In celebrating the 50th anniversary of Alliance Sud, global asked the renowned Geneva sociologist and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for his assessment of the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) over the past 50 years and where he sees the need for future action. Civil society has made incredible strides, says Ziegler: 20 years ago a Responsible Business Initiative would have been unthinkable in Switzerland – but this is only the start.
global: Mr. Ziegler, Alliance Sud like several other NGOs is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What has changed since the 1970s?
Jean Ziegler: Civil society has become the new historical subject. It has in the meantime successfully mobilised the collective conscience and mounted an effective challenge to the world-dominating financial oligarchies. For the first time during the 1999 Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle, a street protest and its radical alternative consciousness caused the collapse of a round of negotiations being conducted by a global player. This other world, one of justice and human rights, rose up against the world of profit maximisation and for the first time became visible. It was a historic, electrifying moment. Civil society has become structured since the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre in 2001 – an event that had long been held in parallel to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Since the events of Seattle, civil society has been a constant and vocal presence, so much so that, no longer being able to meet in any western city, the WTO in 2001 had to retire to Doha, the capital of an obscure emirate. Seattle was a turning point. Civil society has developed remarkable dynamics since then. But let us turn to Switzerland: a referendum was held here last year on the Responsible Business Initiative, an event that would simply have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Social movements and NGOs, including Alliance Sud, have played a crucial part in the struggle against the dominating oligarchies in this country by giving voice to a radical opposition, a voice that found a positive echo among the majority of Switzerland’s citizens.
Yet Switzerland now wants to muzzle NGOs…
Indeed, the oligarchy of globalised financial capital, with the backing of Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis, wants to silence the NGOs! Yet it is only logical that they should receive funding from the development cooperation pot: anyone combating inequality, hunger and lawlessness in the world must be in a position to tackle the roots of the problems and to take political action to counter them. It is the task of NGOs to fight fiscal haemorrhaging and impunity and to oppose Switzerland’s practice of offering shelter to mafiosi, dictators and corrupt elites from developing countries.
Do you think that our work is still necessary, and if so, on which topics should we be concentrating?
We are only at the beginning and your struggle is needed, now more than ever! The capitalist system and its conception of humanity whereby human beings are productive only in terms of self-interest, must be countered. Neoliberalism regards selfishness as the driver of history. The anti-capitalists in the social movements view human beings as inspired by the wish for solidarity, reciprocity and complementarity that benefits the poorest. These are two entirely different ways of viewing human beings, the first of which leads to profit maximisation and inequality – a child under 10 years of age dies of hunger every five seconds. The capitalist says: “We can do nothing about that.” We, on the other hand, want a world order no longer based on market rules but on rights: the right to food, to a normative system that is guaranteed by the public sector through civil society and paves the way for a life of dignity and fulfilment and free from want. According to the report co-authored by the FAO and titled State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, global agriculture could easily feed 12 billion people, or almost twice the world’s current population. The massacre by hunger is therefore avoidable. Letting a child die of hunger is tantamount to murder.
In your book titled "Was ist so schlimm am Kapitalismus – Antworten auf die Fragen meiner Enkelin" (Bertelsmann 2021), you express the wish for your granddaughter to witness the end of capitalism, but you do not propose any real alternative. Are you not to an extent taking the easy way out, is capitalism the only remaining economic system?
You do me an injustice! The human impulse towards freedom will ultimately bring down capitalism. The struggle of men and women liberated from alienation, who support this new consciousness of reciprocity between nations, will gradually break through the mechanisms of oppression. The final liberation of this consciousness from capitalist alienation, from this structural violence, will signal the start of implementation of the new order, in the framework of free institutions based on respect for all economic, social and cultural rights. Today, two billion people have no access to drinking water, 62 UN Member States practise torture, and the exploitation of human beings by other human beings is rampant on our planet. We consciously repudiate this cannibalistic world order and are fighting to destroy it. What will arise on top of those ruins, we do not know. I’d like to give you an example: on 14 July 1789, workers and artisans from the industrial suburbs of Paris marched on the Bastille to free their comrades. The Bastille fell. It would have been absurd on the evening of 14 July for a journalist to ask one of the revolutionaries what the constitution of the first French republic would look like (it was promulgated four years later, introducing popular sovereignty and human rights and abolishing the absolute monarchy). The citizens who stormed the Bastille had no idea what that social movement was to achieve. Yet today, 250 years on, three-quarters of the world’s countries live under a republican constitution that enshrines respect for human rights. No-one can foresee the new world that will emerge from the hopes we harbour.
You are a great friend of Cuba, one of the world’s last remaining socialist countries. How do you assess the situation there and the government’s repression of demonstrators?
Repression is rife in Myanmar; in Cuba there were indeed some temporary detentions, but that was about restoring public order on the streets. No murderous repression like that seen in satellite countries of the capitalist oligarchy was witnessed in Cuba. That country is under the curse of the US blockade. Even a country like Switzerland would not have survived 62 years of total economic blockade. But thanks to the readiness of the Cuban people to make sacrifices, a health system was created that has even benefited me personally. Two blood transfusions saved my life. Cuban blood has been flowing through my veins since then! And Cuba has conquered hunger.
Really? The shelves are empty and the queues in front of shops are endless…
Cuba has the libreta, a food voucher system. In Brazil and in the Congo people are starving, not in Cuba.
So do you believe that Cuba’s only problem is the US blockade, that the economic and political system is not a factor?
There are always problems; one of the main challenges is avoiding inequality and the re-emergence of a class society, while at the same time promoting individual initiative. Cuba tries to strike this balance by limiting private ownership of land and buildings. That is one of the key tasks of the revolution, and allowing the private sector to develop will complicate that task and could pave the way for the misallocation of resources. Cuba is a shining example to the whole world, especially to developing countries. Think of Marx’s words: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Communism is the horizon of our history. Cuba is on its way there. The country merits our full solidarity.