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Cooking the Books 1: The market fails again

Within a month of the Live8 concerts that were supposed to influence the leaders of world capitalism to do something about poverty in Africa, the charities had to get their begging bowls out again. This time for a famine in Niger, an ex-French colony to the north of Nigeria with a population of over 11.6 million.

In October last year various international agencies including the UNs Food and Agriculture Organisation signalled that, due to a bad harvest and an invasion of locusts, cereal production in Niger in 2004-5 was likely to be 7.5 percent below normal. In accordance with the law of supply and demand the price of millet, the main cereal grown and consumed in Niger, began to rise, with the result that the farmers whose crop had failed were unable to afford to buy enough food for their families. Malnutrition, especially amongst children, grew.

The government reacted by bringing in a scheme to sell millet at a reduced price, but although this was below the market price it was still two times higher than the price the farmers had received for their 2003-4 crop.

Dr Isabelle Defourny, of Médicins Sans Frontières, takes up the story:

In early June, Niger's prime minister acknowledged that the government’s response was ineffective when he noted that hundreds of thousands of the 3.5 million people threatened by the food shortage were too poor to be able to purchase cereal, even at a low price. Those most severely affected by the food crisis have the least resources, including farmers whose harvests were poor and cattle producers and craftsmen. Many had already exhausted their resources, selling goods and animals to feed themselves.” (Messages, MSF newsletter, July-August, www.msf.fr/documents/base/2005-07-01-Messages137VA.pdf )

MSF urged that free food distribution is the only way to keep the situation from worsening and to prevent large numbers of deaths, a perfectly reasonable proposal if we were living in a society geared to serving human needs and welfare. But were not. The authorities took a different view, for reasons explained by social researcher, Jean-Hervé Jezequel, in an interview in the same issue of Messages:

“ . . . in early June, at a meeting of the Joint Commission for Consultation, the decision-making body of the ‘action plan’ which includes representatives of the state and of institutional donors, the government of Niger declared that despite the seriousness of the food crisis, it would not set up free distribution operations. The only political reaction from the institutional donors came from the ambassador of France, who was glad there was a ‘policy that will not destabilize the markets’. The ambience was almost surreal: ignoring the emergency food situation, economic considerations were, without hesitation, given priority over the fate of endangered people.”

The French newspaper Libération reported that some cereal merchants had held back stocks to drive up prices further and that others had disposed of their stocks in neighbouring Nigeria where the population has a higher purchasing power (9 August).

So, yet again, as in every food crisis since the Great Starvation in Ireland in the 1840s, the workings of capitalism have produced the obscene spectacle of the export of food from an area where people are starving because, not having money, they dont constitute a market and so dont count.