1990s >> 1992 >> no-1060-december-1992

Editorial: The Starvation in Somalia

Nobody can fail to be moved by the pictures and accounts of people starving in Somalia. It really is an obscene crime against humanity that people should be dying of starvation in a world which is not only capable of producing enough to feed everybody but even has enough food stockpiled to stop it straightaway. As the Observer reported on 30 August:

Britain has enough wheat and barley lying unused in its grain stores to feed the entire Somalian nation for more than a year.
At one single centre—on a disused RAF base near Kidderminster in Worcestershire—there are four huge warehouses stuffed with enough grain to supply the stricken war-torn nation for a month.
One of these warehouses is said to be so full that it is virtually impossible to open its large steel doors. Yet in Somalia, hundreds of people—mostly children—are dying daily.
The Kidderminster grain mountain is part of a total of 568,000 tonnes housed in Britain—in turn part of 19.6 million tonnes of wheat and barley kept in EC warehouses.
This massive surplus could feed Somalia—which needs 40,000 tonnes of food aid per month for its starving people—for more than 40 years.

In a sane world, one geared to meeting human needs and serving human welfare, stopping people in Somalia dying of starvation would be a question purely of logistics. Organising to transport the food from where it is stockpiled to Somalia.

But of course we are not living in a sane world. We are living in a world dominated by market forces. And it is their inability to operate in the human interest that has caused the problem in the first place and is now preventing it being solved in the simplest, most direct way.

People are starving in Somalia not because there is not enough food in the world to feed them. They are starving because they lack the means to make their demand—or rather, their absolute need—for food effective. They lack either money to buy food or access to land to grow their own. Those in Somalia who do have these things are not starving.

Those with money in Somalia can, and do, have access to food—the television has shown pictures of well-stocked markets, sometimes with starving people lying on the other side of the street. We mention this not to belittle the extent of the obscene situation in Somalia but to underline the point that famines only affect those whose access to money or land has collapsed for some reason. Famines are a social not a natural phenomenon.

Protecting the market for food in Somalia is in fact a key factor shaping the so-called “food aid” policies of governments and the UN. They know that to make available for free distribution anything but minimal amounts of food per starving person would be to undermine local markets and local market-oriented production, leading to more people coming to lose their access rights to food. And of course they are right. Given the market system this is exactly what would happen. So, quite apart from financial cost considerations, they deliberately limit the amount of free food they supply.

This is what we mean when we say that it is market forces that are preventing the immediate starvation in Somalia being solved in the way that it would be, almost literally overnight, in a sane society, one that would have to be based on the common ownership of resources: transporting the food from the warehouses of Europe to the towns and villages of Somalia.

But what of the long term? Could starvation be averted after the warehouses of Europe and North America had been emptied to feed the starving in Somalia and other parts of the world? In other words, could the planet produce enough to adequately feed the whole world’s population on a permanent, continuing basis?

Professor Vulimiri Ramalingaswami, who is chairman of the World Health Organisation’s medical research committee, is in no doubt that it can. “We have the ability as a world to produce enough food for everyone”, he told a meeting in Geneva in August. “We need to devise mechanisms so these fruits can reach those in greatest need” (Guardian, 18 August).

Professor Ramalingaswami is to chair a conference in Rome this month that the WHO is organising jointly with the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The FAO and the WHO are apparently thinking in terms of a “world crusade to end famine deaths”. Something like this is indeed what is required: a crash programme to increase world food production and distribute it on a free, non-market basis to where it is needed. But it is not going to happen. For the same reason that the warehouses of Europe are not going to be emptied to immediately stop the starvation in Somalia. It would undermine the market.

Not this time the local markets in some famine-stricken part of the world, but the world markets for wheat, maize, rice and other world commodities. As long as all things are produced for sale on a market with a view to making a profit, food is never going to be produced to feed people who can’t pay for it. As long, in other words, as food remains a commodity people will starve and Somalias will continue to happen.

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