By Andrea Plaid
When I watched the documentary Payback, based on Margaret Atwood’s book about debt and forgiveness, I really wasn’t there for Atwood. I’ve never took a liking to her literary self since developing an intense dislike for her most famous work, The Handmaid’s Tale. The book rubbed my proto-anti-racist self the wrong way when I read it years ago. What I didn’t expect is to have her introduce me to my latest infatuation, Raj Patel.
A sect of people think he’s a god. No, seriously: a New Age sect believes Patel is a messiah predicted by their leader in 2010. Patel graciously and firmly stated at NYT.com that he wasn’t whom that set of faithful folks were looking for:
“It’s incredibly flattering, just for an instant,” Mr. Patel said of his unwanted status. “And then you realize what it means. People are looking for better times. Almost anything now will qualify as a portent of different times.”
What set off this whole series of unfortunate events is not only a set of coincidences about Patel’s life that coincide with the prophecies about the sect’s savior but also Patel’s political stance on food, activism, and development. To call Patel a “food activist” may be a bit facile: it’s more like his ideas form a unified theory of action on how food, poverty, capitalism, development, and activism is and what it needs to be.
Patel describes his own background in a 2010 interview as:
I was born in London, but I’m a mutt. My mother was born in Kenya, my father was born in Fiji, my ancestors are from India. And I grew up in London and spent, basically, most of my time in the basement of the convenience store that my parents ran.
His activism-framing moment came, he says, when he and his family visited India:
Growing up in Britain, but as part of a south Asian family was big in ways that I didn’t expect. There was this transformative moment for me that I remember – I think I was about six years old. My parents had taken me and my brother to India so that we would ‘know what is it to be Indian,’ and we would learn some Guarati, which is the language my parent spoke at home. And we were at a stop light in Bombay, I think, and we were inside a taxi and it was raining. And all of a sudden, there was this knocking sound at the window, a sort of tap, tap, tap. And outside the window was a girl, I would imagine she was an adolescent, and in her hands was a tiny baby and the baby was crying and crying and crying. And there was screaming outside the car and she was tapping on the window asking for money. And soon there was screaming inside the car because I was howling. I wanted it to stop. I wanted my parents to give her some money. And then as we drove away from the lights, I kept on howling. And I wanted to know why that was? Why was she on the outside of the car and why were we on the inside? Why does she not have a home and we did? How come we could afford to fly to India and she was begging at a street light?
Now, that kind of experience – I’m not trying to make myself out as anyone special, everyone has that moment. One of the most – something you’re guaranteed to hear in any playground are howls of “that’s not fair.” We all have that. But for me, that moment never really left me. I still carry that little girl around with me.
He earned his undergrad degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford University, a master’s degree from London School of Economics, and a PhD in Development Sociology from Cornell University. During his studies, he worked as a research assistant at the World Bank, which wound up souring him on the institution.
I was a graduate student at Cornell and one of the economics professors took me on as a research assistant. He recommended I work on a project at the World Bank reviewing their classified documents to see how they talk about poverty. I jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, the project ultimately amounted to writing a puff piece about how the poor love the World Bank.
Within the World Bank there is a culture of self-justification and an inability to comprehend that poor people might think for themselves and might have their own politics. It is an “anti-politics machine,” as James Ferguson suggests in his book The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Joining the World Bank’s mission makes you feel self-righteous about believing in the bright shining future you are a part of. And it prevents people from thinking about political alternatives. I resigned when the full weight of my research project became clear.
I’ve written about the World Bank ever since. Sometimes I apologize for having worked there, but – and I don’t know if this makes it better or worse – I did learn what it’s like. The World Bank is a bureaucracy filled with people doing bad things, with “good intentions.”
What led him to use food as the entry point of his activism is his searching for another way to understand the roots of poverty and understanding that poor people have constructed and and are constructing answers to it.
One of the things that I learned from groups around the world, particularly looking at issues of hunger, is that the root cause of hunger isn’t that there is a shortage of food. There’s more than enough food on earth today to feed everyone 1 ½ times over. We’ve go plenty of food on this planet. But there reason people are going hungry is not because of a shortage of food, but because of poverty. So, people are not sitting idly by waiting for food to fall into their laps.
What the aid complex and what modern development has done for developing countries is impose a vision of how fishing should happen. And that vision is very unsustainable and it comes from outside. It comes from Europe, it comes from North America. A vision that markets and free markets and modern capitalism is going to make life much, much better. And in the process, the ways that people have been fishing, the ways that the social organization has been managed, often very sustainably, is destroyed and swept away.
Now, one of the ways that people have been fighting back is through organizing and developing their own principles – their own ways of democratically organizing and sharing resources. And I was privileged enough to come across a number of farmers and farmers’ organizations, and landless peoples organizations that have been organizing around the principle of how to feed themselves. And the vision that they have is a vision called “food sovereignty.” Now food sovereignty is – the definition is very long and if you’re interested go to Wikipedia and check out food sovereignty, it’s a great definition. But in essence, the idea of food sovereignty is that people have the ability to be able to make their own decisions about food and agriculture policy.
Now that may not sound like terribly much. The rights to be able to make your own decisions about food policy sounds pretty vapid, it sound like it’s a right to have rights over your food system. It doesn’t seem to contain any policy. But in fact, it does. The full definition of food sovereignty demands that there are things like women’s rights being respected and agrarian reforms so that there’s fair and equal land distribution. But the actual deep idea in the idea of food sovereignty is that we need democracy in shaping our food system. We need a way of actually everyone getting around the table and having a conversation about food and agriculture and the way that people around the world get to eat and the people around the world get to develop and realize their full potential.
Now, that turns out to be pretty radical because, as I say, the history of food policy, the history of agricultural policy in poor countries has been one where people from the outside will come in, teach people how to fish, or teach people how to grow food, or essentially destroy the sustainable agriculture that exists in developing countries and replacing it with an agriculture that, at the moment, is looking increasingly unsustainable.
And so having food sovereignty, having a democratic conversation about food is actually pretty new. Most countries have never had a democratic conversation about food. We haven’t in the United States, but pretty much no country has had a democratic process where people decide, how are we going to make sure that everyone at a national level gets to eat, and that we distribute food fairly, and that we have sustainable agricultural practices so that our kids will inherit a planet and an agricultural system that sustains them as much as it sustains us.
It’s that idea that forms his first book, 2008’s Stuffed And Starved: The Hidden Battle For The World Food System. He’s expanded on that idea to look critically at 21st-century capitalism itself in his 2010 book, The Value Of Nothing. His organizing and academic career has moved him to, among several places, South Africa (as a research associate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Development Studis and with Abahlali baseMjondolo and Landless People’s Movement) and the US (as a visiting scholar at University of California-Berkeley’s Center of African Studies and with the 1999 protest against the WTO conference held in Seattle).
So, what exactly did Patel say in Payback that enchanted me so in that when-you-talk-I-just-watch-your-mouth moment?
When we think about where the tomatoes from Immokolee end up, they’re everywhere. They’re everywhere from [sic] Wal-mart to McDonald’s. They appear cheap when they’re sold in supermarkets or when in hamburgers. And so, we don’t realize that we are in debt to workers who are paid far below minimum wage and held in degrading and inhuman conditions. Because that debt never features in our consciousness and, as consumers, we’re encouraged to never think about what it is that we owe. We’re never encouraged to think about the process of production of the goods and services we consume.
So hey, thanks, Ms. Atwood for bringing Dr. Patel into my world. I’m still not here for The Handmaid’s Tale, though.