Good intentions on hunger need to produce clear results

I welcome the publication of the Hunger Task Force’s excellent report. It contains not just an account of the problem but also contains quite a few compelling and clear pointers as to what might be done by countries, including Ireland, to attack this problem. I noted in particular the reference in the report to hunger being a failure of governance. If anything this is an understatement. The distinguished authors of the report state, “This amounts to a governance failure at many levels.” Perhaps the most devastating statement in the entire report is a self-evident statement but which bears repeating. “Despite numerous commitments, there appears to be a willingness amongst both the international community and national governments, to live with the current extent of global hunger.” It is unfortunate but this appears to be true. Whereas practical steps have been taken and many more can be taken, this is not a problem that we can say, with hand on heart, has in any sense been genuinely or substantively tackled by the international community with any kind of clear results in recent years, despite a considerable amount of good intentions at international level.

The Minister of State for Overseas Aid used the term, “war on hunger”. I agree with his use of such a phrase. However, it may seem a strange view but in the context of the war on terror, the notion of an international war on something has been devalued in many ways because of the manner in which that rhetoric has been used in the past six or seven years by some world leaders. The idea of a war on terror has been reduced to a rhetorical notion. When the Minister of State refers to a war on hunger I know he does not intend that to be a rhetorical statement but one that has real meaning. His reference to the question of political will is well taken because it is a question of political will. We can outline and describe the problem and give examples and recall the historical significance of hunger and famine in our own country. I do not mean to devalue the contributions but it is more difficult to ensure that the fundamental problem is dealt with.

I congratulate the authors of this report and I congratulate the Government for publishing it. We have had in recent days a good deal of political debate and argument about a certain other matter, described by a Minister as “the current position” regarding the banking and economic crisis. There will be political disagreement on that issue but there will never be political disagreement with the Government on the part of my party in so far as the Government is dealing with this issue. There will not be one moment of disagreement nor a moment of opposition from my party.

The report sets out a number of actions which the Government should take. The Minister of State concentrated on the three main areas of priority for the Government. The report also includes a section entitled, “What should Ireland do?” and this is more detailed than the three priorities listed by the Minister of State. Senator de Búrca referred in her contribution to the eradication of hunger being a cornerstone of the Government’s development aid programme. The report recommends taking a strong leadership and advocacy role in international matters and working towards an indicative target of 20% of overseas development aid in order to alleviate hunger. The fourth priority is to appoint a special envoy for hunger to ensure that these recommendations are implemented. I ask the Minister of State to state whether it would be the Government’s intention to take up that recommendation because it is not clear from his contribution whether the Government intends to appoint a special envoy for hunger. This would seem to be a practical proposal and it would ensure the implementation of many of the fine objectives and principles set out in the report.

However, as the Minister of State said, the implementation of this report requires political will. He also said that whereas money and resources are very important, they are not everything. The level of our commitment is not simply characterised by the amount of money or resources committed. I am in agreement with him on this point but we should not depart too much from the fundamental reality of the need to transfer resources in a prudent way and in a manner which ensures that people receive the value of those resources and can invest in and improve their own situations and livelihoods.

There is a fundamental imbalance of resources in the modern world. If we agree with this argument, we must take action to redress that imbalance but this is when it becomes more difficult, as has been seen in the past fortnight when the international banking system has been under threat. Even in this country we have been given a fair glimpse of where power and resources lie. We will have an opportunity to discuss that issue at a later occasion.

The relationship between governments and private enterprise and between Government and the banks is an imbalanced one. International banks and financial institutions, including some of those operating in Ireland, are far more powerful, have far more resources at their disposal and have far more influence over these issues we are discussing, than sovereign governments, including the Irish Government. This does not need to be the case because governments can step forward and assert their sovereignty and their central and important role in dealing with this question. This means that governments will fall out with big private institutions such as banks. They will need to disagree with them publicly and demand that they change their practices and help to change this imbalance.

People who own wealth do not voluntarily give it up. It will require concerted action by governments and international organisations, whether the United Nations or the European Union or governments working in co-operation in multilateral arrangements, to ensure that changes occur.

Earlier this year, a report was published by Christian Aid, entitled Death and Taxes: the True Toll of Tax Dodging. In a most compelling and engaging way, the report points out that the money and resources do exist to address hunger in our modern world, if only those who owe taxes would pay up. In Christian Aid’s own words the report “seeks to expose the scandal of a global taxation system that allows the world’s richest to duck their responsibilities while condemning the poorest to stunted development, and even premature death”. Christian Aid’s report refers to “the world’s transnational corporations wielding their enormous power to avoid [literally] the attentions of the tax man”. Moneys are moved around the world, in particular stripping resources from developing countries in ways that sovereign governments cannot even identify.

We are talking about tax havens and the inordinate power of international capital to avoid proper scrutiny and taxation. We need to address such matters domestically and internationally. The debate on taxation should be politicised. The following point may not be particularly well received by my colleagues, but I want to encourage people to think about it. This country’s rate of corporation tax is 12.5%. We have all argued for that, we support it and agree it should continue. Over the summer a number of very large corporations based in the United Kingdom moved their operations here. At least two or three such companies moved staff to occupy a few floors in a building in Dublin so they now pay corporation tax in this jurisdiction rather than in the UK. We should query what impact that move has on the resources available globally to address poverty and malnutrition. If there is a higher rate of corporation tax in one country, that money is clearly not being levied at that level and is not available to, for example, the British Government to deploy on the issues we are debating. We levy less corporation tax in this country so the overall amount of money available potentially is reduced. When we talk about our own interests and keeping taxes low, it is never the end of the story. Ultimately, all financial and economic decisions made in this country are political. In addition, far more of them than we think impact on what we are doing, or not doing, to eradicate hunger and poverty.

I welcome this report and commend the Minister on sponsoring it.

More :: Read the full debate on the Hunger Task Force Report here
More :: View the Hunger Task Force Report by clicking here (PDF)
More :: View the Christian Aid Report : ‘Death and Taxes’ by clicking here (PDF)