Uncommon Opportunities – The Origin and Context of ICPF’s Work

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Looking back, it is astonishing how much the world has changed since the idea of establishing the International Commission on Peace and Food was first conceived in 1987. Who had the foresight to imagine the monumental changes which have so radically altered the political, economic and social complexion of the world community, the end of the nuclear arms race and the opposing military alliances of East and West, the rising tide of democracy that dramatically and irreversibly transformed the USSR and the countries of Eastern Europe, the growing importance of the UN in peace keeping and peace making, the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa, the first tangible steps toward lasting peace between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East, the completion of global trade negotiations and the founding of the World Trade Organization, and concerted actions to stem the degradation of the environment?

The mid-1980s was a time when global military spending reached an all-time high of $1.2 trillion. Economic growth had slowed or stalled in much of the developing world, prompting some to term the 1980s the ‘lost decade’ for development. While there was little agreement on what steps were needed to reverse the arms race and provide a stable basis for world peace, a consensus was emerging that something must be done to address the urgent problems of hunger, famine and endemic poverty that continued to plague much of the developing world and constituted a gnawing source of instability that refused to be contained by national boundaries. The unconscionable loss of lives due to hunger in an age of plenty generated growing concern over the issues of food and famine. Starvation forced millions of people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, to flee their homes in despair. It undermined social stability, fuelled violence and in some cases led to war between neighbours and fellow-countrymen. The effort to glean more food from desiccated earth further ravaged the environment and aggravated shortages. To this was added the galling sight of hunger amidst plenty, when adequate food production was not matched by sufficient job opportunities to provide incomes to all who needed to buy food because they could not grow their own. These concerns motivated and were symbolized by the institution of the World Food Prize in 1987.

It was in this context that, on World Food Day in October 1988, a small group met in Washington DC and proposed the launching of a new initiative to utilize the growing consensus over food to press for more rapid and substantial progress on peace, disarmament and development. Without peace there could be no stable basis or fertile soil for development, without development there could be no lasting and assured peace. The inextricable linkage between war and famine, economic dislocation and unemployment, violence and social in stability, fleeing refugees and migrating populations, high military spending and growing indebtedness argued compellingly against any uni-dimensional approach to resolving the problems of peace and development. In the rapprochement between the superpowers we saw an opportunity that demanded new perspectives, new attitudes and new approaches.

In constituting its membership, the Commission has brought together a highly diverse group of political leaders, scientists, economists, government administrators and businessmen, drawn from industrial and developing nations, with a wide range of experience in presiding over government ministries, administrative departments and agencies, international development and research institutions, prominent non-governmental agencies and private companies.

The first official plenary meeting of ICPF was held in Trieste, Italy, in October 1989, within a few days of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Over taken by the staggering pace of developments arising from the end of the Cold War, the world was being altered almost beyond recognition. Our ambition to slow the arms race appeared suddenly insignificant in the light of unfolding events. While we contemplated strategy, COMECON and the Warsaw Pact were breaking up, the USSR began to dissolve, democratic institutions began to spread, and command economies started transforming themselves into free market systems.

These monumental achievements were not purchased without cost. Peace was accompanied by partial economic collapse in Eastern Europe. It was evident from the outset that the transition in these countries would not be smooth or easy and that the destiny of the world in the twenty-first century would be influenced decisively by the outcome. Severe food shortages in the Soviet Union, which angered the long-suppressed population and compelled the government to take radical action, once again highlighted the linkages between peace and food. Production dropped precipitously as frantic efforts were made to reverse economic decline by radical measures. Although these events were closely observed and strongly assisted by top international experts, the world lacked both the conceptual knowledge and the practical experience needed to guide these nations through their crisis. At the invitation of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the Commission’s next meeting, in November 1990, was held in Moscow: it would examine the challenges facing the USSR during the shift to democracy and a civilian market economy, and identify steps to improve the food supply, speed military conversion and ease the economic transition.

The immediate euphoria over the rapid reduction in tensions between East and West freed public attention to focus on other pressing problems and generated great expectations that a ‘peace dividend’ would usher in a period of rapid economic progress for developing countries. Yet, despite a remarkable one-third reduction in worldwide defence spending from peak levels in the 1980s, foreign aid budgets continued to shrink. This prompted us to examine the potential benefits that could be derived from transferring or redirecting scientific, technological, educational and productive resources from military applications to support development and the environment. At the same time, increasing pressure was mounted by donors on aid-dependent developing countries to reduce their own defence spending, often with out consideration for the genuine security concerns of these countries. The need to improve mechanisms to protect all nations from external aggression has stimulated a rethinking of the competitive security paradigm which has governed relations between nations throughout the century, and the formulation of an alternative approach.

The slow expansion of world trade and economic growth in developing countries during this period, attributable to prolonged recession in industrialized nations and a drastic decline in demand from Eastern Europe, underlined the need for more effective and better-coordinated development strategies to address the problems of the world’s one billion people who live in hunger and absolute poverty. Increasing the production and availability of food to meet the nutritional needs of a still rapidly expanding global population led us to propose steps to double food production in deficit regions.

In many countries, the problem of hunger has less to do with insufficient food production than with distribution or entitlement. The poor lack remunerative employment opportunities to generate the purchasing power needed to obtain the minimum essential requirements of food. In 1990, the Commission undertook a study of alternative strategies to eradicate poverty among the 300 million extremely poor in India, representing about 25 per cent of the poor worldwide, by more extensive development of commercial agriculture and agro-based industries. Following ICPF’s third plenary meeting in Madras in October 1991, ICPF’s Prosperity 2000 plan for creating 100 million jobs in India was presented to the Indian government, which incorporated the strategy in its Eighth Five Year Plan. The findings of that study and the strategic recommendations that emerged from it convinced us that eradicating the spectres of hunger, unemployment and poverty was possible even though these problems are present on such a massive scale in many developing countries.

Events continued to accelerate with the break-up of the USSR later that year, followed by the collapse of the Eastern European economies in 1992. Simultaneously, the slowdown in trade within this region and the high cost of Germany’s reunification were having an unexpected and unwelcome impact on economic recovery in the industrial countries. Reduced military spending, large budget deficits and declining imports from Eastern Europe slowed growth and aggravated the already acute problem of unemployment in Europe and North America. Rising anxiety over prospects for employment in the 1990s posed a serious threat to global trade negotiations and to the prospects for growth in the developing world. Examination of the rising problem of unemployment in industrial nations led us to the formulation of a comprehensive strategy for full employment in the West. The Commission’s fourth plenary meeting in Oslo during September 1992 focused on the issues of employment and transition. Our effort to examine each of these problems, both in depth and in relation to each other, was aided by the constitution of six working groups to study a wide gamut of issues related to peace, disarmament, food, employment and human development in the emerging global context. This report is based upon the findings and recommendations of these groups, which were presented and discussed during the fifth and final plenary meeting at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta in October 1993.

This narrative of ICPF’s brief history illustrates the complex array of interrelationships that link the issues of peace, social stability, disarmament, democracy and environment with economic transition in the East, employment in the West and poverty elimination and population stabilization in developing countries. The necessity for understanding and addressing these issues as a complex whole rather than as disparate and independent parts has been an underlying principle of our work.

From the outset, it has been our intention to build upon the work of previous international commissions that have done so much to generate greater public awareness and support for coordinated global action. This report contains specific operational strategies for implementing many of their recommendations. Much of their work can come to fruition in the changed international climate, if only we shift the emphasis from preoccupation with cataloguing the problems to focusing on the opportunities available to eliminate them.

The work of an independent, self-constituted commission has the advantage of being unfettered by the necessity of conforming to any official policy lines. It is also faced with the challenge of making a real further contribution on issues which engage so many excellent minds and institutions world wide. In formulating the ideas and recommendations incorporated in this report, it has been our objective to avoid utopian and idealistic prescriptions that are incapable of being translated into practice in the foreseeable future. At the same time, we have refused to be confined by what is presently considered realistic and practicable, because both intuition and recent experience confirm that our conception of what is real and achievable are themselves often the expression of limited and short-sighted perceptions.

Due to the diversity and complexity of the views examined by the Commission, and the heterogeneous mix of Commission members drawn from a wide range of countries, backgrounds and professions, it has not been possible to arrive at consensus on all the views discussed in this report. Five years of research and discussion have created a much greater commonality of perspective, but there are still significant differences among members regarding specific views and recommendations presented in this report. However, all the Commissioners agree with the basic emphasis on social and gender equity, job-led growth and human security. Members share the conviction that a candid and challenging discussion of these issues is more valuable than representation of a consensus view.