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On March 5, the United Nation’s 5th Least Developed Countries (LDC) Decade of Action Conference will formally open in Doha, Qatar. IATP will be there, together with an anticipated 600 or so others from civil society, mingling with Heads of LDC states and their staff, a variety of U.N. Heads of Office, officials and agencies, parliamentarians and other non-governmental actors, including the private sector and youth groups.

What is the conference about?

The U.N. established the LDC designation in 1971. In the U.N.’s language, the category was in recognition of a need for “special attention” to be paid to less developed countries with “low per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and the presence of structural impediments to growth.” At the time, 25 countries met the criteria that were established to decide which countries were eligible for targeted international support measures (ISM) related to trade and finance; today, there are 46 in the group, most of them in Africa, and ISM now also include climate change adaptation. These measures are reviewed in decennial conferences, including this 5th conference, known as LDC5; the conferences are also moments to negotiate and adopt the Program of Action for the next decade.

Unusually, the conference in Qatar begins with an already agreed upon agenda. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, LCD5 was split into two parts; the Doha Program of Action (DPoA) was adopted in New York in March 2022, at the first part, with many key stakeholders absent. Now, at the second part of the conference, other stakeholders including civil society and parliamentarians will gather to consider and contribute to the implementation of DPoA, a document noteworthy for its extensive promises of “structural transformation” of the LDCs towards sustainable “graduation.”

What are LDCs?

In the 50 years since the LDC category was created, the criteria that define LDC status have grown more complex. Today, there are three categories of indicators: one clustered around income per capita (converted into USD, the threshold is an income of $1,018 or less per person in the country); a second looks at human development indicators, such as health, including infant mortality, and education, including gender parity in education; and a third group looks at economic and environmental vulnerability. Notably, that third category includes several measures about agriculture; the larger the share of agriculture, hunting, forestry and fishing in the country’s GDP, the more vulnerable it is considered to be. Other vulnerability indicators include lack of access to the sea, an undiversified export sector, volatile export quantities, a large share of the population living at or close to sea level in coastal zones, a large share of the population living in drylands and a large share of people in zones where natural disasters are common.

Left behind or trapped?

Poverty is multifaceted, as the range of these indicators suggests. Many LDCs face intractable domestic problems, not least of which is conflict — consider Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar or South Sudan; too many suffer the consequences of unaccountable and authoritarian governments. Foreign powers, including the United States and other major donor governments, may collude with these governments or play an active role in domestic politics.

But more importantly, LDCs are not so much “left behind” by the global economy, to use the phrase from the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as they are integrated into world markets on deeply unequal terms. Those terms reflect patterns of colonial exploitation that date back sometimes hundreds of years, but also new and updated systems of exploitation, including deeply unfair rules around both public and private debt servicing and international trade. Those rules trap LDCs in a vicious cycle of relying on imported food and fertilizer for their food security, creating the need to generate foreign exchange to pay for those imports, which pushes even more land into cash crop production for export at the cost of biodiverse, climate resilient ecosystems. All of this comes with an opportunity cost, taking away resources that could instead be invested in diverse local food production and distribution systems for lasting domestic food security, reducing risk and exposure on international markets.

Where does IATP come in?

There is a powerful moral case to care for those who are most vulnerable in the social and economic systems that benefit us. Given its subcontinental size and population, the U.S. is extraordinarily rich by any measure; its public expenditures are almost twice as big as the next ranked country ($9.8 trillion compared to China’s, in second place, at $5.4 trillion). As a U.S.-based NGO, IATP is also committed to holding the U.S. government accountable for the effects its actions have overseas. The U.S. is an outsized power in multilateral spaces and is not shy to use that power. The decisions and actions taken by the U.S. government affect people’s wellbeing everywhere.

But there is a more particular reason to go to Qatar: We want to join our partners to tell a compelling story of hope and possibility, rather than simply injustice and vulnerability. That story is of agroecology and food sovereignty and food systems that protect food security while building resilience and adaptive capacity. Agroecology offers an approach to food systems that limits dependence on imported inputs, such as hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers. It builds on the local knowledge of farmers and food workers, coupled with science; agroecology never loses sight of context and local conditions and uses methodologies that are open to adaptation and change. Crucially, rather than relying on rents paid to seed companies based halfway around the world, whose products require expensive (and proprietarily controlled) inputs, agroecology works on principles like the circular economy, fair wages and minimizing waste.

Agroecology and food sovereignty

Agroecology is closely linked to food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is defined as the ability of politically organized communities to choose what food to produce and how to produce and distribute it. Agroecology’s principle of democratic control links to this political dimension of food sovereignty, asserting the importance of involving the communities that grow and consume food in the decisions made about food system investments and regulation.

LDCs are full of examples of agroecology at work (see here for examples from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, one of our partners in an event at the LDC Civil Society Forum). IATP believes LDC governments should work with their farmers and farm workers, their food processors and distributors to protect the biodiverse, natural wealth they have and to build a more resilient path to food security. Instead of agriculture creating a drain on national wealth through reliance on foreign exchange to buy inputs, fossil fuels to power value chains and imported grains to make up food supply shortfalls, agroecology presents a pathway towards food systems that meet multiple needs — social, economic and environmental — for all, while protecting the public interest.

Advocating for agroecological transitions

Agroecology offers powerful benefits for social and ecological indicators that are missed by more limited economic measures, such as income per capita. Instead of pursuing efficiency and seeking to squeeze profit all along the value chain by externalizing costs and minimizing the role of labor, agroecology is focused on the well-being of the whole community, including public health and varied, nutritious diets; local distribution and storage infrastructure, not least for disaster-preparedness (including international price shocks); and healthy soils and well managed freshwater supplies to protect the ecosystems and biodiversity that provide adaptive capacity as local conditions change. Locally controlled food systems also protect and promote culture and social ties and are core to Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty.

The whole world must transition to just and sustainable food systems: Rich countries and LDCs alike need to transform how they do agriculture. Agroecological principles offer a pathway to that transformation. It starts at home, with locally owned and controlled seed systems, and investments in markets that reduce input costs for producers and reduce the demand for energy. Cheap calories on the back of the Green Revolution have come at an enormous cost that the planet cannot afford any longer. Agroecology offers a science-based approach that builds on and works with farmers’ knowledge, amplifying rather than displacing context-specific knowledge.

Plenary on agroecology in Doha

In this context, we are co-organizing an event on agroecological transitions, rooted in the concept of food sovereignty with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), Groundswell International, UBINIG, Food Information Action Network (FIAN), ROPPA, SID, SEARICE, PLD, RAPDA-Togo and Cultivate. Our March 6 in-person event will share stories of building resilience through agroecological transitions from multiple perspectives and will discuss the “how” and “what” of public investments in agroecology necessary for addressing the structural barriers that LDCs face, including food import dependence and high levels of food insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic, armed conflicts, wars or climate change, as well as (for many) dependence on agricultural commodity exports. Agroecology provides a framework to look simultaneously at an inclusive and green transformation in the food and agricultural sector, while helping meet multiple sustainable development goals. 

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