Blog / 13 May 2020

You can’t eat gold, copper and gas

You can't eat gold, copper and gas

"The virus is spreading quicker than the information" – that was the first we heard in the Netherlands about COVID-19 in many African countries and the measures they were taking to tackle it. While states of emergency were announced, borders were closed and we saw image after image of violent police and army responses, many people outside the big cities did not know that what was going on. When the situation became clearer, serious concerns arose about the consequences of the measures that had been taken: the informal economy coming to a standstill, food shortages and internal migration flows.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the weaknesses in our economic system. Because many global trade and food chains have ground to a halt, we can see just how vulnerable people have become due to a global trade system that abruptly abandons them to their fate in times of crisis.

Thousands of women from fifteen countries in Southern Africa, united in the Rural Women's Assembly, have been conducting awareness-raising campaigns for many years to increase the resilience of people in rural areas. Their campaigns also focus on the national and regional political elites that maintain systems that condemn large segments of the population to poverty. In the fifteen countries in which the Assembly is active, COVID-19 is exposing the harrowing reality: the lack of investment in the public sector, the limited resources available, most of which go to the army and the police, the destructive agriculture and mining sectors that are almost entirely focused on export and which make these countries vulnerable to hunger, and the lawlessness among large parts of the population.

The members of the Assembly see COVID-19 not as the cause of the problems facing them and their communities but as an effect. The crisis comes on top of a series of others, often caused by climate change and depletion of natural resources: widespread drought, apocalyptic plagues of locusts and severe flooding, resulting in failed harvests.

The current crisis has cranked up the debate on the undesirability of that old system. The Assembly does not wish to return under any circumstances to a situation in which the public sector is so weak that health care and education fall short, and in which only the army functions efficiently. Or to a Southern Africa where the enormous social and economic inequality only becomes worse and where the disadvantages of dependence on the import of food have become painfully obvious. 'You can't eat gold, copper and gas,' says Mercia Andrews of the Rural Women's Assembly secretariat in Cape Town, South Africa.

The women know not only that things have to be done differently, but also that it is possible. In recent years they have gained experience with alternative models and tested them in practice. From easily applicable ways of securing a livelihood that also protect the environment to the setting up of regional markets with short production chains where biodiversity and the right to use your own land and own seeds are the norm rather than something you have to fight for.

It is a big challenge. Governments seem to want to return to the old system. The Assembly is now making every effort to persuade them that it is better to produce sustainable food themselves as a basis for a future-proof society. The women and their governments cannot do that alone. A step that we can now all take together is to ensure that the 240 billion dollars in aid money now being released by the international development banks is used for sustainable, decentralised energy supplies, the restoration of ecosystems and sustainable agriculture. With these three focal points for policy we can build a future that ensures the livelihoods of everyone.

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