Present hunger and past ghosts

Caspar Henderson
22 October 2002

Present hunger and ghosts from the past

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) State of Food Security in the World Report, published on 15 October, is a landmark document.

It shows a division between a few developing countries making substantial progress over the last ten years or so and a deteriorating situation in much of the rest of the developing world. China is the great success story, having reduced its number of hungry people by 74 million. Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Peru, Ghana and Nigeria have also substantially increased the food security of their people.

On the downside, the worst case is the Democratic Republic of Congo where conflict has tripled the number of hungry people. India is the second-worst performing country, with an extra 18 million malnourished. Overall, sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst-affected region, with the highest prevalence of under-nourishment even before the emergence of the current famine across southern Africa which threatens the lives of more than 14m people.

Hartwig de Haen, the FAO assistant director-general, could hardly have used starker language: “The traditional pattern of humanitarian assistance, which at times may attempt to replace a weakened government sector in order to achieve its life-saving objectives, is simply not a viable option for southern Africa at this time, as it would merely postpone an eventual collapse”.

The report comes during a time of highly-charged discussion over the role for genetically modified (GM) crops in feeding the hungry. The US offered more than $260m of GM maize to the worst affected countries – the largest single donation. Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique accepted but Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe were reluctant to import the food in seed form, fearing it might affect both their environment and future food exports to Europe, which has tight controls on GM foods.

Last month (in an article titled 'Better dead than GM fed?'), The Economist claimed that Europe’s anti-GM ‘hysteria’ was contributing to the famine situation in southern Africa and ‘deter[ring] farmers in poor countries from planting crops which tend to have higher yields and require fewer applications of costly and dangerous chemical pesticides’. This month, environment and development non-governmental organisations (NGOs) hit back. Action Aid and Greenpeace accused the US government and the biotech industry of using the aid system as a covert subsidy for US farmers.

Andrew Natsios, head of the US Agency for International Development, rejected the accusations, saying the agency was bound by Congress to offer food and not money. The NGOs say non-GM grain could and should be purchased in the region. UN figures showed that 1,160,000 tonnes of cereals are available in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa, with more than double that amount available on the world market.

The argument is part of a clash of two different visions for tackling global poverty. One of the clearest examples of this is in Andhra Pradesh, a state in India where a large proportion of the 76 million inhabitants live on the margins.

On the one hand, the state government has an ambitious agenda known as Vision 2020 which is to eradicate poverty and inequality by a variety of measures, including turning the state into a "powerhouse of Indian agriculture". The state has asked Monsanto to introduce Bt cotton, which carries a gene for an insect-killing toxin. And another firm will develop ‘golden rice’, engineered to be rich in vitamin A. Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) is an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme, with a grant of some £65m – the bulk of its budget for the entire Indian subcontinent. On the other hand, groups such as the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity argue for a “vision for food and farming, based on equitable access to natural resources and the regeneration of more localised food systems”.

I visited the Deccan Development Society (DDS), one the constituent organisations in the Coalition, in August 2001. My experience is that what they are doing is magnificent. (Unfortunately you cannot easily access DDS’s work on the Internet. They did create a beautiful site, with information about effective development of micro-credit, the bullock-cart caravans that took a circus of traditional and modern knowledge around local villages, and media workshops in which Dalit women went to Peru to make videos with their counterparts in the high Andes; but this has been over-ridden by roar.com, an Australian company that offers gambling trips and erotic services in Las Vegas and other exotic locations.)

Some people don’t believe that the organic/permaculture approach put forward by DDS and others can be the whole answer. The question remains controversial – and, in the case of Andhra Pradesh, all the more so since Andrew Bennett, DFID’s director of rural livelihoods and environment and principal policy adviser to ministers, left the civil service this September to join Syngenta, the world’s largest agribusiness and second largest GM food company. But hard-nosed sceptics should at least consider the organic approach as part of a portfolio approach to reducing risk. Organic agriculture offers both dignity to its practitioners and resilience for when the state fails.

The importance of doubting any claim to absolute certainty as to best solutions is underscored by history. Famines in the late 19th century in India, China and Brazil killed as many as 61 million people. In the book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño, Famines, and the Making of the Third World, Mike Davis argues that most of these deaths could easily have been avoided but for the woeful consequences of European control and influence.

One of the worst of the famines struck large parts of India from 1876–79 after the rains failed continually. Between 6.1m and 10.3m people died, according to different estimates. The catastrophe was by no means inevitable, says Davis. In 1873–74 colonial authorities had taken decisive and effective action after a drought severely damaged the harvest in most of Bengal and Bihar. Sir Richard Temple, the lieutenant governor, imported half a million tons of rice from Burma. But Temple came under withering fire from London for the “extravagance” of allowing “the scale of wages paid at relief works to be determined by the daily food needs of the labourer and the prevailing food prices in the market rather than by the amount that the Government could afford to spend for the purpose”. In July 1874 The Economist lambasted him for encouraging indolent Indians to believe that “it is the duty of the Government to keep them alive”.

The idea was that the invisible hand of the free market would, through the action of iron scientific laws, bring grain prices into line with what the poor could afford. Government interference would only make things worse. The doctrine claimed as its holy writ The Wealth of Nations (1776) in which Adam Smith had asserted, vis-à-vis the terrible Bengal drought–famine of 1770, that “famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconvenience of dearth”.

In practice, the free market worked in quite a different way. Although rice and wheat production in much of India had been above average for the three years prior to 1876, much of the surplus had been exported to England. “The newly-built railways, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought stricken districts to central depots for hoarding” writes Davis. “Likewise the telegraph ensured that price hikes were co-ordinated in a thousand towns at once, regardless of local supply trends”.

As a result, food prices soared out of the reach of outcaste labourers, displaced weavers, sharecroppers and poor peasants. Modern markets accelerated rather than relieved the famine. “The dearth” as the magazine The Nineteenth Century put it a few months later (prefiguring the work of Amartya Sen) “was one of money and labour rather than of food”.

Under the firm hand of the new Viceroy Lord Lytton (Queen Victoria’s favourite poet, he was accused by his own father of plagiarism, and was an opium addict who swung wildly between megalomania and self-lacerating despair), Temple made up for his lapse from dogma. The ‘Temple wage’ provided less sustenance for hard labour required to receive it than the diet in Buchenwald concentration camp, and less than half the modern calorific standard recommended for adult males by the Indian government. The British also imposed heavy taxes on those who survived the famine.

Misconceived and cruel responses to drought and dearth were not the only cause of mass death in European colonies in the late 19th century. In some cases, as Sven Lindquist and Adam Hochschild document, mass murder was quite deliberate. In the Belgian Congo, Europe’s great heart of darkness, as many as ten million died – enslaved, starved and exterminated.

At the very least, contemporary Europeans should live with awareness of the horrors resulting from the actions of their ancestors. More than that, they have an obligation to oppose European entities involved in ongoing cataclysms, such as the rape of the Congo where Belgian companies play a modest role.

Pisces in our time

A sea cucumber cannot really be said to have an axis. But, notwithstanding its tenuous hold on bi-fold symmetry, this phantasmagoric creature has suspicious links to the axis of evil.

A few years ago, Nature Herself celebrated the elevation of The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il to fill the vacancy left in The People’s Korea by his late father, Kim Il Sung, with a series of extraordinary phenomena. Trees came into blossom out of season. Harvests surpassed all records. And in coastal waters "a rare and beautiful sea cucumber was observed for the first time in many years".

So, while North Korean news sources make no mention of nuclear weapon deals with Pakistan or Iran, and continue to call for "vigilance against the imperialists’ vicious and crafty nature", the truth may be that the Duce of Juche is ‘attacking by going backwards’. Peace and co-operation is breaking out all over. As George W. Bush memorably said on another occasion, ‘the man and the fish can live together’, and this pearl of wisdom may apply not only to the nudibranches of nice in Pyongyang, but also to the old catfish of Baghdad.

Roundup ready

Gabriel Resources, a mining company referred to in previous Globologs on 16 October and 9 October, lives to fight another day. The company share price took a 15% dive on news that the International Finance Corporation (IFC) had pulled out, but activities at Rosia Montana are far from over.

If you fancy staying up into the wee hours to study globalisation, there are few better places to start than the website of the recently formed Initiative for Policy Dialogue (IPD). Founded by Joseph Stiglitz, the IPD promises to provides alternatives – ‘proposals for economic reform that do not simply assume perfect markets, and an analysis of globalization that recognizes both its failures and its contributions’. Will a bout between Washington-consensus-sceptic Dani Rodrik and free-trade guru Jagdish Bhagwati be settled on points or will there be a knockout blow?

What possible objection could one have to Mark Moody-Stuart? When Exxon–Mobil (boycotted by over a million consumers in the UK) refused to speak at Greenpeace UK’s business conference earlier this month, the former head of Shell kindly stepped into the breach. After Shell, dear old Sir Mark was Chairman of the G8 Taskforce on Renewable Energy, which earned respect from some politicians, policy wonks like me and environmental groups for its eminently sensible conclusions. But that, as they say, was then (2000). Mr Moody-Stuart has moved on, and in their own inimitable way the Greenwash Guerrillas argue that he now provides a gloss for companies engaging in unacceptable practices. Among the most worst examples, they say, are HBSC which supports oil companies in Sudan, and Accenture, whose clients include TotalFinaElf, a big player in Burma. What do you think?

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