Hunger In A World Of Plenty
Simply... making the food go around
Global food surpluses and hunger don't add up. As long as the politics of greed continue to thrive, people will stay hungry. But is feeding the world just pie in the sky - or can it be for real?
The terms of international trade favour wealth absolutely. The rich world keeps the South wedded to commodity production by putting up tariff barriers to manufactured goods. Barriers to textiles and clothing alone cost poor countries $53 billion a year in lost trade - this equals the total of all Western aid to the South. Ironically, maintaining poverty in the Majority World means poor countries can buy less of the manufactured goods the rich are so eager to supply. There is no such thing as a 'free' market; what we have to strive for is one that is fair. The first step is to get informed and use our choices as consumers and investors wisely. As citizens we can oppose unfair trade and voice that opposition to our political leaders.
Overpopulation in the Majority World has often been blamed for ecological catastrophe. In fact poor people have more at stake in preserving the resources they depend on. It is ruthless, short-sighted commercial exploitation by the rich which is levelling the Amazon forests for furniture, narcotics and beef steak. Plantations grow the same crop repeatedly, earmarking their produce for the West. Such practices supply the whims of 'developed' nations, leaving all the costs in the South. To preserve a common future the environment must take priority.. We can help by encouraging green produce and questioning our own consumption.
There is no quick fix for areas with food shortages - the answers for each region are specific to it. The Green Revolution got hijacked by rich elites who priced small farmers out of the market. In industrial countries commercial farming, propped up with subsidies, continues apace with its arsenal of polluting chemicals, itspesticide-resistant pests and declining yields. The real answers lie elsewhere, with the farmers who make the best use of their lands, fighting pests with pests, growing a variety of crops to keep the soil fertile, saving the best seeds for the future. For their efforts to succeed they must be able to make their own decisions, instead of having governments, big agribusiness companies and policy makers on the other side of the globe (such as the World Bank and the IMF) setting out chapter and verse.
Equal rights for women
Women inherit every disadvantage and none of the power. They work more hours than men - yet 70 per cent of the world's adult poor are women. Four hundred million women of childbearing age weigh less than 45 kilograms - their malnutrition is passed on to their infants. In 'developed' countries women earn half as much as men. Often their work may not even be counted as work. Women produce half the world's food but own only one per cent of its farmland. Equality with men is the basic issue. The best way to attack women's hunger is by improving access to fairly-paid work and to land. Education also improves women's control over their fertility, health and standard of living.
A billion people living in the villages of the Majority World have no land of their own to farm. Two-thirds of them live in India and Bangladesh. In Guatemala and Peru 85 per cent of rural workers are landless. Wherever the problem exists there is usually a history of thwarted land-reform movements - thwarted by the bigwigs who own the land and have political clout. Giving land to poor farmers so they can grow their own food would not work on its own. It would have to be backed by improved access to credit and the means of production, like machinery. But land reform could create the jobs which poor people from rural areas seek in city slums.
War causes hunger - whether in Iraq reeling under economic sanctions after the Gulf War or in Afghanistan where 15 years of fighting have wrecked food production. Conflict robs people of homes and livelihoods - refugees have no land to grow food and no work to enable them to buy it. The world spent $767 billion in 1994 on its military might - more than the total income of the poorest 45 percent of the world's population. The 'peace dividend' has yielded $935 billion since 1987 through reduced arms spending, but none of it has gone towards international development aid. We need to lobby our leaders to work for peace and to use its dividends wisely. Greater stability would give poorer nations the opportunity to reduce their own military expenditure.
Sharing the wealth
More than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. The wealthiest one-fifth of the world's people control about 85 per cent of the money, the poorest fifth about 1.4 per cent. Cant about the free market creating opportunities for poor people is meaningless when wealth calls all the shots. Filthy-rich individuals apart, the politics of greed makes no economic sense for the wealthy countries that pursue it. Economic success in the Majority World would mean increased trade and more rather than less jobs in the West. By sharing wealth we could actually be safeguarding it.
Gross inequality is not just about economics, it is about moral choice. We need to replace the harmful myth of the individual making a killing - so important to modern imperialism - with the idea of the individual within a community. People aware of their connectedness can build both compassion and strength. Many poor communities with little to spare are working towards this ideal - whether it's poor women running communal soup kitchens in Peru and Bolivia, or farmers across Latin America involved in a programme to exchange knowledge. The real New World Order starts here.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995