Zambia

Child labor and forced labor in cotton production — is there a current WTO mandate to identify and quantify the distortive effects?

In yesterday’s post (January 24), I reviewed the continued widespread human rights issue of child labor and forced labor in the production of a wide range of products (agricultural, manufactured, mined products) in many countries around the world. Such actions raise trade concerns by distorting the costs of production of products made with such labor and hence potentially skewing trade flows towards producers “benefitting” from the use of such labor. See January 24, 2021:  Forced labor and child labor – a continued major distortion in international trade for some products, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/24/forced-labor-and-child-labor-a-continued-major-distortion-in-international-trade-for-some-products/. In the United States, imports of products made with such labor are supposed to be banned. I had concluded by arguing that the WTO should develop information that would help Members understand the quantity of products that are made with child or forced labor and permit Members to then decide what actions were needed to eliminate or offset such practices.

I received a comment on yesterday’s post from Amb. Dennis Shea, the Former Deputy United States Trade Representative and Chief of Mission on international trade issues in Geneva and the Permanent Representative of the U.S. to the WTO (2017-January 2021). Amb. Shea’s comment focused on cotton. He said, “The WTO’s Committee on Agriculture in Special Session (COA-SS) and its Cotton Subcommittee are charged with examining all trade-distorting policies affecting the cotton sector in order to discharge its mandate properly. It seems to me that the COA-SS and Cotton Subcommittee should examine recent reports of widespread forced labor in the picking of cotton in the Xinjiang Province of China. It is my understanding that Xinjiang accounts for nearly 20 percent of global cotton exports, so it’s probably not a stretch to say that forced labor practices there (horrific from a human rights standpoint) are also distorting global cotton prices.”

While cotton is but one of many products believed to be produced by child and/or forced labor, it is an important product globally. The fact that there may be an existing WTO mechanism for developing the relevant information is potentially important.

In yesterday’s post, I had referenced an upcoming WITA virtual webinar, The U.S. Moves Against Forced Labor in Xinjiang, being held this Wednesday, January 27. One of the speakers at the event is Dr. Adrian Zenz, Senior Fellow in China Studies, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Washington, D.C. One of the papers referenced in a recent WITA note is by Dr. Zenz for the Center for Global Policy entitled “Coercive Labor in Xinjiang: Labor Transfer and the Mobilization of Ethnic Minorities to Pick Cotton” (December 2020), https://cgpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/20201214-PB-China-Zenz-1-3.pdf. The paper confirms that Xinjiang produces 20% of global cotton and nearly 84.9% of all cotton produced in China. Id. at 3. The Executive Summary of the paper states in part (page 3) —

“The evidence shows that in 2018, three Uyghur regions alone mobilized at least 570,000 persons into cotton-picking operations through the government’s coercive labor training and transfer scheme. Xinjiang’s total labor transfer of ethnic minorities into cotton picking likely exceeds that figure by several hundred thousand.

“Despite increased mechanization, cotton picking in Xinjiang continues to rely strongly on manual labor. In 2019, about 70 percent of the region’s cotton fields had to be picked by hand – especially the high-quality
long-staple cotton predominantly grown in southern Xinjiang’s Uyghur regions, where mechanized picking shares are low. State policies have greatly increased the numbers of local ethnic minority pickers, reducing
reliance on outside Han Chinese migrant laborers. The intensive two- to three-month period of cotton picking represents a strategic opportunity to boost rural incomes, and therefore plays a key role in achieving the state’s poverty alleviation targets. These targets are mainly achieved through coercive labor transfers.

“Cotton picking is grueling and typically poorly paid work. Labor transfers involve coercive mobilization
through local work teams, transfers of pickers in tightly supervised groups, and intrusive on-site surveillance by government officials and (in at least some cases) police officers. Government supervision teams monitor pickers, checking that they have a “stable” state of mind, and administer political indoctrination sessions. Some regions put Uyghur children and elderly persons into centralized care while working-age adults
are away on state-assigned cotton-picking work assignments. While not directly related to the campaign of mass internment, these labor transfers can include persons who have been released from internment camps.

“The data presented in this report provides strong evidence that the production of the majority of Xinjiang’s cotton involves a coercive, state-run program targeting ethnic minority groups.”

China is not the only country where the U.S. Department of Labor has identified production of cotton is likely done with child labor, forced labor or child labor and forced labor. See USDOL, 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, September 2020, https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf. Indeed many of the world’s largest cotton producers are listed in the report as likely producing cotton with child labor, forced labor or both child labor and forced labor:

Child labor: Argentina, Azerbaizan, Brazil, Egypt, India, Kyrgyz Republic, Mali, Turkey, Zambia.

Forced labor: Pakistan, Uzbekistan

Child labor and forced labor: China, India (cottonseed), Turkmenistan.

In the past there has been one WTO dispute on subsidies to cotton producers in the United States. See UNITED STATES – SUBSIDIES ON UPLAND COTTON, WT/DS267 (case brought by Brazil). I have been unable to find information on the WTO webpage that indicates the question of child or forced labor as a subsidy or other form of nontariff barrier has ever been examined at the WTO whether on cotton or more broadly.

For the last seventeen years, there has been concern about distortions to the cotton trade and the harm to countries for which cotton is a major export product. The breakout of cotton occurred at the request of the so-called Cotton Four — Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali. See Cotton, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/agric_e/cotton_e.htm.

“Cotton is discussed at the WTO on two tracks: 1) the trade reforms needed to address subsidies and high trade barriers for cotton, and 2) the assistance provided to the cotton sector in developing countries.

“The trade aspects of cotton are handled by the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session including through dedicated discussions on trade in cotton. The development assistance aspects of cotton are discussed in the meetings of the ‘Director-General’s Consultative Framework Mechanism on Cotton’.

“These various tracks of discussion have been developed over the years as a response to a series of proposals to address the sector tabled by four African countries — Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali — known as the Cotton Four or C4.”

While WTO Members are supposed to be reporting information on various categories of data (including domestic support) on cotton and on non-tariff barriers affecting trade in cotton, the latest WTO Secretariat compilation of information does not indicate that Members were asked about or provided information on the benefits to domestic cotton production from child labor and/or forced labor. See COTTON — BACKGROUND PAPER BY THE SECRETARIAT, TN/AG/GEN/34/Rev.13, TN/AG/SCC/GEN/13/Rev.13, 2 November 2020 (and Add.1 and Add.2); COTTON — MINISTERIAL DECISION OF 7 DECEMBER 2013, WT/MIN(13)/41, WT/L/916, 11 December 2013 (“3. In this context, we therefore undertake to enhance transparency and monitoring in relation to the trade-related aspects of cotton. To this end, we agree to hold a dedicated discussion on a biannual basis in the context of the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session to examine relevant trade-related developments across the three pillars of Market Access, Domestic Support and Export Competition in relation to cotton. 4. The dedicated discussions shall be undertaken on the basis of factual information and data compiled by the WTO Secretariat from Members’ notifications, complemented, as appropriate, by relevant information provided by Members to the WTO Secretariat. 5. The dedicated discussions shall in particular consider all forms of export subsidies for cotton and all export measures with equivalent effect, domestic support for cotton and tariff measures and non-tariff measures applied to cotton exports from LDCs in markets of interest to them.”); COTTON — MINISTERIAL DECISION OF 19 DECEMBER 2015, WT/MIN(15)/46, WT/L/981, 21 December 2015. The background paper (without addenda) is embedded below.

TNAGGEN34R13

Thus, there is an existing forum for developing information on all distortions to the cotton market. Yet, to date, the WTO subcommittee on Cotton is not examining the widespread issue of child labor and forced labor as part of its information gathering. This is unfortunate but could be addressed if there is a will to in fact flag all distortions.

There can be arguments pro and con on whether all child labor and forced labor constitutes actionable subsidies under the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. While I believe that the practices identified as being used in Xinjiang constitute actionable subsidies (government action which provides inputs (labor) at rates lower than market), there can be no doubt that the failure of governments to eliminate child labor and forced labor distorts competition between those obtaining products through the use of such labor and others who are not using such labor. The use of child labor and forced labor are universally condemned and supposed to be eliminated by 2025 (child labor) or 2030 (forced labor) pursuant to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The WTO can and should develop the factual basis for an understanding of the trade distortions flowing from child labor and forced labor. The existence of a current program at the WTO on cotton to develop information on all forms of subsidies and all forms of non-tariff barriers is a good place to start the exercise. My thanks to Amb. Shea for flagging the potential existing vehicles within the WTO to address at least cotton.

Forced labor and child labor — a continued major distortion in international trade for some products

In recent years, the United States has paid more attention to the trade distortions flowing from forced labor and child labor in other countries, particularly in China. While there has been significant progress in the last twenty years in reducing forced labor and child labor globally according to the International Labor Organization (“ILO”), the COVID-19 pandemic has seen some retrenchment and efforts by China to address minorities in country have created an international backlash and concern.

The ILO webpage on forced labor reflects the global nature of the problem. The webpage states in part,

“Although forced labour is universally condemned, ILO estimates show that 24.9 million people around the world are still subjected toit. Of the total number of victims of forced labour, 20.8 million (83 per cent) are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises, and the remaining 4.1 million (17 per cent) are in State-imposed forms of forced labour. Among those exploited by private individuals or enterprises, 8 million (29 per cent) are victims of forced sexual exploitation and 12 million (64 per cent) of forced labour exploitation. Forced labour in the private economy generates some US$ 150 billion in illegal profits every year: two thirds of the estimated total (or US$ 99 billion) comes from commercial sexual exploitation, while another US$ 51 billion is a result from forced economic exploitation in domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities (Note 1).

“Vestiges of slavery are still found in some parts of Africa, while forced labour in the form of coercive recruitment is present in many countries of Latin America, in certain areas of the Caribbean and in other parts of the world. In numerous countries, domestic workers are trapped in situations of forced labour, and in many cases they are restrained from leaving the employers’ home through threats or violence. Bonded labour persists in South Asia, where millions of men, women and children are tied to their work through a vicious circle of debt. In Europe and North America, a considerable number of women and children are victims of traffickers, who sell them to networks of forced prostitution or clandestine sweat-shops. Finally, forced labour is still used as a punishment for expressing political views.

“For many governments around the world, the elimination of forced labour remains an important challenge in the 21st century. Not only is forced labour a serious violation of a fundamental human right, it is a leading cause of poverty and a hindrance to economic development. ILO standards on forced labour, associated with well-targeted technical assistance, are the main tools at the international level to combat this scourge.”

ILO, International Labour Standards on Forced labour, https://www.ilo.org/global/standards/subjects-covered-by-international-labour-standards/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm. See also ILO and Walk Free, 2017, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, Forced Labor and Forced Marriage, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf.

Child labor involves more people – an estimated 152 million of which 73 million are involved in hazardous work. See ILO, International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and Forced Labour (IPEC+), https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/how-the-ilo-works/flagships/ipec-plus/lang–en/index.htm.

While the incidence of forced labor and child labor is declining, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated trends as these populations are most vulnerable. See, e.g., ILO, The International Labour Organization
and the US Department of Labor partnership to eliminate child labour and forced labour, 2019, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_norm/@ipec/documents/publication/wcms_710971.pdf (“The ILO’s most recent global estimates of child labour indicate, however, that significant progress is
being made. From 2000 to 2016, there was a net reduction of 94 million children in child labour and
the number of children in hazardous work was halved. In parallel, the ILO Worst Forms of Child
Labour Convention (No. 182) was ratified by 186 countries, reaching almost universal ratification.
The challenges ahead, however, remain formidable: in 2016, 152 million girls and boys were in child
labour and 25 million men, women and children were trapped in forced labour.”); ILO, COVID-19 impact on
child labour and forced labour: The response of the IPEC+ Flagship Programme, 2020, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_745287.pdf (“COVID-19 has plunged the world into a crisis of unprecedented scope and scale. Undoubtedly, restoring global health remains the first priority, but the strict measures required are resulting in massive economic and social shocks. As lockdown, quarantine, physical distancing and other isolation measures to suppress transmission continue, the global economy has plunged into a recession. The harmful effects of this pandemic will not be distributed equally. They are expected to be most damaging in the poorest countries and in the poorest neighbourhoods, and for those in already disadvantaged or vulnerable situations, such as
children in child labour and victims of forced labour and human trafficking, particularly women and girls.
These vulnerable groups are more affected by income shocks due to the lack of access to social protection,
including health insurance and unemployment benefits. * * * Experience from previous crisis situations, such as the 2014 Ebola epidemic, has shown that these factors play a particularly strong role in exacerbating the risk to child labour and forced labour.”).

In China, the government’s efforts to “reeducate” minority populations (e.g., Uyghurs from the western region of Xinjiang) has led to allegations of forced labor on a range of products and actions by the United States to restrict certain imports from China from the region. The Washington International Trade Association is holding a virtual webinar on January 27 looking at the challenges in China and the forced labor problem of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the resulting U.S. ban on cotton and tomato products. See WITA, WITA’s Friday Focus on Trade, Vol. 206, January 22, 2021 (containing various articles on the China forced labor issue and referencing the webinar on January 27, WITA Webinar: The U.S. Moves Against Forced Labor in Xinjiang).

The U.S. Department of Labor in September released its 2020 list of products believed to be produced in foreign countries with forced labor or with child labor. See USDOL, 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, September 2020, https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf. The report provides the following statement of purpose:

“The U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL or the Department) has produced this ninth edition of the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor in accordance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), as amended. The TVPRA requires USDOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB or the Bureau) to “develop and make available to the public a list of goods from countries that
[ILAB] has reason to believe are produced by forced labor or child labor in violation of international standards” (TVPRA List or the List; 22 U.S.C. § 7112(b)(2)(C)). It also requires submission of the TVPRA List to the United States Congress not later than December 1, 2014, and every 2 years thereafter (22 U.S.C. § 7112(b)(3)).

“The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2018 expanded ILAB’s mandate to require the TVPRA List to include, ‘to the extent practicable, goods that are produced with inputs that are produced with forced labor or child labor’” (22 U.S.C. 7112(b)(2)(C)).

“The TVPRA directs ILAB ‘to work with persons who are involved in the production of goods on the list … to create a standard set of practices that will reduce the likelihood that such persons will produce goods using [child labor or forced labor],’ and ‘to consult with other departments and agencies of the United States Government to reduce forced and child labor internationally and ensure that products made by forced labor and child labor in violation of international standards are not imported into the United States’ (22 U.S.C. § 7112(b)(2)(D)–(E)).” (pages 1 and 3).

This year’s publication lists 77 countries that have one or more products believed to be produced with child labor, with forced labor or with both child and forced labor. Fourteen countries are listed as having products believed to be produced with forced labor. Thirty-six countries are listed as believed to produce products with child and forced labor. Sixty-four countries produce some products with child labor. The 77 countries are listed below along with whether products are believed produced with child labor, forced labor, or child labor & forced labor.

Afghanistan — child larbor; child labor & forced labor

Angola — child labor & forced labor

Argentina — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Azerbaijan — child labor

Bangladesh – child labor; child labor & forced labor

Belize — child labor

Benin — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Bolivia — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Brazil — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Burkina Faso — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Burma — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Cambodia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Cameroon — child labor

Central African Republic — child labor

Chad — child labor

China — forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Colombia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Costa Rica — child labor

Cote d’Ivoire — child labor & forced labor

Democratic Republic of the Congo — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Dominican Republic — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Ecuador — child labor

Egypt — child labor

El Salvador — child labor

Eswatini — child labor

Ethiopia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Ghana — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Guatemala — child labor

Guinea — child labor

Honduras — child labor

India — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Indonesia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Iran — child labor

Kazakhstan — child labor & forced labor

Kenya — child labor

Kyrgyz Republic — child labor

Lebanon — child labor

Lesotho — child labor

Liberia — child labor

Madagascar — child labor

Malawi — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Malaysia — forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Mali — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Mauritania — child labor

Mexico — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Mongolia — child labor

Mozambique — child labor

Nepal — child labor & forced labor

Nicaragua — child labor

Niger — child labor; forced labor

Nigeria — child labor; child labor & forced labor

North Korea — forced labor

Pakistan — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Panama — child labor

Paraguay — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Peru — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Philippines — child labor

Russia — forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Rwanda — child labor

Senegal — child labor

Sierra Leone –child labor; child labor & forced labor

South Sudan — child labor & forced labor

Sudan — child labor

Suriname — child labor

Taiwan — forced labor

Tajikistan — child labor & forced labor

Tanzania — child labor

Thailand — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Turkey — child labor

Turkmenistan — child labor & forced labor

Uganda — child labor

Ukraine — child labor

Uzbekistan — forced labor

Venezuela — forced labor

Vietnam — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Yemen — child labor

Zambia — child labor

Zimbabwe — child labor

While the number of products obviously vary by country and category, the report categorized agriculture as having 68 child labor listings and 29 forced labor listings. This compares to manufacturing with 39 child labor and 20 forced labor listings; mining showed 32 child labor and 13 forced labor listings and pornography showed one each.

Looking at specific products for individual countries provides the most information.

As an example, China is shown as having the following products believed to be produced with forced labor — Artificial Flowers, Christmas Decorations, Coal, Fish, Footwear, Garments, Gloves, Hair Products, Nails, Thread/Yarn, and Tomato Products. China is also shown as having the following products believed to be produced with child labor and forced labor — Bricks, Cotton, Electronics, Fireworks, Textiles, and Toys. As a USDOL separate post notes, gloves, hair products, textiles, thread/yarn and tomato products were added in 2020 because of research on the forced labor situation in Xinjiang. See USDOL, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, Against Their Will: The Situation in Xinjiang, Forced Labor in Xinjiang, 2020, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/against-their-will-the-situation-in-xinjiang. The document is embedded below.

Against-Their-Will_-The-Situation-in-Xinjiang-_-U.S.-Department-of-Labor

Looking at India, products believed to be produced with child labor include the following — Bidis (hand-rolled
cigarettes), Brassware, Cotton, Fireworks, Footwear, Gems, Glass Bangles, Incense (agarbatti), Leather Goods/
Accessories, Locks, Matches, Mica, Silk Fabric, Silk Thread, Soccer Balls, Sugarcane, Thread/Yarn. Products believed produced with child labor & forced labor include the following — Bricks, Carpets, Cottonseed (hybrid), Embellished Textiles, Garments, Rice, Sandstone, Stones.

While the USDOL reports don’t estimate the portion of exports from any country of individual products that are produced with child and/or forced labor, the trade consequences can be significant as such labor is artificially valued creating distortions in competitiveness and resulting trade flows. For example, the list of products for China are either important export products for China or important inputs into exported products. The same would true for India and for many other of the 77 countries on the list.

Conclusion

The U.S. has in place statutory provisions which permit the exclusion from entry into the United states of products produced with forced labor. The Trump Administration did a somewhat better job enforcing U.S. law on imports of products produced with child or forced labor. Much more can be done and should be done domestically.

Similarly, the ILO is working to eliminate forced labor and child labor consistent with UN Sustainable Development Goals. “The objective of the IPEC+ Global Flagship Programme – in line with Target 8.7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted by the United Nations in 2015 – is to provide ILO leadership in global efforts to eradicate all forms of child labour by 2025 and all forms of contemporary slavery and human trafficking by 2030. It also aims to ensure that all people are protected from – and can protect themselves against – these gross human rights violations.” ILO, IPEC+ Global Flagship Programme Implementation, Towards a world free from child labour and forced labour, page 4, 2020, https://respect.international/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/wcms_633435.pdf.

The WTO could play a role in the fight against forced labor and child labor. Such labor practices distort global trade flows in addition to the challenges created for countries engaged in such practices in terms of poverty and human rights abuses. The WTO could gather information from Members on the volume of production and exports of products produced with child and forced labor both as finished products and as inputs into other products. Such an exercise would facilitate an understanding of the extent of global trade represented by such products and help focus attention on trade actions that could be taken to help Members eliminate such harmful practices. While it is unlikely that Members will agree to such a data gathering undertaking, one is surely needed and would add transparency to a source of an important global issue with trade as well as non-trade dimensions.

Food Security Complications from COVID-19 – Recent UN Information and G20 and WTO Member Statements

With the global health crisis flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, the world is also facing the specter of mass starvation flowing from a combination of ongoing armed conflicts, weather events, export restraints on food and potential disruptions in food supply. Export restraints and disruptions in food supply are increasing based on actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governments of the world are understandably focused on the health pandemic where known deaths since December are approaching 200,000 with confirmed cases over 2.5 million and continuing to increase. To date Europe and the United States and a few other countries account for the vast majority of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19, though nearly all countries have some cases and many other countries could see rapidly growing cases in the weeks and months ahead.

In contrast, the number of people in the world facing acute hunger and possible starvation is staggering with death projections for 2020 in key months of likely shortage as high as 300,000/day or more without concerted efforts to prevent! On April 21, David Beasley, the UN World Food Programme Executive Director made a virtual presentation to the UN Security Council. https://www.wfp.org/news/wfp-chief-warns-hunger-pandemic-covid-19-spreads-statement-un-security-council. His statement is reproduced below.

Forgive me for speaking bluntly, but I’d like to lay out for you very clearly what the world is facing at this very moment. At the same time while dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic, we are also on the brink of a hunger
pandemic.

“In my conversations with world leaders over the past many months, before the Coronavirus even became an issue, I was saying that 2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II for a number of reasons.

“Such as the wars in Syria and Yemen. The deepening crises in places like South Sudan and, as Jan Egeland will no doubt set out, Burkina Faso and the Central Sahel region. The desert locust swarms in Africa, as Director General Qu highlighted in his remarks. And more frequent natural disasters and changing weather patterns. The economic crisis in Lebanon affecting millions of Syrian refugees. DRC, Sudan, Ethiopia. And the list goes on. We’re already facing a perfect storm.

“So today, with COVID-19, I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the spectre of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.

“This sounds truly shocking but let me give you the numbers: 821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, chronically hungry, and as the new Global Report on Food Crises published today shows, there are a further 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse. That means 135 million people on earth are marching towards the brink of starvation. But now the World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to the Coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. That’s a total of 265 million people.

“On any given day now, WFP offers a lifeline to nearly 100 million people, up from about 80 million just a few years ago. This includes about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive. If we can’t reach these people with the life-saving assistance they need, our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period. This does not include the increase of starvation due to COVID-19.

“In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation. In many places, this human suffering is the heavy price of conflict.

“At WFP, we are proud that this Council made the historic decision to pass Resolution 2417 in May 2018. It was amazing to see the council come together. Now we have to live up to our pledge to protect the most vulnerable and act immediately to save lives.

“But this is only in my opinion only the first part of the strategy needed to protect conflict-riven countries from a hunger pandemic caused by the Coronavirus. There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.

“This is why I am talking about a hunger pandemic. It is critical we come together as one united global community to defeat this disease, and protect the most vulnerable nations and communities from its potentially devastating effects.”

Lockdowns and economic recession are expected to lead to a major loss of income among the working poor. Overseas remittances will also drop sharply – this will hurt countries such as Haiti, Nepal, and Somalia just a name a couple. The loss of tourism receipts will damage countries such as Ethiopia, where it accounts for 47% of total exports. The collapsing oil prices in lower-income countries like South Sudan will have an impact significantly, where oil accounts for 98.8% of total exports. And, of course, when donor countries’ revenues are down, how much impact will this have on life saving foreign aid.

The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 are most worrisome for communities in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, because the virus threatens further damage to the lives and livelihoods of people already put at risk by conflict.

“WFP and our partners are going all-out to help them we’ll do everything we possibly can. For example, we know that children are particularly vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition, so we are prioritizing assistance to them.

“Right now, as you may now 1.6 billion children and young people are currently out of school due to lockdown closures. Nearly 370 million children are missing out on nutritious school meals – you can only imagine when children don’t get the nutrition they need their immunity goes down. Where nutritious school meals have been suspended by school closures, we are working to replace them with take-home rations, wherever possible.

“As you know, WFP is the logistics backbone for the humanitarian world and even more so now for the global effort to beat this pandemic. We have delivered millions upon millions of personal protective equipment, testing kits and face masks to 78 countries on behalf of the World Health Organization. We are also running humanitarian air services to get frontline health professionals doctors, nurses, and humanitarian staff into countries that need help, especially while passenger air industry is basically about shut down.

“But we need to do so much more, and I urge this Council to lead the way. First and foremost, we need peace. As the Secretary-General recently said very clearly, a global ceasefire is essential.

Second, we need all parties involved in conflicts to give us swift and unimpeded humanitarian access to all vulnerable communities, so they can get the assistance to them that they need, regardless of who they are or where they are. We also need in a very general sense humanitarian goods and commercial trade to continue flowing across borders, because they are the lifeline of global food systems as well as the global economy. Supply chains have to keep moving if we are going to overcome this pandemic and get food from where it is produced to where it is needed. It also means resisting the temptation to introduce export bans or import subsidies, which can lead to price hikes and almost always backfire.

“WFP is working hand in glove with governments to build and strengthen national safety nets. This is critical right now to ensure fair access to assistance and help maintain peace and prevent rising tensions among communities.

Third, we need coordinated action to support life-saving humanitarian assistance. For example, WFP is implementing plans to preposition three months’ worth of food and cash to serve country operations identified as priorities. We are asking donors to accelerate the (US) $1.9 billion in funding that has already been pledged, so we can build stockpiles and create these life-saving buffers, and protect the most vulnerable from the effects of supply chain disruptions, commodity shortages, economic damage and lockdowns. You understand exactly what I’m talking about.

“We are also requesting a further USD350 million to set up a network of logistics hubs and transport systems to keep humanitarian supply chains moving around the world. They will also provide field hospitals and medical evacuations to the frontline humanitarian and health workers, as needed and strategically.

“Excellencies, two years ago the Security Council took a landmark step when it recognized, and condemned, the devastating human toll of conflict paid in poverty and hunger. Resolution 2417 also highlighted the need for early warning systems, and today I am here to raise that alarm.

“There are no famines yet. But I must warn you that if we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.

“The actions we take will determine our success, or failure, in building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies. The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely – and let’s act fast. I do believe that with our expertise and partnerships, we can bring together the teams and the programs necessary to make certain the COVID-19 pandemic does not become a humanitarian and food crisis catastrophe. So Mr. President, thank you, thank you very much.

Emphasis added. See also https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1062272.

The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises mentioned in Mr. Beasley’s statement can be found here and is embedded below. https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000114546/download/?_ga=2.200353390.1965067900.1587648297-1190105299.1587648297.

GRFC_2020_ONLINE_200420

Fifty-six countries or territories are listed as at various levels of concern for hunger in 2019 and potentially for 2020 and are summarized on pages 214-215 of the report. Eleven of the fifty-six countries or territories are categorized as at a phase 4 level (emergency) for the country as a whole or for particular parts. These include Afghanistan, Angola, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Twenty-one others are categorized as phase 3 (crisis). These include Burkino Faso, Cameron, Chad, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Uganada, and the United Republic of Tanzania. Eight countries or territories were ranked phase 2 (stressed). These included Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya and Nicaragua. Two countries or territories were listed as phase 1 (minimal)(Burundi and Rwanda). The remaining fourteen countries or territories had not been given a specific phase, some because the problem related to the presence of large numbers of refugees and what might happen during the year; for others the descriptions of the hunger challenges would suggest serious problems. These countries or territories include Bangladesh, Colombia, Djibouti, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Myanmar, Palestine, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela.

While the bulk of the concerns raised in the report go to ongoing conflicts and weather problems, trade restrictions are potentially important contributors. As reviewed in an earlier post, a number of countries have imposed export restraints on certain agricultural goods. With the exception of Myanmar and Ukraine who are listed in the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, the other countries reviewed in my earlier post are not included in the report. These countries include Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonsia and Cambodia. The earlier post is linked below.

G20 Agriculture Ministers Communique

Following a virtual meeting on April 21, G20 Agriculture Ministers released a Ministerial Statement that reaffirmed “the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products and inputs essential for agircultural and food production”. The Statement can be found here. https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/G20_Agriculture%20Ministers%20Meeting_Statement_EN.pdf. The statement covers a fair amount of ground but doesn’t prohibit export restraints per se in agriculture but rather repeats the limitations (reflecting existing WTO flexibilities) that trade ministers articulated for medical supplies – any restraints should be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. The full statement is reproduced below.

“We, the G20 Agriculture Ministers, are deeply saddened by the devastating human losses and suffering caused by the spread of COVID-19. We commit to cooperating closely and taking concrete actions to safeguard global food security and nutrition.

‘We reaffirm the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products, and inputs essential for agricultural and food production across borders in line with our Leaders’ Statement on COVID-19 of March 26, 2020. We acknowledge the challenges of minimizing the risk of COVID-19 while keeping food supply chains functioning. We will continue to work to ensure the health, safety, welfare, and mobility of workers in agriculture and throughout the food supply chain.

We will guard against any unjustified restrictive measures that could lead to excessive food price volatility in international markets and threaten the food security and nutrition of large proportions of the world population, especially the most vulnerable living in environments of low food security. We agree that emergency measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic must be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary, and that they do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global food supply chains, and are consistent with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. We recognise the importance of transparency and commend the Trade and Investment Ministers’ commitment to notify the WTO of any trade-related measures taken, including those related to agriculture and essential foodstuffs. We reaffirm our agreement not to impose export restrictions or extraordinary taxes on food and agricultural products purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian agencies.

“We emphasize the work of the G20 Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) and take note of AMIS’ assessment that at present global food supplies are adequate and food markets remain well balanced. As members, we commit and call on other members to continue providing timely and reliable information on global food market fundamentals to help markets, countries, and consumers make informed choices. Where appropriate, we will coordinate policy responses, supported by the AMIS Global Food Market Information Group and the AMIS Rapid Response Forum. We call for continued support for AMIS, including through voluntary financial contributions.

“We will work together to help ensure that sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious food continues to be available and accessible to all people, including the poorest, the most vulnerable, and displaced people in a timely, safe, and organized manner, consistent with national requirements. Acknowledging the critical role of the private sector in food systems, we call for enhanced cooperation between the public and private sectors to help mobilize rapid and innovative responses to impacts of this pandemic on the agriculture and food sectors.

“Under the current challenging circumstances, we stress the importance of avoiding food losses and waste caused by disruptions throughout food supply chains, which could exacerbate food insecurity and nutrition risks and economic loss. We stress the need to strengthen the sustainability and resilience of food systems globally, including to future shocks from disease and pest outbreaks, and to the global challenges that drive these shocks. In line with the One Health approach, we call for strengthened mechanisms for monitoring, early warning, preparedness, prevention, detection, response, and control of zoonotic diseases, and developing science-based international guidelines on stricter safety and hygienic measures for zoonosis control.

“We deeply thank farmers and workers, and small, medium and large scale agri-food businesses for their continuous efforts to ensure our food supply. We will intensify our efforts, in line with WTO rules and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to support them to sustain their activities and livelihoods during the crisis and to assist their recovery afterwards. Our efforts will support rural communities, especially small-scale farmers and family farms, to be more economically prosperous, resilient and sustainable, and to have improved food security and nutrition, giving special attention to the needs of developing and low-income countries.
We will continue our cooperation with relevant international organizations and within their mandates work to: reinforce international cooperation; identify additional actions to alleviate the impacts of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition; share best practices and lessons learned, such as addressing barriers to supply chains; promote evidence and science-based information and combat misinformation; provide capacity building and technical assistance; and promote research, responsible investments, innovations and reforms that will improve the sustainability and resilience of agriculture and food systems. This work could build on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) evolving response to COVID-19, the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD’s) evolving efforts to support a strong recovery from the effects of COVID-19, policy monitoring and analysis by the OECD, and other relevant initiatives, such as the preparation for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.

“We will continue our close cooperation and as necessary update our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and our broader G20 agriculture and food agenda. We stand ready to reconvene as required.” (Emphasis added)

The virtual meeting of G20 Agriculture Ministers included information received from the various UN organizations with expertise. See http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1272058/icode/

The Ministerial Statement is helpful in encouraging nations to maintain open markets, to not tax humanitarian food aid and to provide transparency in actions taken. But the Ministerial Statement does not commit the G20 members to avoid trade restrictions where such restrictions are temporary, targeted, transparent and proportionate. Based on actions taken by China and India during the 2007-2008 food crisis, it is not surprising that the G20 could not get hard commitments to avoid agriculture export restrictions from all G20 members.

As international organizations are serving as transparency fora and are encouraging joint action, it is not surprising that the Ministerial Statement was warmly received by the WTO as the statement supports transparency and WTO consistency of any actions taken.. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_21apr20_e.htm.

Communique from Various WTO Members

On July 22, twenty-three WTO Members (including the EU) submitted a joint statement to the WTO entitled RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH OPEN AND PREDICTABLE TRADE IN AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD PRODUCTS, WT/GC/208, G/AG/30. The statement is embedded below.

WTGC208

The statement cautions countries to avoid actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic that would adversely affect trade in agricultural goods. Absent from the joint statement are important Members who have in the past used or who at present are using export restraints on certain agricultural products including China and India (past export restraints) and Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia (current export restraints).

The joint statement has strong language on keeping markets open (including the negative effects of export restrictions on agriculture and agri-food products), avoiding waste, maintaining effective transport and logistical services, the importance of transparency in actions taken as well as food production and stocks. Nonetheless, because of existing WTO flexibilities provided to Members, the commitments made by the 23 Members include one which maintains the right to emergency measures that are “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary, and not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global supply chains”.

The joint statement is certainly a positive step with eight specific commitments taken by WTO Members who account for 63% of global agricultural exports and 55% of global agricultural imports. Time will tell if the list of supporters of the commitments expands to other major Members.

Conclusion

Based on current and projected food supplies, there should be no crisis in food supplies to the world if there is collective efforts to keep markets open, provide food aid for populations experiencing severe shortages due to conflict, adverse weather events and any adverse effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what the UN and its World Food Programme seek (cease fires; access to people regardless of conflicts or sanctions) is not likely to happen based on actions by certain major countries. But keeping world markets open and food aid funded hopefully will occur. The consequences of failure in this regard would greatly exacerbate the health and economic costs already experienced from COVID-19.