Anuradha Mittal is the co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, popularly known as Food First. For years, she has studied the effects of corporate globalization and the imposition of structural adjustment abroad. In this interview, she examines structural adjustment at home, the building of global solidarity, the effects of the corporate media, and the power of independent media.
Sheri Herndon: Could you give us some background on Food First?
Anuradha Mittal: The Institute was started by Francis Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins 25 years ago. Francis is very well known for her book Diet for a Small Planet, which sold millions and millions of copies, and that provided the seed money to start this Institute. We are very proud that we are a “people’s 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 we have been able to take very radical positions. We have been able to honestly answer questions on whether policies benefit Third World countries or colonize them further.
Currently, in our 25th year at the Institute, we continue to do 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 only 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, we’ve started to include our own community in the United States, and look at how America has been adjusted. Whether it is through welfare reform, whether it’s 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, we’re dedicated to ensuring everyone’s right to be able to feed oneself, whether that means land reform or whether it means a living wage job.
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 we are challenging this structural problem of the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.
SH: You were in Seattle for the protests against the WTO, and in D.C. for the protests against the World Bank and IMF. What is the relationship between those global institutions, and the Republican and Democratic conventions, where the most recent protests took place?
AM: The protests were an statement of moral outrage. Moral outrage against a system that is working against the working poor—the working poor in America and the working poor overseas. Now the same people are out there in larger forces in Philadelphia and we’re going to be there in Los Angeles. The connection between the two is that 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 governed by some corporations who have more control and more say in the policy-making than the people, the voters.
Whether it is the WTO, whether it is [international trade agreements] written by lifetime executives of corporations such as Cargill, or whether it is 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 statement of those people in solidarity with people in the Third World to say, “Enough is enough,” and to challenge those systems of power which are basically demolishing our democracy in this country.
SH: What is the potential for the protests given that they are building solidarity among people globally, North and South, and given there is kind of an awakening in the American landscape about the role of the U.S. corporations abroad?
AM: Let me point to the biggest potential. Whether you go to India, my country, or to China, or to Mexico, we see our youth being completely captivated by increasing consumerism. You know, our youth is being encouraged to try to get an MBA degree, try to get a job in the corporate sector, get the latest Nike shoes, get the latest Gap clothes.
However, something is changing. We are finding we are able to defeat these corporations the way we’ve 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 to football matches and 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.
The other potential is that 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 people’s 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 people’s right to food in Mexico or in the Philippines.
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.
SH: CNN reported during the recent protests in Philadelphia that they didn’t know what the protesters were advocating. How well have corporate media covered the protests and the issues?
AM: Well, I think that’s one of the biggest problems, that our so called representatives of the media are stalking on the streets looking for some sensational news, whether 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.
When our TV reporters and radio personalities are out there covering the issues, look at how incomplete their coverage is. That, I believe, is a deliberate action. They do not want to inform people, they do not want to educate the masses as to what’s 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 they 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. We’re 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 that’s the corporate interest.
SH: When I spoke with Vandana Shiva in Washington, D.C., in April, I asked her about the role of independent media. She shared a story about Gandhi, and how the paper he started became the voice of the movement. Can you talk about the role of independent media in times when people rise up and seek 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. According to Gandhi, activism takes different shapes. And journalism actually puts out the voice of the people. Journalism which is independent. 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 freedom was being denied to us. How our basic human rights were being denied. We started our own newspapers so we could mobilize a whole generation—men, women, our rural countryside, urban areas—to demand freedom from colonization. And given that role, I think it’s not just specific to the Indian freedom movement. Whether we look at the ANC in South African, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, or any social movement, that has always been a form of activism.
The only way people can be liberated is by actually having our right to information fulfilled. Right now, we live in a country which talks about being the leader of human rights, but it denies its own people the basic human right to information. 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.
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 challenging 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 don’t 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 man’s burden” of supporting struggle in another country. I think we have to recognize that the forces that are oppressing and colonizing people overseas are the same forces that are oppressing the working Americans in this country. We are as economically insecure as are communities 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. The media will try to convince us, “Well, these are white kids from middle class families who are protesting, and they don’t 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 forge links with our Third World partners who can speak for themselves about what “free trade” has meant for them.
In the same way, we will have to accept that when we talk about human rights, 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. The government is failing to fulfill its obligation to respect people’s right to food, their 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 in China or Indonesia. We have to become international activists in the sense that we not only focus on what’s 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 we are all in the struggle together.
SH: In an article in Whole Earth Review, you talked about the WTO’s defining feature being the exclusion of the majority. Here in the U.S., in our so-called democracy under the two-party system, it is clear that the needs of the majority of the people in this country are completely excluded. What are your thoughts about a third and fourth party?
AM: It’s 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. 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 what we are going to need is 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. 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 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.
SH: When we look across our global landscapes, where are some places which are using what could be described as a successful model? Can we look to some models and find elements we can incorporate?
AM: I’m a little bit hesitant to look at another model and say, “Okay, that’s what everything will look like.” I just want to make clear that I’m not saying that. Otherwise we would not be much different than 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.
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 castes in the governance system within a village, so now we can proudly say “my village, my rule.”
That’s what we have to get to internationally, so that people feel we have a voice, whether we are working within the communities that we live in, or at the city level, or regional level.
For me, it has just been incredible to watch the youth of this country. It is absolutely amazing to go into one of the meetings of the Direct Action Network, which is mobilizing youth, and to see how decisions are made. It has been so moving when you can say with real credibility, “This is what democracy looks like,” because you’ve just been in a place where you saw what it can look like. And that’s why this chant we’re hearing over and over again, it is not just a chant of protesting what’s wrong, it is also proposing an alternative.
And to see these 17 and 18 year old youth doing that. And then in Washington, D.C., 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. I wasn’t there when my country became free. I’ve only read about it. And that’s why just to hear the chant, “This is what democracy looks like”—I just stood there and cried. I thought, “Oh, my god, I’ve been doing this for so long and I’ve been a policy geek forever.” But to witness that made me feel like my life has been worth living, all my research and work, it’s been validated for me by the youth of this country in the streets of Seattle and Washington, D.C., and again at the conventions.
I would just want to conclude that what’s happening in the United States 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 don’t like it as somebody coming from India—the decisions made in this country have an impact on my country and my people, and they have an impact on Mexico and African nations and other countries.
What is happening right now in this country doesn’t just relate to the U.S. 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. Because if we fail here, again, it will have an impact not just on the U.S., it will have an impact on the rest of the world.
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