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new internationalist
issue 168 - February 1987



Food banks
Self-help replaces aid

Food aid can wreak havoc in local economies. In Burkina Faso, West Africa, where grain was donated to combat a starvation problem that never really existed, the food imports often lead to the sudden collapse of cereal prices, and make farmers destitute.

Cereal banks offer an alternative to the reliance on food aid. In Burkina Faso they are run by local people with help from government and overseas charities. Groups of villagers club together to buy grain for a communal store when the price is reasonable, just after the harvest. As the dry season progresses and prices climb on the open market, the banks' members can 'buy back' portions of the store at controlled prices.

In order to join a scheme villagers have to prove their suitability to extension officers of the Government's Organisation for Rural Development, (ORD).

This organisation works closely with overseas agencies in most of Burkina's development projects. Co-operation of this kind is a feature of the Government's development strategy. Actively involving the recipients of aid is a reversal of the policy of previous Governments, which had allowed foreign agencies free rein on the basis that any aid was better than none. These agencies had, in turn, concentrated on projects which all too often encouraged a passive attitude on the part of the recipients.

To counter such passivity the Government trains local communities to design and implement their own development programmes, rather than relying on outsiders to do it for them. Using a series of charts and drawings, the fieldworkers help the villagers discuss their activities and decide which are going well, which need improvement and what sorts of measures could be taken to get things on a better footing. ORD arranges meetings between different village groups facing similar problems, as well as between groups that have already embarked on some new activity, such as dry season gardening, and others that are contemplating it.

Having decided for themselves what steps need taking, the local people are more committed to putting them into practice. Village groups are then given training in the skills necessary to carry out the projects. This often involves teaching basic accounting and budgeting. so that, for example, a loan for a cereal bank can be properly accounted for.

It is hoped that when groups can assess their needs and implement programmes they will be able to train other communities. The role of the Western aid agencies could be limited to providing funds for projects designed and run by the local people.

Martin Wright / Gemini


Counting the hungry
New statistics available

Although many ask how many hungry people there are, it is difficult to find an answer. This is because answering this question involves making a series of assumptions about other related questions, so obtaining a single accurate answer is almost impossible. Deciding how many people are hungry involves knowing the breakdown of the distribution of food supplies and each person's intake within individual countries. Statistics about average food consumption do not, for example, reveal the distribution of food amongst rich and poor. In order to answer this question it is also necessary to know how many members of individual households are suffering from the effects of quantitatively (energy-deficient) and qualitatively (nutrient-deficient) impoverished diets.

The FAO arrived at its figure by, firstly, establishing a cut-off point or minimum figure beneath which it is proper to speak of undernutrition, taking into account human physiology and the environmental and cultural setting of the various regions. The FAO adopted two cut-off points with reference to the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) in order to accommodate different points of view regarding the variation of individual energy requirements. A person's BMR is the amount of energy expended by the body in a fasting state when lying at complete rest in a warm environment. The cut-off point quoted below, 1.4 BMR, means that a person can engage in basic activities such as eating, washing, dressing and short walks.

Estimates based on this threshold, however, are fairly conservative as they do not consider people's needs while working. They also assume sanitary and environmental settings not generally found in Third World countries. For these reasons, the FAO's Fifth World Food Survey concludes that 'it is most probable that the number of people actually suffering form undernutrition is greater than estimated here'.

The table opposite summarizes the most important finding of the survey which shows that the proportion of undernourished people in the developing world dropped after 1970. But the total number of people unable to meet their food needs rose because the population figure also continued to grow.

Food and Agriculture Organization

Undernutrition in developing countries
(excluding China and other Asian centrally planned economies).


Number of undernourished people (millions)

Percentage of total population





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Asia and the Pacific





Latin America





Near East





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Bully Boers
Mozambique used as pawn

Mozambique's access to the sea means that it has an important role to play in Southern African politics. South Africa has waged a clandestine war against Mozambique for the last six years by way of the shadowy 'Mozambique National Resistance' (MNR) which it funds. The Mozambique Government has reported that 3.9 million people now face famine as a direct result of the recent stepping up of MNR operations. In 1984, when large areas of Mozambique were afflicted by drought, an estimated 100,000 people died of hunger as the MNR pillaged village food stores and ambushed relief convoys.

The fertile uplands bordering Malawi which now suffer the most serious food shortages were formerly the most productive. But the main reason for this is not the drought but the MNR, who have devastated agriculture. Hundreds of thousands of rural people have been forced from their homes, cannot reach markets with their produce and are afraid to work their fields.

MNR forces make few attempts to win the loyalty of the population but their campaign of terror and sabotage has seriously disrupted rural life and the transport network of the whole region. The roads and railways linking the neighbouring states to Mozambique's ports are key South African targets.

The rebel groups supported by South Africa do not aim to seize power but to cut the neighbouring majority-ruled states off from the sea. This would force them to route most of their supplies through South Africa. So sanctions could not be imposed because neighbouring states would suffer.

Julian Quan


Law or lies
Canadian flukes in court

The peace movement thrives on publicity. It gains coverage by making its case on the streets, at military bases and in halls of government - and now it looks as though it may also have its day in court. A Canadian coalition led by the World Federalists and Lawyers for Social Responsibility is pushing to have nuclear weapons declared illegal.

If the case is successful the peace groups will be able to legally challenge treaties and military agreements between Canada and the US. Their ultimate aim is to free Canada of nuclear weapons.

The court battle will hinge on the claim that nuclear weapons violate legal principles that lie at the basis of the internationally recognized Law of Armed Conflict These are laws that have evolved through formal agreement stretching back to the Declaration of St Petersburg in 1868. They include the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the Geneva Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and 1949 and the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Conventions.

These laws prohibit the use of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering or indiscriminate harm to civilians. They also prohibit weapons that violate the jurisdiction of neutral states, that use poison or that severely damage the environment.

The United Nations has repeatedly condemned the use of such weapons as an 'international crime'. And it is generally agreed that their use would constitute genocide, which is prohibited by the Nuremberg judgements and Genocide Treaty.

The Canadian groups will argue that if nuclear arms violate the laws of war it should also be illegal to plan and prepare to use such weapons. The court case is seen as part of a wider effort to halt the arms build up, to eventually abolish nuclear weapons and to free resources to fight poverty.

Past President of the World Federalists Canada, Ross Smyth, says weapons of mass destruction must be fought on all fronts - moral, political and legal.


West supports invaders

The West is continuing to lend support to its own and others' imperialism. Indonesia is a case in point. Its military onslaught, two decades old, has brought the people of East Timor to the brink of cultural extinction. Yet the Indonesians have been given financial and diplomatic support by the West

Indonesia is now one of the World Bank's largest clients. Various Western nations and international monetary institutions have formed the Inter-Governmental Group on Indonesia (IGGI) which provides financial assistance. Indonesia, with a foreign debt approaching $30,000 million, can expect an estimated $2,400 million of aid from IGGI during the current financial year.

While the war against East Timor has consumed vast amounts of Indonesia's military hardware, the UK has steadily supplied weapons needed for the subjugation of the East Timorese. Indeed, these arms sales help explain the UK's tacit acquiescence to the cataclysm in Timor. The sales include 17 Hawk trainer and ground-attack aircraft, three refitted naval frigates and over £180 million ($260 million) of Rapier missiles from British Aerospace. Indonesia has also been negotiating to purchase 600 Scorpion tanks.

Some idea of the use to which these weapons are put can be gained from Amnesty International's Report, East Timor: Violations of Human Rights. Amnesty reports the killings of hundreds of non-combatants, the extra-judicial execution of those surrendering to Indonesian forces, 'disappearances', arbitrary arrests and detention without trial 'on a massive scale'. Massive aerial and naval bombardment, together with consequent starvation, kills thousands of people. Between 100,000 and 200,000 East Timorese have been killed as a result of this military onslaught: that is one sixth to one third of the territory's 1974 population.

Alexander George

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New Internationalist issue 168 magazine cover This article is from the February 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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