July 8, 2018; New York Times
Superficially, it seems that the current US presidential administration has it in for babies. Even as it searches—under court order—for a group of more than 100 children under the age of five (among 3,000 children altogether) who were separated from their mothers unnecessarily in this country and then quickly lost to them in the system, it threatens World Health Assembly delegates as they introduced a resolution encouraging breastfeeding over formula where possible at its meeting in Geneva last week.
Decades of research indicate the clear multiple benefits of breast milk. The New York Times cites a 2016 Lancet study which determined that 800,000 child deaths a year could be prevented through universal breastfeeding. This means that growth in the baby formula industry depends on selling it to developing nations, as sales have flattened out in wealthier countries. Activism on the issue dates back to the ’70s and the launch of the Nestlé Boycott, which quickly spread across the US and Europe as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. At some point, the issue was declared resolved but was revived when formula purveyors reverted to their usual marketing targets.
The resolution, which calls for an end to inaccurate or misleading marketing of formula, was expected to pass easily at the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly in Geneva. But not only did the United States block the resolution on, one assumes, the behalf of the lobbyists for a $70 billion industry who were quietly present at the meeting, but according to more than a dozen delegates, it openly threatened Ecuador, which was to have introduced the measure, with punishing trade measures and a withdrawal of military aid. During the deliberations, some American delegates even suggested the United States might cut its contribution the WHO, several negotiators said. Washington is the single largest contributor to the health organization, providing $845 million, or roughly 15 percent of its budget, last year.
“We were astonished, appalled, and also saddened,” said Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, which now manages the Nestlé boycott. “What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the US holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on best way to protect infant and young child health.”
The Assembly scrambled to find another sponsor, but the schoolyard intimidation tactic rippled out to the many other poor nations whose populations had been the targets of the marketing campaigns. In the end, the Russian delegation stepped in to introduce the resolution, at which time the US stood down. The bizarre incident finally yielded the following bit of nonsense:
A Russian delegate said the decision to introduce the breast-feeding resolution was a matter of principle.
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“We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world,” said the delegate, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The babies separated from their parents at the border do have something in common with the ones who were to be sold a bill of goods in the form of formula in developing countries—for the most part, they are black and brown. Maybe it is not about hating all babies, after all. But, though it’s tempting to indulge in self-righteousness, some worry that this wave of support for issues that disproportionately affect black and brown people owes more to hatred of Trump than to a persistent commitment to equity and justice.
Lucia Allain, who organizes among undocumented immigrants for Cosecha, says, “I’ve been in this movement for 13 years, and we’ve been trying to engage allies for years. We’ve been saying, ‘Look, we need folks to come out. We need you to come out for us.’ But we really didn’t see it…Now we’re seeing allies come out with their children, allies come out and put their bodies in front of ours, putting themselves at risk for arrest, and that’s huge. I’ve never seen that before.”
“This is not a new problem,” she continues, “but I feel like now people think, ‘Oh, Trump’s a bad guy, so of course he’s mistreating immigrants,’ but this happened when Obama was in office…this happened [under] George W. Bush…we can go back and back. The struggle is making sure these allies, who can go home and not worry about it in the way immigrant communities have to, don’t forget that.”
“On the one hand, I’m really happy we have more allies and we have more people getting fired up about this,” said Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center. “On the other, I’m concerned that immigration has become the flavor of the month, and it’s already losing some steam. If it’s not your community, you can walk away from it. We can’t.”
“If they’re really interested in sticking with this fight for the long term, they need to partner with organizations that have been doing this work. Only then can you understand the contextual history of what we’re going through today,” he said. “But when I start talking about this in this way—about policy changes and the history and all that wonky stuff, it’s not about kids at the border. It’s not about this emotional scene. And people start to disengage. But that’s what we need: a long-term plan.”—Ruth McCambridge