It’s Politics, Stupid
One of the most interesting blogs I’ve come across recently is written by the disgraced Labour spin-doctor Damian McBride (who was fired for planning to spread scurrilous rumours about the Tories). His blog offers insight not only into Labour’s last years of power, but also into the functioning of everyday business in Downing Street.
His most recent post, though, is about what he’s giving up for Lent. As someone who’s not at all religious, I’m always taken aback by friends’ declarations of what they won’t be doing or, more usually, eating until Easter. Every now and then I play along, more out of curiosity than anything else. It was rather useful a few years ago for nipping in the bud an incipient addiction to fruit pastilles, but this year I doubt I’ll be joining in.
McBride has pledged to give up the ‘staples of [his] diet’: meat, wheat, and potatoes. Other than the obvious health benefits of drinking less beer and eating less red meat, he’s doing this in solidarity with millions of people living in hunger. He’s not eating meat to draw attention to land grabs; wheat to protest the small number of multinationals which control the trade in grains; and potatoes to show the link between famine and food shortages and big food companies’ refusal to pay their taxes in low- and middle-income nations.
His Lenten self-denial is partly in support of the new anti-hunger If Campaign, launched with some fanfare last month:
As well as more money for nutrition programmes and small-scale farming, the coalition, which includes Oxfam, Save the Children, One, Christian Aid and Tearfund, is calling on the UK government to close loopholes that allow companies to dodge paying tax in poor countries; stop international land deals that are detrimental to people and the environment, and lobby the World Bank to review the impact of its funding for such deals; launch a convention on tax transparency at the G8 to ‘reinvigorate the global challenge to tax havens’; and force governments and investors to be more open about their investments in poor countries. It also wants the UK government to bring forward legislation to enshrine the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid.
The Campaign is aiming to take its ambitious programme to this year’s G8 Summit, to be held at the luxury golf resort Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it deliberately compares itself to another campaign taken to a G8 meeting at a golf hotel in the northern British Isles: the celebrity-studded Make Poverty History Campaign, which demanded an increase in aid and the writing off of the debt of some of the world’s poorest countries, at Gleneagles in Scotland in 2005.
I am no fan of Bob Geldof, however well-placed his heart may be. I and many other South Africans were irritated by the Campaign’s simplistic characterisation of Africa – that it is a culturally, socially, and politically homogenous place of suffering and disaster, waiting for the benevolent ministrations of a white-suited Geldof and his similarly saintly fellow celebrities. Why were there no African performers at Live 8? Why did poor dear Peter Gabriel feel the need to organise an alternative event at the Eden Project in Cornwall, featuring only African artists?
That said, MPH did achieve some of its goals:
The G8 summit committed to spending an extra $48bn (£30bn) on aid by 2010, and cancelled the debt to 18 of the most indebted countries. Member states recommitted their pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, although none has yet achieved the magical figure. The UK government has promised to do so this year.
But poverty has not become history. Early analysis of the If Campaign suggests that with its focus on changing policy, rather than on increasing aid, its chances of success are far higher than MPH. Leni Wild and Sarah Mulley note:
The range of issues it covers – from transparency to tax to agriculture – also look and feel different to the more ‘traditional’ development issues which were the focus of Make Poverty History. The UK public wants to hear more about the role of big business and international corporations – including their tax responsibilities. This is a major plank of the new IF campaign which sets out some clear calls for action and does a good job of communicating these in accessible ways.
I also welcome a campaign which tries to eradicate ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that) by focussing on political solutions: ending tax evasion, preventing land grabs, and drawing attention to the fragility of the international food chain, are all excellent strategies for reducing food insecurity. Making links between poor governance and the functioning of multinationals and malnutrition is a far more effective way of ending famine than generalised campaigns to ‘raise awareness’ about the fact that children go to bed hungry at night. But some have expressed concerns about the campaign.
As Bright Green revealed, the If Campaign was organised by the British Overseas Aid Group (Oxfam, Christian Aid, ActionAid, Save the Children and CAFOD) in close collaboration with the UK’s Department for International Development:
The real scandal of the IF campaign is that it appears to have been shaped more by the desires of the target department than by those of its members, and not at all by the views of its supposed beneficiaries in developing countries. It is constructed around a ‘golden moment’ pro-government PR event intended to ingratiate aid agencies (a large portion of whose funding comes from DfID) with the present rulers, never mind that the agenda of those rulers is implacably opposed to reducing inequality or moderating the global capitalism that causes it.
War on Want has been clear about its reasons for not joining the If Campaign, arguing that that it’s hypocritical for charities to work alongside a government whose ‘austerity programme is driving unprecedented numbers to food banks in Britain’. It notes:
War on Want understands hunger, like all forms of poverty, to be the result of political decisions that are taken by national and international elites, and contested through political action. In this context, the IF campaign is promoting a wholly false image of the G8 as committed to resolving the scandal of global hunger, rather than (in reality) being responsible for perpetuating it. The IF campaign’s policy document states: ‘Acting to end hunger is the responsibility of people everywhere. The G8 group of rich countries, to its credit, shares this ambition and accepts its share of responsibility, having created two hunger initiatives in recent years.; This is a gross misrepresentation, seeing that the governments of the G8 have openly committed themselves to expanding the corporate-dominated food system that condemns hundreds of millions to hunger. Even on its own terms, the IF campaign notes that the G8’s existing initiatives on hunger ‘fall far short of what is required’.
Instead, War on Want advocates a stronger focus on food sovereignty – ensuring that nations are able to feed themselves, and partly through supporting small farmers. (War on Want works alongside La Via Campesina, for instance.) Its point that G8 countries and big business have little interest in food sovereignty is borne out by recent comments made by Emery Koenig, executive vice president and chief risk officer of the massive agriculture business Cargill. He argues that it is food sovereignty that is the ‘true threat to food security’. It’s worth noting that in a time of food crisis, Cargill made profits of $134 billion last year.
In other words, we need far more radical solutions if we’re intent on ending food insecurity. I agree with War on Want’s reservations, and I’d like to add one, further, concern: like MPH, the If Campaign excludes the voices of those in the developing world – those whom it purports to help. Here is no partnership between a consortium of charities and food insecure nations, but, rather, an old-fashioned characterisation of the developing world – Africa in particular – in need of wealthy nations’ charity. This is no attempt to hold African – and other – governments to account for allowing corruption or mismanagement to contribute to malnutrition, nor does it engage with the farmers, producers, and businesses in developing countries involved in the food industry.
In a recent, well-meaning, but disastrous, campaign, Oxfam acknowledged that characterising Africa as a perpetual basket case helps neither African nations, nor those charities working on the continent. It called for Africa’s image to change in the western media. Amusingly, it suggested that Africa should be ‘made famous’ for its ‘landscapes’ rather than ‘hunger’ – indeed, rather than its cities, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, footballers, writers, researchers…
Nigerian blogger Tolu Ogunlesi writes:
who – apart from Oxfam, obviously – really cares, in 2013, what the British public thinks about a continent from which they fled in varying stages of undress? What’s that proverb about crying more than the bereaved? In the 21st century are people still allowed to be zombies gobbling up everything they’re fed by a collaboration of powerful media and NGOs?
I wish … Oxfam the very best. Must be awful to have to take on that job of saving people from self-inflicted ignorance. In an age in which Google, Twitter and the news media lie at most fingertips, delivering, alongside stories of African suffering, narratives of determined recovery from tragedy and technology-driven change and emboldened youth and rising political awareness and growing intolerance for tyranny – is there still room for getting away with blaming [and] with fixating on photos of begging bowls and the oxfamished children attached to them?
His point is that if charities want to make a difference in African countries, they should work alongside African organisations and governments, using African expertise and knowledge:
I think that somehow, the Oxfams of this world get so carried away by the salvation they bring to the helpless peoples of Africa, that they lose sight of the concept of African agency. Once you realise this you understand why Oxfam appears trapped in that irritatingly paternalistic mode of thinking. Saving Africa’s starving children (by providing food) and saving Africa’s saddening image (by providing images of epic landscapes) have this in common is this: they both rely largely on an obliteration of a sense of African agency.
It’s time for the If Campaign to allow Africans – and, indeed, people from other parts of the developing world – to speak, and to help shape foreign interventions in their own regions.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Closing the Stable Door
About a month ago, the ever-amazing Bill Nighy argued in an interview with the UK’s Sunday Independent that hunger – whatever we may mean by that – could be eradicated by forcing big multinationals to pay their taxes. Nighy, who is a spokesman for the anti-hunger If Campaign, has a point. As a Guardian investigation demonstrates, these global businesses and their subsidiaries go out of their way not to pay their taxes – something which hits developing nations particularly hard:
If businesses like Associated British Food paid their taxes in countries like Zambia, then, the logic goes, these governments would have enough money to ensure that everyone would have access to enough food.
But tax evasion has implications for everyone’s food supply, and not only those who live in low- to middle-income countries. As the recent horsemeat scandal in Europe shows, the presence of horsemeat in ready meals and fast food products was partly the work of a network of businesses which managed to evade both (admittedly shambolic) regulators and tax by operating through scrutiny-free offshore companies.
Romanian horsemeat entered the European food chain when meat from two abattoirs was sold to Draap Trading Limited, which sold the meat to European food companies, like the meat processor Spanghero – whose licence was suspended earlier this month after being accused of knowingly mislabelling horsemeat as beef in some of its products.
Draap Trading Limited operates in the Netherlands, but is registered in tax-flexible Cyprus. Its sole shareholder is a firm based in the British Virgin Islands, another tax haven. Not only does this arrangement allow Draap to avoid paying tax, but it becomes almost impossible to identify Draap’s shareholder. Investigators suggest that the shareholder may be linked to a collection of Russia-linked offshore companies which have, in the past, been involved in high-profile transactions in Russian industry. Importantly, there are allegations that these businesses are connected to gang activity.
Exciting as these revelations may be, this is certainly not the first time that food adulteration has been linked to organised crime. In Italy, write Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna:
Crimes include ‘theft of machinery and tools; extortion; the theft of livestock and cattle; unregulated butchery practices; fraudulent claims for EU funds; and the exploitation of labour.’ These have appalling consequences for the environment, employment practices, and, indeed, food safety – particularly because the clans not only ignore regulations around hygiene and animal welfare, but are also involved in the illegal butchering and trafficking of potentially contaminated meat.
In the US, the Mafia and pizzerias have a long and complicated relationship. Between 1985 and 1987, the Pizza Connection Trial revealed that mobsters had used a collection of pizza parlours as fronts for the sale and collection of heroin and cocaine. Throughout the twentieth century, though, the mob controlled supplies of ingredients to pizzerias. For instance,
As the connection between organised crime and food is nothing new, so is the link between food and tax evasion. Nicholas Shaxson begins his excellent Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011) with an account of the incredible wealth and power of the Vestey brothers. These two men controlled the meat industry during the early twentieth century. Ian Phimister explains:
Essentially, Vesteys owned every link in the food chain: from the land on which cattle were farmed, to abattoirs and newly-invented cold storage warehouses, to refrigerated ships and the butchers who sold the meat to shoppers in Britain. But they didn’t limit themselves to beef: they shipped eggs, chicken, ducks, pork, and dairy products from China and Russia, as well as mutton from Australia and New Zealand.
What the example of Vesteys demonstrates – above all – is that big food multinationals have existed since the early twentieth century and have used the same tactics for more than a hundred years. Monsanto and Cargill have the same monopolistic instincts and low regard for labour rights and animal welfare as Vesteys. Moreover, our food supply has been globalised for as long – if not longer – and the myth that once upon a time all butchers were independent and totally ethical is, well, just that – a myth.
But Vesteys also illustrates how food companies dodge taxes. William and Edmund Vestey went out of their way never to pay tax if they could help it. When the British government began to tax British companies on profits earned abroad, to raise funds for the war effort in 1914, the Vestey brothers first lobbied against the measure, and then upped sticks to Chicago and then Buenos Aires, to take advantage of America and Argentina’s less onerous systems of taxation.
They used a range of strategies now commonplace among multinationals to channel their profits away from countries with high tax rates – the countries, in other words, where they did business. Also, in 1921 the Vesteys established a trust based in Paris which the British authorities could not tax (they didn’t even discover it until 1929). Giving evidence to a Royal Commission established to investigate how to tax multinational businesses, William Vestey summed up his attitude towards taxation:
In 1934, Argentinian authorities which had long been uneasy about the brothers’ cutthroat business practices came across a cache of secret documents hidden under a pile of guano on their ship, the Norman Star. The investigation launched after finding this deeply incriminating evidence was blocked and manipulated at every turn by the Vesteys – who were particularly concerned by British authorities’ interest in it. In the end, the man in charge of the committee and with the greatest knowledge of the Vesteys’ tax evasion systems, Senator de la Torre, shot himself in 1939, leaving a suicide note ‘which expressed his disappointment at the general behaviour of mankind.’
The British government never succeeded in making Vesteys pay its full tax bill. In 1980 it was revealed that two years previously, the Vesteys’ Dewhurst chain of butchers had paid only £10 tax on a profit of more than £2.3 million. As one official commented: ‘Trying to come to grips with the Vesteys over tax is like trying to squeeze a rice pudding.’
A poster in Williamsburgh’s Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop
The only way to prevent tax evasion and organised crime is through better policing and enforcement of the law. But when food is involved, it is absolutely crucial for efficient regulatory bodies to be put in place. The publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1906, which exposed the appalling conditions under which people worked and cattle were slaughtered in Chicago’s meat packing industry, so appalled readers that momentum behind legislation to enforce standards of animal welfare and hygiene and prevent food adulteration, gathered. The same year, Teddy Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drugs Act into law. Even though sustained lobbying from big food had weakened America’s regulatory bodies – and has allowed for an increase in instances of contaminated food being recalled – American food is considerably safer now than it was at the end of the nineteenth century.
Without regulation, disasters like the recent milk scandal in China, can occur. Indeed, in 2011 a study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become sick – and 8,500 die – each year from food poisoning. Other than the discovery of melamine in milk and infant formula, there have also been scandals around ‘meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters.’
These discoveries – of deadly infant formula, endemic tax evasion among big food companies, food cartels, forged hygiene certificates, forced labour, and deliberately mislabeled meat – are made only at the end of a series of criminal acts. Trying to fix food systems at the point at which food scandals are discovered – by blaming shoppers for buying cheap meat or for supporting multinational companies – avoids tackling the major, systemic problems which allow for businesses not to pay tax, or for criminals to take over the food chain. It’s like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Jennifer Ning Chang, ‘Vertical Integration, Business Diversification, and Firm Architecture: The Case of the China Egg Produce Company in Shanghai, 1923-1950,’ Enterprise and Society, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2005), pp. 419-451.
Arlene Finger Kantor, ‘Upton Sinclair and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906: “I Aimed at the Public’s Heart and by Accident I Hit It in the Stomach,”’ AJPH, vol. 66, no. 12 (December 1976), pp. 1202-1205.
I. R. Phimister, ‘Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1938,’ Journal of African History, vol. 19, no. 3 (1978), pp. 391-414.
Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna, ‘Trade Secrets: Italian Mafia Expands its Illicit Business,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2012, pp. 44-47.
Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (London: Vintage,  2012).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.