World hunger: A global problem

The concern of many people about the effects of globalisation is justified. Globalisation enables international companies to manipulate their worldwide use of the cheapest and most defenceless labour to plunder natural resources, to buy off local power groups and by-pass or corrupt governments. The clear object is to maximise exploitation and profits. But this is globalisation in its corporate form, operating within a world capitalist system. It does not mean that, in itself, globalisation is a bad thing. It does bring its good things. For example, instant world communications means we can be aware of events in every country and this heightens the way we think globally.

In any case, global society is here to stay. There is no going back on a production system that is linked across the world. But the exploitative nature of this system in the hands of multinational corporations means that workers share a common interest which also goes beyond national boundaries. The problems of the great majority can only be solved by united world action.

One such problem, world poverty and hunger, was highlighted by protestors at the recent demonstrations in Genoa and Seattle They blamed the “profits before people” motives of world agribusiness. In this they were right, but to solve the problem we need more than blame. We need a sound political approach and practical proposals for how we as a world community can ensure that all people get enough good quality food.

Fine aspirations
It is not so long since world organisation was seen as a good thing. It was after the Second World War, as part of the United Nations, that the Food and Agricultural Organisation was set up to help solve the problem of world hunger. In the aftermath of the killing and destruction, and perhaps in response to a demand for radical change, statesmen from every country vowed their commitment to build a better world. Then it was thought that “internationalism now held the key to a better world order”. This was when the promise of global action through the FAO carried the hopes of the many millions who were desperate to improve their lives.

In the 1979 FAO publication, Fighting World Hunger its Director said, “Hunger and malnutrition are world problems. They need a world solution. They are too vast and formidable to admit of anything less than a global attack.” We wholeheartedly agree and we can agree with more. The same booklet went on, “The persistence of hunger and malnutrition is unacceptable morally and socially, is incompatible with the dignity of human beings.” And then again, “Every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition.”

The aspirations were fine but could they be delivered? From the time the FAO was set up socialists took no joy in pointing out that the UN was bound to fail in its declared aims to bring about peace and plenty. It could never be within its terms of reference to abolish the capitalism system which was, and remains, the cause of the problem. 1945 was a time of great optimism but since then it has faded. The first hopes of success have been replaced by more realistic forecasts. The FAO now accepts that the food markets place constraints on production; that trade in food commodities is volatile, influenced by rapid shifts in market conditions, and price fluctuations as well as wars and civil strife. None of these capitalist features can be controlled or planned. Nor can they be made to work in the interests of the majority of people.

So, the reality was that during the 1960s the world position of the hungry improved but after l970 it worsened. The FAO figure for the seriously undernourished for 1974/6 was 435 millions people. This was 75 million higher than five years earlier. Fighting World Hunger stated “Today the absolute numbers of people suffering from undernourishment are greater than ever before.” The l981 Annual Report of UNICEF said that 40,000 children were dying every day (over 14 million per year) from malnutrition or malnutrition-related disease.

But, looking forward from then and on the basis of an assumed increase in world population between 1980 and 2000 from 4,415 million to 6,200 million, the FAO made various projections. The best projection was that with a steady increase in food production of 3.8 percent per year in the developing countries the numbers of seriously undernourished could reduce from 435 million to 260 million by the year 2,000. A 3.2 percent increase could foresee a reduction to 390 million. Increased production of 2.8 percent per year would see a reduction to 590 million seriously undernourished people by the year 2000.

Poor delivery
In fact there are now over 800 million people seriously undernourished. We have passed the year 2000 and, if we look at the FAO Fact File on its website (, we find that the number of the world’s hungry at 800 million is much greater than was predicted by its earlier worst case scenario. It states, “The absolute number of chronically undernourished people rose between 1990-1992 and 1994-96 in three out of five developing regions of the world. The largest number of undernourished people are in Asia.” It also makes the lame and obvious statement, “This was mainly because there has been little progress in reducing poverty.”

Inevitably, the figures include children. The number of undernourished children suffering from underweight, stunting or wasting is 414 million. “An alarmingly high proportion of children in the developing world suffer from undernutrition, resulting from a combination of inadequate food intake and diseases such as diarrhoea that prevents proper digestion of food.”

Together with the growing numbers of hungry people, recent decades have seen the destruction of natural assets and land resources. As well as the loss of rain forests there has been desertification, misuse of agronomically fragile soils, degradation of soil by salinity and overgrazing of marginal lands. “On the southern edge of the Sahara, an area the size of Somalia has become desert over the past 50 years. The same fate now threatens more than one third of the African continent” (FAO FactFile).

It is possible to read the figures on the world’s hungry and to regard them in a very dispassionate way. There are many such lists of dead. Most of us cannot fail to be shocked at the number of 50 million who died in the Second World War. That number is horrendous but the numbers who die from lack of food are relentless, a holocaust that kills its victims every day of every year with no end in sight. Unlike the casualties of the violence in New York the deaths from hunger are not the material of media drama. This is a silent outrage which is mostly ignored. It is of course impossible to take in the suffering of the millions of families who go into mourning every year over the death of a child because of starvation – over 800 million children since the FAO was set up in 1945. The total number is incalculable, but must approach 2 billion. Those who are better off are not uncaring but pre-occupied, pursuing their own daily struggles. We are driven by an economic individualism that provides us with little freedom to act effectively as a community.

But though the facts may not be newsworthy they are still put out by the FAO and others. The FactFile still speaks of “World hunger – widespread, persistent, unacceptable.” After so many years its appeals now sound forlorn: “If decisive action is not taken, the number of chronically undernourished persons will be substantially the same in 15 years time”. For many millions this is not so much an appeal, it is a death sentence.

And the tragedy is made worse because it is all so needless. A further article will set out the ways that people in a world socialist community could stop the dying immediately. Within a short time, with co-operation and united action they would be able to provide every person with sufficient good quality food.

This is the first a series of three articles.

Pieter Lawrence

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