Keynote by Ertharin Cousin at the Conference on International Law in a Time of Scarcity – Athens, Georgia

Delivered on: 05 February 2013


Thank you, Katie, for your kind introduction. And thank you for having me here today.  I also wish to thank you, and your entire conference logistics and planning team, together with Ambassador C. Donald Johnson, Director of the Dean Rusk Center. This building was not here when I was a student and it is fantastic. Dean Rebecca White, Dean Paul Kurtz and Professor Harlan Cohen, thank you for your generous hosting and for your wonderful initiative in putting together this landmark event. Trina, thank you for getting me here and for the wonderful conversation this morning.

To Dean Kurtz particularly, who I recall well from my days here – I was a section X-er, I extend my congratulations for your recognition with the Distinguished Service Scroll Award presented by the Law School Association in June of last year. On behalf of the class of 1982, I wish you good health and much happiness in your well-earned retirement at the conclusion of this 2012-13 academic year. There are many lawyers who are better lawyers walking around because of you.

It’s hard to believe that over 30 years have passed since I and my classmates walked these halls of UGA.  I don’t feel that old.  I am very pleased to have had the opportunities that my UGA law degree afforded me.  For those of you who are students, I wasn’t the best student in my class, but I have had a fantastic career. When I graduated from UGA, I returned to Illinois and started studying for the bar.  When I opened the exam, and I knew the answers to the questions, it was clear how well prepared I was. I am particularly pleased that I had the honor and the privilege to study international law and sit in classes taught by Dean Rusk.  Who knew back then that our international law review final would provide the basis my real life issue decision making? On that final, Professor Rusk asked a question about the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, and whether it would be considered retaliation should the U.S. attack.  Recently, as Executive Director of the World Food Programme, we were discussing the impact on our operations in Somalia if the Strait of Hormuz is closed, and I thought to myself, “This was on my International Law final!”

Of the many lessons I learned from my time with Professor Rusk, one that I am reminded of on a daily basis is that international law requires an understanding of geopolitical, historical and anthropological issues as well as knowledge of an ever evolving set of international laws that govern the behavior of nation states towards each other.  Since I’ve left his class, I have learned that particularly when working in the multilateral world it never hurts to have access to theologians from the Christian, Muslim and Hebrew faiths.  Without going too far afield suffice it to say that so often how nations interact with each other, with their people and with their resources is often times better understood and more effectively critiqued when one understands the faith and beliefs of those making the decisions.

I digress!

Today, you are talking about scarcity of resources and its impact on international law.  We as a global community live with a broad range of threats and uncertainties that can be associated with the world’s struggle to fill the need for scarce resources.  Every day, headlines reflect controversies and concerns on these topics, including climate change, environmental degradation, population growth, conflict, and food and fuel price volatility. 

The world is faster and more complex place than when I studied International Law at this great university.  But through science and speed of light communications, we have spread greater awareness of the shared responsibilities and risks that every nation, and every individual, bears for the sustainable management of global resources.

Our reality is that we live on a small globe, a world incapable of physical expansion to match the growth of the human population that inhabits it.  Some experts predict that by 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion, and according to some estimates, global requirements for food will increase by 70 percent.

If so, how will we ensure an adequate supply of food in the future?  How can our complex, global community set appropriate and agreed frameworks for managing the land, water and labor required to grow and distribute that food?

And what steps must we take now, in the present, to steer clear from gradual descent into the kind of dystopian world depicted in novels and films, where competition for scarce resources turns humankind against itself? 

In a future world where the burdens of hunger and poverty continue to climb, no wall will be high enough to prevent conflict and disease from threatening our families and our communities, no matter what country you live in.

Much of the world already tastes this harsh reality.  In 2008 over 20 countries have experienced food riots; populations taking to the streets in desperation and panic because they can’t afford to buy their daily sustenance. In 2011 young people in the Arab Spring rallied entire nations with calls for freedom, social justice, and in many cases for bread.

We know that nearly 870 million people are food insecure, one in eight of the world’s population, will go to bed hungry tonight, not knowing where their next meal will come from.  The vast majority of the world’s hungry, 852 million people, live in developing countries, where 15 percent of the population is undernourished.

Food security as we define it exists when all people at all times have both access and accessibility to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.  And that the food meets their daily dietary requirements for an active and healthy life. 

That’s where we at WFP come in.  Historically, WFP was the “get large amounts of food to large numbers of people quickly and efficiently” organization.  For over 50 years, logistics has been at the core of WFP operations.  In an average year, WFP distributes four million metric tons of food, meeting the challenge of feeding over 90 million beneficiaries in the most difficult and often times dangerous places on earth.

But, the global community now accepts the fact that providing food alone will not and cannot sustainably address the issue of global food insecurity. WFP, the other humanitarian actors as well as the development community now recognize that in a world of resource scarcity we must move from food aid to food assistance. Food assistance in the form of tools including but not limited to: Safety nets, climate smart agriculture support, adaptive irrigation and water resource management, cooperative developments and supporting equitable access to land and other natural resources with equitable access to resources particularly for women. 

I’d like to spend the balance of my time today specifically discussing three main causes from an operator’s standpoint of resource scarcity. I will discuss the lack of access to land rights in the developing world as technically “scarcity” doesn’t exist.  As identified by the United Nations, I will review these causes and how each one impacts hunger today and how we are addressing these issues.

First, Demand Induced Scarcity defined as when the demand for specific renewable resources cannot be met by existing supply of those resources.  As an example water or cropland may initially meet all needs of a population but population growth, foreign investment in agricultural land, new technologies, population migration and even conflict over time can reduce per capita availability of resources.

There are numerous examples of programs designed to address the issue of demand induced scarcity.  One example of WFP’s response is the EthioPEA program, a joint venture to increase chick pea production with the government of Ethiopia, USAID and WFP.  The goal of this initiative is to create a sustainable smart agriculture crop development program.  The program will engage 100,000 primarily women smallholder farmers into chickpea farming. 

In order to ensure the durability and sustainability of this program it will address the full agriculture value chain from seeds in the ground, using the right seeds that will increase the quantity and quality of the yield.  The chickpea seeds will also introduce nitrogen back into the soil ensuring longer fertility of the soil in a drought prone region of Ethiopia.

The EthioPEA program will introduce the women to new planting methods that will require less water.  Unfortunately like almost 90% of the agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa the women depend on rain fed agriculture.  While drip irrigation has been introduced in similar Latin American projects that solution is expensive and the issue of cost limits the possibility of this intervention.  Innovative solutions that conserve water will continue to be sought.

The women will work in cooperatives because one woman alone even with the right seeds will not produce enough chickpeas to meet market demand.  As a cooperative member she is in a better position to sell the product at best price and to meet the product quantity needs of the market. 

We won’t stop there because too often we introduce programs that increase yields, the quality and the quantity, but there is no market access.  This will push the women back into the cycle of poverty in the next season.  This time it is different, Ethiopia Agriculture Transformative Authority has identified a market buyer, a commercial food manufacturer who will purchase the chickpeas to develop a new center of the plate consumer product.  Recognizing the challenges of introducing a new product to market WFP will serve as the catalyst buyer.  Working with the manufacturer we will purchase significant quantities of the product and introduce our micronutrient package to the processed chickpea paste.  We will then distribute this product as a part of our East Africa child nutrition supplemental feeding program. Now with the seeds, the water conservation, and the market we have a complete agriculture value chain improvement program.  The program introduces climate smart agriculture, water conservation, gender support, market development both catalyst and sustaining.  Addressing the issues of Demand Induced Scarcity will require this form of multi-sector, multi-issue, multi-stakeholder response. The challenge will be how we scale it up.

Needless to say, the challenges of addressing the second cause of resource scarcity, Supply Induced Scarcity are no simpler and no easier to overcome.  Again, as defined by the U.N. Supply Induced Scarcity occurs when environmental degradation, pollution, natural variation or a breakdown in the delivery infrastructure constrains or reduces the supply or local availability of a specific resource.  In the hunger relief world, too often we see the consequence of resource reduction resulting from supply induced scarcity creating competition amongst livelihood groups for access to resources. In many of these cases with both groups maintaining legitimate claims to what has now become a shrinking or disappearing resource that can no longer meet the food security needs of the population.

An example of how this issue is being addressed is the Qatar Dry Lands Alliance.  Qatar and the Middle East face serious water scarcities and therefore are becoming more dependent on substantial food imports for their basic food security.  To the credit of the Qatari Government they didn’t create a program to address only their growing resource scarcity problems they have developed a program to address the issue in nearly 100 countries experiencing dry land challenges or stated another way 40% of world today is dry land where about 2.3 billion people live: one third of the world’s population.  Clearly expressing this not as a country issue but a global challenge will draw the attention of the global community to address the issue.

The Alliance, and I should add with significant funding from the Qatar, commits to research and development that will optimize the use of scarce water resources, scale up of land and water management approaches, the long term conservation and utilization of bio-diversity, including crop wild varieties.  As a point of reference over 80 percent of all research dollars today are invested in only about 18 different crops.  Part of the problem in sub-Saharan Africa is that there is no or little research into traditional crops including sorghum, teff, millet and root crops and you cannot make progress or improve development if there is no research.

The Alliance organizers recognize that a durable and sustainable solution to supply induced scarcity must recognize the evolving and relatively unknown long term impact of climate change.  As such during a recent Doha conference the Alliance participants agreed that development investments in dry lands must generate a triple win solution: i. increasing farm productivity and income; ii) make smallholders more competitive and resilient to climate variations to reduce their vulnerability and food insecurity; and iii) help limit the ecological footprint of agriculture.  Admittedly, these program objectives sound remarkably similar to the objectives that I described for the EthioPEA program. 

The difference here is that Alliance conference organizers have a gone a step further and demanded that governments adopt policies, legal and organizational frameworks to address dry land issues.  The policies and frameworks must include inputs from the civil society including indigenous populations and women.  There is a lot of work to do.

The third and final cause of resource scarcity is Structural Scarcity created or evidenced by unequal access to resources, poor natural resource governance, cultural practices, gender dynamics, social and economic barriers as well as historical land use practices. Some experts and many of my colleagues would argue these are the root issues or real issues affecting resource availability particularly amongst the hungry poor in the developing world. Those making less than $1 per day are impacted by these issues.  They would argue the these issues are not new, yes climate change and population increases may exacerbate the problem but that these issues have impacted the world’s poor for generations.  But to these arguments I respond just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.  But like any structural challenges to effectively address these issues will require more than a new program or Alliance. We must overcome the problem within the DNA of a country or community.  This work requires collective global action.

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is a multi-stakeholder platform for discussions and global action on food security and nutrition.  One year ago the member states of CFS developed and unanimously adopted the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, and have now completed the hard work to adopt the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment that Respect Rights, Livelihoods and Resources (PRAI). 

These guidelines, while lacking the force of international law, nonetheless give essential support to governments and other country level officials providing them with effective policies for the sustainable management of land and water.  The guidelines address all the structural issues affecting resource scarcity that detrimentally affect food security including women’s rights, customary land rights, rights of indigenous people versus title holders, the rights of fisher folk to access trans boundary water and pastoralists rights versus farmers agriculture rights.  Thorny issues where resolution will require committed leadership and decades of negotiations.

Resource scarcity detrimentally impacting food security whether created by demand induced scarcity, supply induced scarcity or structural scarcity can and must be overcome. 

It can be done. It’s been done before.  Fifty years ago scholars in China predicted that the famine prone China would never feed its rapidly increasing population.  They argued that the problems of resource scarcity were not only demand induced (by the growing population in China); but also structural because of China’s poor governance policy and the social as well as economic issues plaguing the then “third world country”.  Today more than twice, in fact by some estimates, more than three times as many people eat on a fourth of cropland per person in the United States.

As we in the global community embrace the concept of South-South cooperation and triangular cooperation we recognizes that the ingenuity and lessons learned that helped countries including China as well as Brazil overcome the obstacles of resource scarcity can be transferred to other developing countries particularly in sub-Saharan  Africa.

Whether food insecurity as a result of resource scarcity is generated by demand, supply or structural resource issues we recognize that sustainable responses must address equity or the lack of access to resources. Last year, the world observed the International Year of Cooperatives.  Agricultural cooperatives provide an alternative model for economic development and food and nutrition security; a model that provides power and access to the poor through their collective action; a model that balances two goals, profit and sustainability, as with any other enterprise, but also helps members to peacefully and democratically achieve social, cultural and economic aspirations.  It can be done.

In closing, At last year’s Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the Rome-based UN agencies jointly declared,  there cannot be sustainable development without bold actions to achieve food and nutrition security, and agriculture and food systems that lift smallholders and vulnerable communities out of poverty and preserve the natural resource base.

Not just UN organizations, but governments, civil society, the private sector and each of you as individuals are part of this conversation.  Dialogue, the kind of knowledge exchange you are sharing here today, is absolutely essential.  Because structured discussion eventually leads to concrete actions.

I believe that multilateral approaches are essential for finding enduring solutions to today’s complex problems, and that our opportunities for global problem solving have never been better than they are today. 

I believe that because in my role as Executive Director of WFP –– I am encouraged every day by the determination, generosity and unity of purpose I see from people and organizations of so many diverse nations, countries large and small, new and old, all sharing a growing consensus that the global challenges we face are not nearly so big when we face them together.

Truly, the world has changed a lot since my student days at this law school; many of the challenges are different, but I know the next generation of leaders – some in this room today - has no scarcity of problem solvers. They are prepared to rise to the task to address these challenges.

Today, we have at our fingertips all the tools and technologies to access knowledge and assist us better in solving problems; tools earlier generations could only dream about.  Whether we use these tools and technologies to solve problems together or to pull our world further apart in a short-sighted lose-lose competition for resources or a market are a choice that every one of us must make in our daily life.  It’s our choice.

But as we choose our future path it’s important to remember.

We live on a small and finite planet… we must all choose wisely. Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.