By Piya Mahtaney
This is the final post in the CSRwire Talkback series on Globalization and Sustainable Economic Development
Over the past few weeks I have discussed the integral elements of sustainable development and the reasons that have obstructed the path that leads to it. Undoubtedly there is much more to be said about a subject as vast as development. However, I have attempted to present insights on the basis of my research and other aspects of the empirical evidence that exists. In this concluding post I write about why food security and democracy are both essential for sustainable development.
Freedom, Hunger & Democracy
Ask yourself a simple question: can those who remain hungry and undernourished be described as free? For the millions who continue to work in hazardous conditions at low wages, and for those who are brutally exploited, it is hunger that compels them to take on a subhuman existence.
What can be afforded by whom is a crucial question; those who can barely afford to consume are bereft of the basic outcomes of democracy. Sustaining democracy is not possible without food security.
Food Prices Put Food Out of Reach
A billion people in this world are so poor they cannot afford a meal. The smallholder farmer families who produce food are themselves bereft of their basic requirements. Food security is thus an integral element of having a world that is truly more democratic, civilized and humane.
Over the previous three years, the sharp rise in the prices of food have driven the increasing costs of food imports and pushed about 126 million people below the poverty line. Furthermore, the least developed countries (LDCs) became net importers of agricultural products as early as the mid-1980s. Their agricultural trade deficit has been widening rapidly and could quadruple by 2030 (according to FAO estimates).
Low-income food deficit countries were among those that bore the worst of this inflation because they saw their food import bill doubling from 2005 to 2008. The subsequent reduction in food prices did enable a reduction in the import bill. However, it continued to be much higher than those that prevailed prior to 2008.
Furthermore when food prices declined during the second half of 2008, the prices did not correlate to a commensurate reduction in prices for the consumer in underdeveloped and developing nations. Such is the asymmetry in food prices that, despite having borne the brunt of rising food prices, the consumer did not benefit from the decline in prices.
A Different Approach to Agriculture
The burden of high food prices is pronounced for net food importing nations because of the strain it places on their public finances. It constricts investment for social protection, job creation and the expansion of the rural economy.
Thus, the transition to more sustainable patterns of production, consumption and investment, particularly in labor abundant and agriculture dependent nations, requires an entirely different approach toward the agriculture sector.
In India the rural economy continues to have an important role in determining the pace of development. Similarly, in China, the expansion of the agrarian economy has a significant part to play in continuing poverty reduction. Be it the poorest nations in Sub Saharan Africa or the developing nations of Asia and Latin America, agriculture is much more than a business. Its objective goes beyond the fulfillment of conventional commercial objectives because it is the main source of livelihood for a sizable proportion of humanity.
The assumption that democracy, once created, would sustain itself is wrong.
An electoral process is only the beginning toward having a democratic society. However, realizing the gains of democracy at the economic, social and institutional levels – be it in the national context or the global economy – needs to be an ongoing process.
But events of the recent past reveal discontinuities in this process that is so critical to preserving and strengthening democracy.
Economic polarization and democracy can coexist. But extreme socio-economic inequality paves the way for a corrosion of democracy. One message rings loud and clear: Sustained polarization is inimical to sustaining democratic governance.
Inequality Creates Structural Distortions
When inequality takes the form of weakening institutional arrangements and governance, it perpetuates the structural distortions that exist. In such a scenario, even if there are sporadic episodes of increasing economic growth over the short term, the benefits are unevenly distributed. If they are not accompanied by a significant expansion in the levels of productive investment, inequities worsen.
Evidently, any ideology can foster disproportionate disparities, because one of the most corrosive features of preceding decades has been the objectification of power. Not very unlike any expensive commodity, power can be acquired by amassing vast amounts of wealth and the insatiable appetite for this power by a few individuals and groups has wielded an overarching influence on government, governance and growth.
The Democracy Deficit
The nature of economic growth, the progress that it results in, the beneficiaries of the process and the direction that it moves toward are largely determined by policies and politics that are steered by the power oligarchs. If democracy is about representing society in its entirety, then there is a blatant inadequacy of democratic processes in every tier of the global economy.
We can call this a “democracy deficit.”
Reforming Development to Promote Democracy
Sustaining the transition to democracy for those countries that have initiated the change in political process requires a continuous process of reform. The nature of the reform process depends on the prevalent situation in a particular nation. However, the commonality between all nations that can be described as newly emerging democracies is the need for expanding civil liberties and political freedom.
Empirical evidence indicates that increasing levels of education and access to information are important factors in enabling democratization to continue. Notably, even in mature democracies the scorecard on accountability and transparency so integral to retaining the resilience and strength of democracy needs to be improved in practically every nation.
It requires upholding human rights and greater participation of women and girls and marginalized groups in society as stakeholders and beneficiaries in the economic, social and political realms.
Finally, if it is to function effectively, democracy requires the primacy of the law, independent judicial institutions and impartial, effective oversight mechanisms.