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Seizing the Historical Moment - Anuradha Mittal, Food First

by Sheri Herndon Tuesday, Aug. 08, 2000 at 11:04 AM

Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First, has been studying the effects of structural adjustment abroad for years. In this interview, she takes on structural adjustment at home, the relationship between the conventions and the larger global movement, corporate media’s effects, building solidarity globally and the power of independent media.

errorStructural Adjustment on the Home Front
Challenging the Corporatization of the US Political System
Potential of these Protests Role of Youth
Corporate Medias Effect
Power of Independent Media and Different Forms of Activism
Building More Solidarity in the Global Democracy Movement
Need for More Political Parties
Other Possible Models
Seizing this Historical Moment

This interview will be available in audio format soon.

Structural Adjustment on the Home Front:

AM: I work at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, many listeners and readers might be familiar with us. We are also known as Food First. The Institute was started by Francis Moore Lappe 25 years ago and by Joseph Collins. Francis is very well known for her book Diet for a small planet which sold millions and millions of copies that provided the seed money to start this Institute. We are a very proud that we are a peoples think tank, more than half of our funding comes from individual donors. So we do not have to depend on corporate or government funding. And basically we can be the first ones to say that the emperor has no new clothes. So whether the debate has been around whether population is the cause of hunger or a system of environmental degradation, we have been able to take very radical positions. If it actually benefits and helps Third World countries or colonizes them further, we have been able to make honest answers on those issues.

Currently in our 25th year at the Institute, we are again in a unique position, where were doing research, analysis and advocacy for action on issues of hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation. But in these 25 years, we have realized that we can no longer talk about hunger and look at Asia or Africa or Latin and Central America countries, hunger is a problem which is at our doorstep. When we talk about structural adjustment programs, the policies of the World Bank and IMF and their impact on third world communities, weve been able to look at our own community in the United States, and look at how America has been adjusted. Whether it is through the welfare reform, whether its the Contract with America, we see the same policies which balance the budgets on the backs of the poor, policies that work for corporate interests. So at Food First right now, were dedicated to ensuring everyones right to be able to feed oneself. Whether it means land reform or whether it means a living wage job.

So these are the kinds of issues that we are working on, making global to local links, ensuring that were able to make those connections, that there is a growing South in the North and the elites in the South have more in common with the elites in the North. So basically being able to challenge this structural problem of this growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

Challenging the Corporatization of the US Political System

SH: You were in Seattle and DC for the protests against the WTO and the World Bank and IMF. Whats the relationship between those institutions and the conventions?

AM: I think many of us were there in Seattle when we were challenging the World Trade Organization; many of us came together again in Washington DC to challenge the World Bank and IMF policies, and these acts were not just done by these liberal students or people who think its a trendy thing to do coming from middle class families.

This was an expression of moral outrage. Moral outrage against a system that is working against the working poor -- working poor in America and working poor overseas. Now the same people are out there in larger forces in Philadelphia and were going to be there in Los Angeles, and the connection between the two is we are challenging this corporate party. We are not challenging just the Republicans or the Democrats. We are challenging the corporatization of a political system. We are challenging the fact that we are not governed by any party, we are governed by some corporations who have more control and more say in the policy-making than us, the people, the voters who put these people in these positions of power. Whether it is the WTO, whether it is these clauses such as the agricultural clauses which are being written by lifetime executives of corporations such as Cargill, or whether it is our welfare reform in this country, we start looking at who designs them. It is corporations who tend to benefit from those policies, from those trade agreements, from those reforms, which are actually cuts taking away basic social safety nets from the poor.

So it is an expression of those people in solidarity with people in the Third world to say enough is enough, and weve got to challenge those systems of power which are basically demolishing our democracy in this country, which are demolishing our basic human rights, which is demolishing everything that the founding fathers and the people who built this country, built this country on -- the ideals of liberty and the ideals of freedom.

Potential of these Protests Role of Youth

SH: So what is the potential for these protests given that they are building more solidarity with people globally who have been oppressed for a long time and there is kind of an awakening in the American landscape about our role as being citizens of this country and the role of the US corporations abroad. What is the potential that you are seeing in this global democracy movement.

AM: Let me point to the biggest potential, whether you go to India, my country, or you go to China, or you go to Mexico, we see our youth being completely captivated by increasing consumerism. You know the goals that are being put forward before our youth, is to try to get an MBA degree, try to get a job in the corporate sector, you want the latest Nike shoes, you want the latest Gap clothes.

However, something is changing. We are being able to defeat these corporations the way weve been able to challenge tobacco companies who were trying to capture our youth. It is the youth of this country who have actually come out on the streets. If you look at corporate owned media, you would think these are young punks who were out on the streets like those fans who go for football matches who have nothing better to do than to get in trouble with the police and with law and order. This is not what is happening. The biggest potential is that we are creating the future generation of America to be good patriots, patriots who are willing to put their lives on the line, who are basically willing to even battle with the police to actually build a Democratic nation and to make it true in this country.

The other potential of that is that, as I pointed out before, whether we talk about policies of international financial institutions which work against the working people, they are the same policies that are adjusting Americas poor today. So what we are doing is we are starting to challenge these policies right in the belly of the beast. Washington consensus has been responsible for increasing impoverishment around the world. Until we fight this battle right here in this country, where peoples basic human rights to food, right to shelter, right to social security, is implemented in this country, nobody is going to give a damn about peoples right to food in Mexico or in the Phillippines.

We are building an international movement. We are building a movement where there are no leaders, everyone who participates in the streets of Philadelphia or in the streets of Los Angeles is a leader who is taking charge of his or her destiny and the destiny of this country and the world.

Corporate Medias Effect

SH: CNN reported on the recent protests in Philadelphia during the Republican convention and in one report, they wrote that they didnt know what the protestors were advocating. How well has corporate media covered the protests and the issues?

AM: Well, I think thats one of the biggest issues, that our so called representatives of media who are stalking on the streets looking for some sensational news if a Gap store window has been broken into or not. They have not even bothered to talk to the people of this country as to why they are on the streets, why they are willing to go to jail. They have not even bothered to do that. And every listener and every viewer of TV should be questioning that. How come we do not know what these people are protesting about? When our TV reporters and radio personalities are out there covering the issues, look at how incomplete their coverage is. And that I believe is a deliberate action. They do not want to inform people, they do not want to educate the masses as to whats wrong with this country. Yes, CNN and the New York Times will tell us that there is an economic boom thanks to President Clinton. But nobody will tell us to question economic boom for whom? Those newspaper reporters and CNN are not reporting that in this economic boom, 36 million Americans do not have adequate access to food. We are talking about 14 million children in the so called richest country on earth going to bed hungry every night. Were talking about a nation, a rich nation like the United States of America, where 44 million Americans do not have health care. So those newspapers and those TV stations are not reporting the reality of millions and millions of people because they are owned, they are run, and they suit the needs of a certain interest, and thats the corporate interest.

See "Call to Action: The Evolution of a Movement"

See "Microradio Alert: Information and Action"

Power of Independent Media and Different Forms of Activism

SH: When I spoke with Vandana Shiva in Washington DC in April, I asked her about the role of media and specifically the role of independent media. She shared a story about Gandhi and the paper he started to be the voice of the movement. Can you talk about the role of independent media in times of people rising up and seeking liberation?

AM: Gandhi always talked about different forms of activism. Activists are not just people who are on the front lines, being pepper sprayed, and arrested and beaten up by the police in Philadelphia or the way we were treated in Seattle or Washington, DC. According to Gandhi, activism takes different shapes. And journalism which actually puts out the voice of the people. Journalism which is independent. Journalism which is not couched in any other phrase or term or any other economic interest. That free journalism is also a true form of activism.

To gain independence from the British, Gandhi employed that form of activism as well. We started our own newspapers to be able to inform our people, the Indians, about what was wrong with the system. How the freedom was being denied to us. How our basic human rights were being denied. We started or own newpapers so we could mobilize a whole generation -- men, women, our rural countryside, urban areas, to demand freedom from the colonialization. And given that role, I think its not just specific to the Indian freedom movement, that is something whether we look at the ANC in South African, whether we look at any social movement, you look at the Zapatistas in Chiapas, that has always been a form of activism.

The only way people can be liberated is by actually having our right to information being fulfulled. Right now we live in a country which talks about it being the leader of human rights, but it denies its own people the basic human right to information. We are told that we have choice because we can go and choose from 20 different brands of toothpaste and that is labeled as freedom. We are not even told what the real meaning of freedom is.

So the role of independent media becomes absolutely important because it is media which is really doing its job. It is journalism which is following the ethics of its profession, instead of following the guidelines that are dictated by some economic vested interest.

Building More Solidarity in the Global Democracy Movement

SH: How can we build more solidarity in this movement?

AM: I think Seattle was really successful in building a new movement which is globalization from below to challenge this economic globalization. When the talks in Seattle failed, it was not just because of the protesters in the streets. I believe that the leaders of the Third World also gained a voice when they saw those thousands and thousands of people on the streets protesting the same policies. They could then actually walk out saying, " We dont really have a real seat at the table." The African and Caribbean nations walked out saying, "Sorry, there is going to be no agreement." That was a really positive step forward.

What we are going to need now is to go beyond this white mans burden of supporting struggle in another country. I think we have recognize that the forces that are oppressing and colonizing people overseas are the same forces that are oppressing our working people, and the working Americans in this country. These are the same forces that have put the American dream in question today. You know, the times have changed so that if you talk to many of us, we do not feel the economic security that our grandparents or great grandparents felt. The whole American dream is gone. We are as insecure, economically insecure, as are communities in other parts of the world, in the Third World. So I think we have a lot in common.

Now the only way that we can move forward is to know that there are going to be attempts to divide us. Theres going to be a lot of poor washing. Theres going to be a lot of poor washing in the sense that the media will try and convince us, "Well, these are white kids from middle class families who are protesting and they dont know trade is actually going to help uplift these poor, destitute families in the Third World and out of poverty and give them a decent standard of living." We will have to question that because that is poor washing the way green washing was done earlier by the same institutions. We will have to forge links with our Third World partners who can speak for themselves about what these free trade have meant for them.

In the same way, we will have to accept that when we talk about human rights, that is going to be the biggest one I think for this country, we have to understand that human rights are not just about civil and political rights, they are also about economic and social human rights. Such as, 36 million Americans not having enough to eat constitutes a human rights violation. Because the government is failing to fulfill its obligation to respect their right to food, right to be able to feed themselves.

Once we have that understanding, we can stop taking the higher moral ground when it comes to human rights against China or Indonesia. We have to become international activists. We have to become international activists in the sense that we not only focus on whats wrong with another country, but we start with our own backyard. There are too many problems in our own country. People in the south need to see the people of America challenging their system, challenging their corporate party, challenging their politicians, before they can feel that it is an equal relationship and they are in the struggle together.

Need for More Political Parties Looking Beyond our Borders

SH: After the WTO, there was a lot of discussion about whether we should fix it or reform it or should we completely get rid of it. If our two party system cant fix the social problems were facing, what about a third party or fourth party? In an article in Whole Earth Review, you talked about the WTOs defining feature being exclusion of the majority. Here in the US, in our so-called democracy, it is clear that the needs of the majority of the people in this country are completely being excluded.

AM: Its not just that we need another party, we need more political parties which represent the diversity of political opinions. We can hardly make out the difference between the Republicans and Democrats today. We have seen some of the worst social policies being implemented. It was under a Democratic president, President Clinton that welfare reform was actually passed in this country. It was under a Democratic president that NAFTA and other agreements have moved forward. So we can barely make out the difference between the Republicans and Democrats.

So what we are going to need is not just the third and fourth party which might look just like them, but we need a third and fourth party that would actually represent the people of this country. And I believe that party would have to come from our social movement that we are building in this country. A social system and a movement which is taking into account not just the needs of the people here in this country, but is also catering to what works best for the world, which would be fair, which would be just socially, economically and ecologically. I think the model is very clear before us what we need. We are making all kinds of fantastic experiments. Whether we look at how people are mobilized, the way they work in terms of consensus and decision-making. There are some amazing experiments that are taking place at the grassroots level in the country right now. I think we have to get ready for the next stage which would be a social movement turning into a political movement which would represent the needs of the poor.

Other Possible Governance Models in the Global Landscape

SH: When we look across our global landscapes, where are some places which could be described as successful models? Can we look to some models and find elements we can incorporate?

AM: Im a little bit hesitant to look at another model and say okay thats what everything will look like. I just want to make clear that Im not saying that. Otherwise we would not be much different than what the World Bank and IMF who have the same prescription for every different situation.

What we are saying is we want to look for alternatives, alternatives that would cater to the cultural, social and economic needs of the people. For too long we have been dominated by this western liberal concept of democracy. But we know that even in this country, as you pointed out, there is no democracy. You have a two party system that does not represent the needs of the people. It does not represent the majority of the people. So it definitely would not help to have those models. And yes, when we look at the Zapatistas in Chiapas, they have some very good ideas in terms of what governance would look like. In India right now you have the Panjati rights system at the village level, which is making some really innovative experiments around inclusion of gender, of different casts in the governance system within in a village, so how we can proudly say my village, my rule. And thats what we have to get to internationally, that people, whether we are working within the communities in the blocks that we live in, or at the city level or regional level, that we feel we have a voice and it can take different shapes.

This is What Democracy Looks Like

I was talking about the youth action and the Direct Action Network that have come around mobilizing youth. It is absolutely amazing to go into one of their meetings and to see how decisions are made. And for me it has just been incredible to watch the youth of this country and to show what it can look like. It has been so moving, when you come out on the street and you can say with real credibility this is what democracy looks like, because youve just been in a place where you saw what it can look like and thats why the chant were hearing over and over again, it is not just a chant of protesting whats wrong, it is also proposing an alternative that this is what democracy looks like.

And to see these 17 and 18 year old youth doing that. And then in Washington DC, to see the police and the horses coming after them and they just stood there saying "this is what democracy looks like." I cannot tell you, as somebody who is not a citizen of this country, what it meant to me. To see these beautiful young faces full of courage and hope actually just looking straight into their eyes. And I wasnt there when my country became free, Ive only read about it, and to hear from them that it was the belief that the truth shall prevail. And thats why just to hear the chant "this is what democracy looks like" -- I just stood there and cried. I thought "oh my god, Ive been doing this for so long and Ive been a policy geek forever". But to witness that made me feel like my life has been worth living, all my research and work, its been validated for me by the youth of this country in the streets of Seattle and Washington DC and theyre doing it again in Philadelphia.

Seizing this Historical Moment

I would just want to conclude that whats happening in the United States needs to be talked about. Media has a real responsibility to tell the truth. Because this is going to have an implication not just on this country. It is going to have a rippling effect on the rest of the world. I mean whether we like it or not, and I am sure I dont like it as somebody coming from India, that the decisions made in this country have an impact on my country and my people, have an impact on Mexico and African nations and other countries.

So what is happening right now in this country, it doesnt just relate to the US, it relates to each one of us. It is a historical moment, and we cannot fail it. We have a real responsibility as journalists, as activists, as citizens of this world. We have a real responsibility to see it to its successful conclusion, which is power being given to people. Cause if we fail here, again, it will have an impact not just on the US, it will have an impact on the rest of the world.

For more information about Food First and their work, check out www.foodfirst.org.

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