1990s >> 1998 >> no-1125-may-1998

World View: Hungry for Change

“Aid agencies warn of famine in Sudan” (Guardian, 7 April). “Starving North Koreans on the border of despair” (Guardian, 14 April). “Famine in Burundi. Why are 600,000 people starving to death?” (Observer, 15 April).

These are indeed harrowing headlines, evoking images of stick-limbed children with oversized heads, of adults, cadaverous and saucer-eyed, scrounging, scavenging and bartering for food. The stories these headlines introduce tell of a combined total of six million facing death from starvation. On a much wider scale, 800 million are chronically malnourished and 1.3 billion inhabitants of the world will today go without food.

The latter are well used figures, and taken with the former echo the absurdity of those obese and confused government officials who gathered together several years ago to label the 1990s the “UN Decade for the Eradication of Poverty”. At that time there was only 400 million malnourished, when Henry Kissinger rose to his feet at the 1972 UN Food Summit and vowed to eradicate world hunger within 20 years.

The immediate causes of famine–drought, floods and civil war–often mask the fact that most suffering countries are capable of feeding themselves. Sudan’s arable land, for instance, could feed its population, but is instead used for cash crops such as cotton and sugar, and Burundi, as Peter Beaumont recently reported (Observer, 15 April) “is so fecund it cries out to be abundant”. Elsewhere, we find that 50 percent of arable land in Afghanistan can’t be cultivated because it is land-mined.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisaion readily admits that the world produces more than enough to ensure “adequate food for all” (2,700 calories per person per day). In the 1970s, the World Health Organisation announced that we could feed a world population seven times its then size, and as late as 1995 admitted that Africa could feed a population six times its present size were western farming techniques to be introduced there.

Faced with these facts and while the people of North Korea are having grain rations reduced to 100 grams per day, while the poor of Sudan forage for wild nuts and grasses and while the Burundese bury their dead from starvation at a rate too quick to count, there is no shortage of organisations willing to try to remedy the situation. In North Korea, the World Food Programme appealed in January for 650,000 tons of food and the United Nations Development Programme has drawn up plans to make North Korea self-sufficient by the year 2000. UNICEF and the WHO hold conferences, apportion blame and send representatives to investigate the plight of the starving.

Interestingly, the bulk of these organisations come under the watchful eye of the US-controlled UN, and wasn’t it the US which twice in the past–and alone–voted against UN resolutions that sought to recognise “proper nourishment” as a “human right” (14 December 1981–Resolution 36/133 and 18 December–Resolution 37/199)?

The food the aid agencies succeed in sending usually ends up in cities rather than in rural areas where it is most needed. Some 60 percent of EC and 30 percent of US food aid is given to governments to sell on, mostly in cities, and which often provides money that is squandered–i.e. tanks invariably seem a better investment than seeds. And food aid tends to cut food prices, diminishing the incentive for farmers to grow crops, and fosters long-term dependency. Moreover, food aid is often provided minus the transport to deliver it where it is needed and ends up rotting on the quayside. When it can be delivered, it is often the case that camps have to be set up to dispense the aid, resulting in “food drones”, maelstroms of hunger and disease.

Charities launch campaigns, telling us what a donation of 20p, £1 and £100 will buy, holding back the more damning statistic that 95 percent of the money donated is eaten up in administration and infrastructure.

Though the relief organisations and charities are undoubtedly well meaning, they address problems for which the solution already exists. Though they have the insight to see the profit-driven market system as a cause of hunger, they err in trying to reform it in the interests of the hungry. While they wave off shipments of food top faraway lands, their own governments are ordering the destruction of food and paying farmers to take land out of production.

Under a system in which production is freed from the artificial constraints of profit, a system that has expunged the causes of war, a system that can locate people to areas less prone to flooding and drought, famine can then be a thing of the past. And this–socialism–could perhaps be brought about with less effort than goes into organising a world food summit and running the myriad of existing aid agencies. It is not some pipe dream anathema to human nature, for what can be more natural than producing for need?
JOHN BISSETT

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