, regions and nations, is essential but global free trade raises serious issues in regard to sustainable development and its values of economic fairness, social justice, and ecological balance. Global trade, powered by a dominant corporate system and compliant governments and intergovernmental agencies, concentrates wealth and power while marginalizing the poor and often devastating the environment.  The U.S. food trade with its massive subsidies to corporate farm and food industries undermines food sovereignty in developing nations and increases hunger and displacement.  Importing corn into Mexico and wheat into India destroys the self-reliance of local farmers. 

NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement), building on the earlier Green Revolution, has emptied the Mexican countryside of farmers and farm laborers, forcing them to move to Mexico City, or across the border into the United States, in search of jobs.  Free trade agreements also undermine U.S. farmers by extracting wealth out of America’s rural communities and leaving ghost towns behind.  We need a new focus on trade from the local outwards, with each country deciding its own level of self-sufficiency, and building sustainable local and national food production and consumption.  We need new international trade rules in the WTO (World Trade Organization) and bilateral and regional trade agreements to support local ecologies and economies. Even within the present trading system, much can be done to prevent food crises by building grain reserves and investing in local farmers.

Aid and Social Movements

Given the extremes of inequality between countries and within countries, given the challenges of climate change such as earthquakes, floods and droughts, and given the lack of real and sustainable development in many countries, it is not surprising that the demand for humanitarian aid is increasing. The World Food Program (WFP) has begun an evolution in the way it manages food aid by requesting aid in the form of cash (rather than surplus food) and buying food from local farmers, thereby helping both the hungry and local agriculture. However, much more needs to be done in dealing with the root causes of hunger and poverty in individual countries and in restructuring the world food system. Governments and UN agencies must work not only with business and industry but also with indigenous peoples, trade unions, women, and the many social movements that are fighting for food and energy sovereignty, for water as a common good and not a private commodity, for traditional seeds, and land reform. Only through these kinds of partnerships will we be able to meet future challenges regarding trade, aid and development.