[This speech was delivered during the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Ministerial Conference in Rome, Italy in November, 1987]
November 12, 1987.
GLOBAL WEALTH IN POVERTY
The poor in our county, who are mainly in the rural areas, can be looked at as a class of people living on a higher slope of an arid mountain, depending for their livelihood on rain water that falls on the slopes. This rainfall seeps into the slopes and flows down the rivers to the plains meandering through canals and streams, surpluses of which go to the sea. By the process of evaporation the water, all along the way, evaporates to form clouds in the sky. The clouds are then pushed by the wind to break down as rain whether above the sea, on the plains or on the slope itself.
That mountain is political power as the majority of voters are in the rural areas and among the lesser haves, and generally involved in agriculture.
Aridity is poverty.
The rainfall is money, coming out of government expenditure, whether in the form of direct spending or subsidies and other forms of aid. Through trade and business transactions, the money is drained down the plains, which is symbolic of the cities, and surpluses go to the seas as accumulated funds. Evaporation, like taxation, which generates a lot of heat, causes vapour to rise upward and accumulate to form clouds which is the Treasury. It is the political wind that blows the clouds and thereby determines the distribution of rain or government expenditure.
On a global basis, things are about similar.
The majority of the world’s population are in the poorer countries or in countries classified as poor. Should there be a voting on a one-man one-vote basis to form a world government (God forbid), it would definitely be that the poorer people of the world will triumph. If world peace is to be in any way related to the development of the world economy, then the “water” cycle earlier mentioned, should also be valid for comparison on a global basis. The riches accumulated in the world should be made to recycle through trade in order to have global peace.
In historical perspectives, interdependency between nations is rational, relevant and the only way – for empires and civilizations in Asia, Africa and Europe have collapsed without the leaders of those societies ever predicting that their future citizens would be participants in today’s FAO forum.
Poverty in the Malaysian context, has reached a stage whereby we should differentiate between having to eat to live, without really filling the stomach, or getting the satisfaction without taste nor balanced nutrition; or eating for balanced nutrition with taste and satisfaction. This is probably what is meant when one talks about ‘starvation,’ ‘hunger’ and ‘malnutrition.’
Plight of the Poor
It is rather unfortunate that most discussions on poverty today are made by the people who have hardly been poor. While we welcome the wealthy, more educated and prosperous individuals for their concern in the plight of the poor, we should remind ourselves, now and then, of the existence of the differences between the real experience of poverty and the intellectual exercises in poverty.
Poverty, as is love, pain, hatred and satisfaction, needs to be experienced to understand the seriousness of it. It is beyond literary capability to write about pain and evoking the same feeling as cutting your fingers with a knife. It is also impossible to read anything on love and have the same feeling as falling in love itself.
Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
No amount of discussion on poverty is as real as to suffer poverty itself. If I remember right, it was the Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy who wrote in ‘Anna Karenina’ that the problems of the rich are all the same while that of the poor differs. We should, therefore, always ask ourselves whether we are offering the poor what they really want. For those having to eat to live, it is not difficult to plan programmes for them as their requirements are basic and very obvious; but the level of poverty all over the world differs.
Standard of Living
There are those who are still poor, but not starving, who need a better standard of living. There are other factors beside per capita income to consider. People who are poor in monetary terms are not necessarily deprived spiritually and emotionally; they have the energy to spend. They are even good-looking. The resources of spirit, time and energy of the poor should be used to improve their per capita income. After all, high income and high ranks in society are not necessarily what the poor are aiming for.
We have heard of more suicides or voluntary deaths among the rich, but the poor die involuntarily. Family disintegration is proportionately more frequent among the high ranking. It is certainly true that higher income and higher positions are not the only considerations that add up to happiness (although they help), for I have seen poor farmers in the padi fields, and in the rubber estates, much happier than salaried workers who have nothing but money and ephemeral status as measures of their value.
Quality of Life
We should, therefore, think of the possibility of upgrading the level of happiness of the poor through social, cultural and other activities that add up to the quality of life.
Indeed, it is Malaysia’s experience that the happy farmer is a more productive farmer. We can, of course, say that this is the responsibility of the other United Nations agencies; but I must say here that the other UN agencies must also realise the necessity and importance of FAO.
The effort at the eradication of poverty on a global basis is an unending process. It is an irony to imagine or even suggest that in order for FAO to continually exist, there must be a perpetuation of poverty or of reasons for the obstruction to the solutions to the problem of poverty.
Malaysia imports about RM3.2 billion worth of food every year from developed and developing countries. Although the country exports huge amount of palm oil and rubber, the income derived from the total sale of palm oil is not enough to pay for the cost of the imported food.
We do not intend to be self-sufficient in food production as we believe that agricultural activity which can be better done by other nations economically, should be left to them while we concentrate in areas that we excel. We also hope other nations will adopt the same attitude towards us and towards other developing countries and even developed countries. I do hope that Bismarck was wrong when he said that ‘free trade is the idea of the exporters.’
I have been taught that free trade is the best thing that can happen to this world. I have also learnt that trade, not aid, is the answer to economic problems of nations. But I am a little confused when I come across unfair ‘information and propaganda’ directed against our commodities and commodities of other nations.
This, I perceived as against the tolerance of science, encouraging protectionism, and therefore, contrary to the spirit of free trade itself. I hope I am not hurting anybody by pointing this out with the notion of free speech and all that. If one is against free trade while preaching it, one should also be against free speech while propagating it. We should not use the world freedom when it only benefits ourselves.
The problem of food security and lack of technical skills are not just economic problems, they are also scientific as well as technical problems. They are also categorised as emotional and human problems. That is why I dwell on this subject in such a manner.
FAO Cannot Solve All the Food Problems
Let us look at Dr. Saoma’s statement which reads: “FAO cannot solve all the food and agriculture problems in the world.”
There is enough food in the World Today
On the other hand, Mr. Jean Meyer said:
“There is enough food in the world today to feed adequately every person on earth, if the food were equitably distributed (this, however, would condemn peasants in poor countries to eternal poverty).”
This sentence, (this, however, would condemn peasants in poor countries to eternal poverty), which is within brackets, is even more important than the whole paragraph, as this sentence rationalises the reluctance of the nations to sufficiently help the hungry.
I remember reading somewhere about a few philosophers, on realising that birds fly South to the Mediterranean in late autumn to avoid the bitter winter, provided tents as shelter and food for birds to eat. After a few years, the views of these philosophers changed and their resources were diminished and they stopped this programme. At the next autumn, the birds came and seeing that there was no food and no tents, they flew away. Thousands of birds which have been eating free food for years flew back as they could not cope with the long journey anymore.
These birds died.
The veterinarians discovered that the joints of their wings were swollen – they had been eating free food for too long.
We are not talking about birds, but man. The philosophers and the rich were equally at fault. The birds didn’t ask for help, they were pampered, they had nothing to thank for.
I am against helping merely for the sake of helping. However, in the case of a person in extreme poverty due to geographical, climatic and other reasons beyond their control, what they need in order not to be pampered is to be in the ‘water cycle’ that I have mentioned earlier.
I do hope that while we try to solve the problems of the poor, we do not entertain policies that will bring poverty to those that we are trying to help. Members of the Cairns Group should not be pressed to take retaliatory measures.
Malaysia has seen poor nations coming out of the Second World War as rich nations because of the markets available to their product. We have seen rich companies in rich nations with sophisticated marketing abilities turning management gurus and even suggesting to entrepreneurs in the then developing countries what to grow or manufacture.
When there is an opportunity for profit, more go for survival, positive response will surely come by in developing countries. We should help to install the ‘water cycle’ on a national and global basis. To achieve this, we have to cultivate good public relations as all those involved in this effort are humans. We should control our temperaments and emotions.
I have heard of proposed changes in the FAO. Even Dr. Saouma has suggested change. Whatever it maybe, the spirit should be to increase productivity of the organisation. Small organisations, like small nations, can be efficient just as big organisations and big nations can be efficient. There are also small and inefficient nations just as there are big and inefficient nations.
Big nations do not just decide to split or reduce their size whenever they are efficient. Indeed, some of them continue being efficient. Scaling up or down the number of personalities in an organisation should be done for greater efficiency and just not for pride or vengeance. Those who are giving should not be too arrogant, dictatorial and over bearing, while those who are receiving should be thankful, and not rude – nobody owes us a living.
We should realise that to love and to hate is a matter of decision. It is in this decision that the future of human kind depends.
Tan Sri Sanusi bin Junid,
Minister of Agriculture,