EVERYONE who has watched the awful of camps Ethiopia misery the relief in and Sudan on their television screens has been struck by the obscene contrast between the famine in sub-Saharan Africa and the bumper harvests and overflowing grain silos in North America, Western Europe and Australia. The tragedy of starvation on such a scale in the midst of plenty is almost incomprehensible.
Maybe it is a tall order to expect the international community to tackle all the injustice and inequality documented in the rest of this issue that leave millions vulnerable to famine. But it is remarkable - remarkably incompetent or remarkably immoral - that political leaders cannot at least rig up some kind of safety net to catch the hungry.
This year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). there are sufficient surplus stocks of wheat, rice and coarse grains to feed every person in the world for two months - and that’s not counting the food that will actually be eaten in 1985. The US alone had carryover stocks of 85 million tonnes of grain. The European Community(EEC) had 28 million tonnes, Canada 13 million and Australia seven million.
At the same time FAO reports that the food needs of the 21 countries in Africa most severely affected by drought and famine for 1984-5 amount to less than 20 million tonnes, taking commercial imports and food aid together. So the EEC on its own could provide Africa’s outside grain needs and still have food to spare.
‘There is absolutely no problem of stocks,’ insists Susan George, the American author of How the Other Half Dies. ‘The problem is they are not where they ought to be.’ George calculates it would take 3.6 million tonnes of cereals to feed the 15 million children in Africa and other parts of the developing world who every year die of hunger. This amounts to just 0.002 per cent of global crops.
If so comparatively little food needs to be shifted from the haves to the have-nots, why doesn’t it happen? The answers we usually get are technical - not enough finance, transport and distribution difficulties, in-sufficient advance warning. A more truthful response is that in any market - and the food market is no exception - the poor will find from time to time that they cannot afford to buy.
The burgeoning agricultural trade war between the US and the EEC should on the face of it be good news for the developing world - grain surpluses are so large at the moment that prices have fallen to only $3.25 a bushel compared with $4.43 in 1978. They could fall even further as Brussels and Washington, who between them control 60 per cent of the world market, struggle to undercut each other.
But low grain prices are not unequivocally good news, since they are likely to encourage developing countries to increase imports instead of helping their own farmers to produce. And that binds them more tightly into a system controlled by the West, vulnerable to future price increases. While, however low prices fall, the most needy countries will not be able to find enough foreign exchange to buy what they want.
The market cannot provide food security for the poorest nations - but neither can food aid. Figures released by the FAO show how closely shipments of food aid are affected by market prices. When grain prices rise and developing countries cannot afford to buy, food aid declines. When grain prices fall, food aid tends to become more available(see Page 10). So even the most basic form of help humans can offer depends less on how hungry people are than on the financial interests of Western nations.
Is there then no thought of setting up an effective safety net? The I980 Food Aid Convention (which expires next year) aims to guarantee 10 million tonnes of cereals for food aid, a target which will be exceeded for the first time this year. The US is expected to ship 6.1 million tonnes in 1984/5, the EEC 2.1 million, Canada 800,000 and Australia 400,000. This would probably be enough to cope with emergency needs even in a disastrous year like this one. The trouble is that most of this food aid doesn’t go to famine victims, but instead forms part of the normal aid budget - it goes to ’friendly’ governments like Egypt which do not suffer famines. And there is plenty of evidence that food aid, in every context except that of an emergency, does more harm than good - it reduces the prices local farmers can get for their crops and fosters dependency on imports from the West such as wheat.
Even when the international community receives warnings about impending disasters, it all too frequently ignores them. Ethiopia’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission described an alarming deterioration in weather conditions as early as May 1981, and the FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System issued its first alert about the danger of famine in January 1983. Yet there was minimal international response until the Ethiopian famine became a television news story first in July and again in October of last year.
So we are left with national solutions to the food gap. The advice being offered to hungry nations is ‘feed yourself. There is general agreement from Susan George on the left of the argument to the World Bank on the right that the only real security is to be found with the farmers of the South.
But none of this is any comfort to the peasants of Ethiopia, Sudan and the Sahel who are struggling to survive. Relying on world markets is costly and uncertain. All the various safety nets of early warning and emergency reserves are full of holes. And Western governments are not going to plug those holes unless our pressure forces them into doing it.
John Tanner is a freelance journalist specialising in development issues.
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