Vir Cantium

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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Oxfam: We're Doomed (Again)

It’s Tuesday and the end, naturally, is nigh.

The prices of some staple foods will more than double by 2030 unless world leaders reform the global food system, Oxfam has warned.

Scarlett Johansson

The agreeable looking Scarlett Johansson - an expert in global food economics, apparently.

The ‘global food system’? Didn’t know there was one. Anyway …

The aid charity warned that millions more people could suffer food shortages in two decades due to a ‘perfect storm’ of ecological and sociological factors.
A combination of population growth, climate-hit harvests and rising energy prices will see countries ‘sleepwalk into an unprecedented human development reversal’.

Those of us of a certain age (and I am moving into the period when I can start using that phrase) will remember being at school in the Eighties (or earlier) and being told of the inevitable crises that were to ensue given the massive growth in world population by the year 2000. There would not be enough food to go round and very bad things will happen.

Now, granted, there are localised famines most years that occasionally grab the headlines, but most are as much products of war and (sometimes wilfully) incompetent government as pure over-population or poor weather. However, by and large food production has kept up with population growth as farming, food processing and transport become more efficient – thus billions of lives are saved thanks to the great evils of globalisation and free markets.

So, what are the answers?

Oxfam are launching a campaign in 45 countries, called Growing a Better Future, which has been backed by South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and actress Scarlett Johansson.

Scarlett Johansson? Really? Wow. I’m sold on it then. No, don’t bother explaining any more. Oh, go on then….

Solutions envisaged by Oxfam focus on cutting out waste, especially of water, and curbing agriculture and biofuel subsidies in rich countries.

More efficiency, yes – that’s what such increases in demand will drive. Curbing subsidies, also good – promoting free markets and allowing them to do their work.

The report also calls for prising open closed markets and ending the domination of commodities and seeds trade by a handful of large corporations.

Again, more free trade, lowering barriers to entry (such as protectionist duties and subsidies). All good. Doesn’t sound like Oxfam at all.

Oh …

The charity also called for new global governance to tackle food crises, including creating a multilateral food bank.

Global governance? Like the UN, that model of efficiency and effectiveness to which so many in Darfur Rwanda various places owe their lives. Perhaps they mean some structure whereby all the countries get together and agree on things in the global, rather than their national, interest. Always works well, that does.

And then, put that body in charge of a ‘multilateral food bank’? Superb idea. Perhaps they can ask the EU for help setting it up – Brussels has a wealth of experience with running food mountains banks.


Nick and Cut

Coming soon on the free-to-air BBC:

The BBC’s Nick Robinson reveals what happened when the residents of an ordinary street in Lancashire had to run everything for themselves .

Ponder instead how you’d do if you had to run not the whole country but just your own street.

What if you didn’t have a budget but each house had to decide how much to spend on what?

Like a budget, then.

What if you had to organise and pay for the everyday things we take for granted: the bin collection, the recycling, the street lights

Errm, we already pay for them.  This is sounding like it was written by someone who works where other people pay for everything.

If so, come and join me on The Street That Cut Everything – that’s the title of a programme to be shown on BBC1 next week.

The residents weren’t paid for taking part, but they were given back their council tax money for those six weeks to spend – not on themselves but on the needs of their community.

OK, but council tax only accounts for typically a quarter to a third of councils’ income. Why not given them back three times that much to make it more realistic?

You might think that life wouldn’t change that much if the council closed down…

Shift workers woke early to find their street in total darkness…

Not quite “without government the sun wouldn’t rise”, but close.

Children emerged earlier than usual. They could no longer get the bus to school

Because bus services can only be run by councils, you know.

Those who fancied a trip to the local leisure centre to get away from the rubbish and the endless meetings and the cameras found their way barred: it’s run by the council.

… and so on.

I know that some will assert that the programme’s title shows that the BBC has an anti-cuts agenda.

Not just the title, Nick, but anyway … admittedly it would be difficult to believe that the state funded BBC could produce such a programme without having, if not an anti-cuts agenda, then certainly a pro-statist one. Thus so it would seem, with it peddling the idea that such services as leisure centres could not exist without the council to run them. It is part of the wider mindset that if the state doesn’t do it, then no-one will do it. They used to think that about telephone networks once.

Naturally the experiment, from the sound of it, will bear little resemblance to what a properly organised scaling-back of government services, replaced by community-organised efforts stretching beyond a cul-de-sac could achieve (given enough of a lead time). Nor do most, even of the classical liberal tendency, seriously suggest that there should be no government, as the “you libertarians ought to try living in Somalia” commentators from the collectivist Left might like to suggest.

However, whatever the institutional bias at play, it should be an interesting examination of ordinary council taxpayers people’s ideas about (local) government and the work of politicians, council officers and staff. I will reserve my final judgement (for what it is worth!), until then.

Of course, if it’s successful they could always make a sequel; how about a street that did without the BBC …