Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Should we believe them?

Listen to the big corporations appropriating the development lingo and using it to enhance their business:

"Mary Vizoso, head of fruit and vegetable buying at Waitrose, said although some of the farming methods endorsed by the scheme were becoming well known in the UK, in developing countries they were often groundbreaking.
"This scheme will make an enormous difference to the long term future of farming communities," she said.
"Many communities in the developing world rely on trade in fruit and vegetables for their livelihoods.
"That is why we are working at grass roots level to raise environmental standards on farms and plantations around the world through widespread adoption of the Leaf marque scheme.""

With small gestures like these, they offer us the conscience white wash we all need to justify going to the supermarket instead of buying from local producers and strengthening the local supply chains. Meanwhile, they proceed with their other business in the usual, exploitative manner (see many previous posts). Of course, it has been argued that one should not be cynical, and that sincere efforts deserved to be given a chance, and that the consumer should ask for fully transparent means of ensuring the truth of those claims. There was a leader's comment in the latest (April 27-May 3) Guardian Weekly to that effect. I only have a print issue, it's on p 11. I'll post it if I can find it.

It is our fault (development practitioners) if our vocabulary has been hijacked by big corporations. We have used it and abused it for our own self interest, so much that it has become devoid of any true meanings. Words like "sustainability" "grass roots" or "local community" have been used and abused in so many different contexts by ourselves that they have become meaningless. And, of course, we have become guns for hire by large corporations, who have used us to give themselves credibility and "social responsibility". Why did we accept? A Jordanian-Chechen friend told me a story dating back to the Azeri-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabach. The Azeris and the Armenians were passing time during a cease fire by hurling obscenities at each others across the front lines. The Azeris were cursing in Azeri and the the Armenians in Armenian. Then, all of a sudden, insults in Chechen started coming from the Armenian side. The Azeris engaged conversation with the Chechen voice and one of them asked: "How can you fight with the Armenian infidels against your Muslim brothers?" The Chechen replied: "They pay in dollars". So do the large corporations. (This story is only told for illustration purposes. I do NOT identify the Armenians with the corporate world and the Azeris with the downtrodden).

"Mercenaries are useless
Disunited, unfaithful
They have nothing left to keep them in a battle
Other than a meagre wage
Which is just enough to want to kill for you
But not enough to want to die for you"

John Cale "Ready for War" from the album "Sabotage", mid seventies


Ms Levantine said...

Holy Ashrafieh! Quoting John Cale now? Are you trying to get me on your side?

Regarding your previous posts (Fawwaz Traboulsi and such), the 70's are over, Lebanon has changed and so has the world around us. Turns out God is not dead but Karl Marx is.

I think Souk el Tayyeb is amazing, but if the big corporations have a plan to exploit us, we should have a plan to defeat them. The crunchy granola/organic farmer of the world unite and takeover/kiss my Bierkenstock stuff is great but of limited use.

According to the DS article, Youmna Ziade won the prize for best organic products. If am not mistaken her father was the MP from Keserwan. Not exactly representative of the rural masses.

If we have a comparative advantage for quality agri. products in Lebanon we need to insure quality control, come up with branding and start advertizing in countries with Leb. communities.

You have to take a page from the conglomerate game book, fight fire with fire. The part on organic agri. fostering peace, love and understanding is great, but that and a token will get you on the subway.

As you pointed out, Italian specialized agri. took off in the 60's with aggressive branding and marketing. To this day, most of their wines and olive oils are ntg to write home about.

Time to get to the next level before we are gobbled up. Don't forget that fear is man's best friend.

Rami Zurayk said...

I wrote a long reply, but somehow the blog swallowed it. In brief, it said the following:

1. I knew the Cale bit will make you flip, I thought about you when writing it.

2. I fully realize the limited impact farmers markets have on the big picture, but at least the granola types are nice. In a place like Lebanon today, trust me, you need as much nice as you can get.

3. About exports: I've written about this before. You use (my example) of Italy. True, but Italy is given as an example of a success that was not centrally planned. Easy to believe, you know the Italian governments. People got on doing their little things, and before you knew, they had sold balsamic vinegar to the world. But remember two critical advantages they had: a) Subsidies, subsidies and subsidies, and b) their products were successful in Italy before being exported. Quality control and all the rest was implemented in Italy first because of local consumers demand. Demand on specialty products grew in Italy before moving out. In Lebanon, people are moving away from the local diet. If the Lebs stop eating their own products, why should the rest of the world consume them? If we stop eating shanklish (great cheese) why should the rest of the world want it? If the French did not eat Camembert, would the world import it? I doubt it. Gastronomy alone is not enough, although it is an important asset. Perhaps Lebanon's true competitive advantage. That and the diaspora. But the locals must want it first: they are the people who keep the food culture alive and evolving.

Ms Levantine said...

Do you really think Lebanese are moving away from their local food? Forget the Monnot/Gemmayzeh/Downtown axis, what do people eat at home? Hamburgers? Yakhneh sounds closer to reality.

We have been touring the country for a while, what did we eat in Denniyeh, 'Ainata, Adonis' village, Douer, Tripoli, Saida?

Western supermarket foods are conquering the world, but they have not won yet.

Central gov. and subsidies are not as important as they used to be. An Indian dentist from New Jersey has been lobbying to raise the ban on Indian mangoes in the US, and he succeeded, it is front page news here.

I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that all the pieces of the puzzle to support small growers are available, but we need to put them together.

Stick Haifa Wehbe smiling with a bottle of Leb. olive oil on a few bilboards in Dubai and watch the result. It might not be PC for some people, but it would work.