Advocacy and blame in the global fight against hunger
Band Aid’s platinum-bestselling song of 1984–5, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, may have ignited a cosmopolitan sense of compassion, but its central plea to “Feed the World” is as vague as the problem of hunger is entrenched. Feed the world? Who is responsible? How should it be done? In Feeding the Hungry, a concise and insightful analysis of anti-hunger advocacy, Michelle Jurkovich explores this conceptual problem.
Most would agree that the existence of chronic hunger in the world is undesirable. But states and anti-hunger organizations diverge over how it should be tackled. Jurkovich conducts a survey of a dozen organizations, including Action Against Hunger, Care, FIAN International, Oxfam and the Rockefeller Foundation, asking them who is “to blame” for chronic hunger? And what is the solution?
For the first question, answers include transnational corporations, national governments, outside governments, price speculators and “lack of capacity”. For the second, respondents proposed agricultural development, food aid, safety nets, gender equality, regulation and climate action. In other words, there is no consensus on either matter.
There is no “norm” when it comes to addressing hunger, Jurkovich emphasizes. When hunger exists, no single actor can be blamed and shamed, which helps to explain the global stasis. This problem is confirmed by the flimsiness of the “right to food”. Promulgated into international law in 1966, the right to food should help advocacy efforts: it gives governments responsibility for ensuring populations do not go hungry. But governments are rarely pursued or held to account on the point. In part this is because organizations fear being kicked out of countries by angry governments or becoming embroiled in lengthy and expensive legal processes. And so, little changes, and most people continue to see hunger as a development shortcoming rather than a rights violation.
Policy makers, activists and academics must construct a shared understanding of hunger as a human rights issue if we are to get beyond this impasse, Jurkovich concludes. The extraordinary public reaction to Band Aid’s song showed the moral purchase of hunger. With a common framing of the problem, campaigns could pressure governments to tackle hunger more effectively. That way, we really might feed the world.
Following the cessation of hostilities in Libya and the efforts of Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to decriminalize the country’s security sector, there are grounds for considering whether there is now scope for reform of Libya’s migrant-detention system. But, given the involvement of militia groups in the detention centres and Libya’s post-conflict politics, what are the prospects for reform?
On the night of 2 July 2019, an airstrike hit the Tajoura detention centre outside Tripoli, killing 53 migrants. The outcry for the closure of such centres in Tripoli was immediate. Observers asked why hundreds of migrants were being held at such a site, with the conflict raging around the country’s capital. Governments called for immediate changes to Libya’s policies on holding migrants. Yet, over a year later, little has changed. Detention centres continue to operate adjacent to military sites, and these centres are secured by militias, some of whom fought in the 2019–2020 conflict to control Tripoli.
There are 34 detention centres holding an estimated 3 200 migrants in Libya, 20 of which – at least nominally – fall under the authority of the Department for Combating Illegal Immigration (DCIM). The fact that all detention centres in the country are secured by militias is problematic, not only because this enables abuse against detainees but also because the militias are active in armed conflict. In the Tariq al-Sikka centre, for example, many of the guards fought on the side of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord against the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) during the 2019–2020 conflict. Another militia, the Abu Salim Central Security (ASCS) force, guards the Abu Salim detention centre. That militia was heavily involved in the conflict, taking many casualties in the area around Tripoli International Airport.
Investigation and Deportation Units (IDUs) are another element in Libya’s detention system. Their emergence has coincided with increasing numbers of unauthorized migrant releases at disembarkation points. These migrants can end up in an IDU before being transferred to a detention centre. IDUs are also run by militias, despite their semi-formal status under the DCIM.
How Militias Benefit From Involvement In Detention
Militias benefit from detention centres through their involvement in human smuggling or trafficking networks, by using detainees for labour, by diverting goods intended for detainees, or posturing as state security services to boost their legitimacy.
In the Souq al-Khamis area near al-Khoms, where human smuggling has escalated, there are several armed groups, and the Souq al-Khamis detention centre lies within their web of operations. Militias bribe or extort migrants for money. The 2017 UN Panel of Experts report found that the al-Nasr Battalion and its commander, Mohammed Kushlav, were complicit in human-smuggling operations around the Zawiya littoral. The guards at the al-Nasr centre are likely to have profited from extortion or bribery, along with unauthorized releases of migrants for payments, a form of human trafficking.
Some militias exploit detained migrants for labour. The work migrants are forced to do often involves cleaning weapons and loading ammunition, which risks detention centres being regarded as viable military targets – as was the case with the airstrike on the Tajoura centre in 2019.
Militias in several detention centres also profit by diverting and reselling goods meant for use inside the centres. As militias are not subjected to any meaningful state supervision, they are free to act as ‘gatekeepers’, siphoning off goods in return for the security they provide.
Some armed groups meanwhile present themselves as an extension of the state’s law enforcement. The Subul al-Salam militia, for example, has promoted its credentials as an anti-smuggling actor (despite allegations that it is involved in people smuggling). These tactics are often driven by a desire to gain state backing and legitimacy. Such arrangements potentially offer a safer and more lasting form of job security and income, particularly if any national stabilization or security sector reform processes are realized.
The Effects of the Conflict
In June 2020, the LAAF were pushed back from Tripoli – a victory for the GNA and its aligned armed groups. Winning the battle for Tripoli has thrown the balance of power in Tripolitania into renewed flux as politicians and militia leaders vie with one another and between themselves for the upper hand in the post-conflict context.
Bashagha is faced with a division of authority between the DCIM’s head, Mabrouk Abd al-Hafiz, and the undersecretary for migration, Mohammed al-Shibani, who has close links to Usama al-Juweili, the commander of the Western Military Region. This division is more than administrative and points towards the interdependence of militia leaders and public officials in the distribution of power.
In July 2020, for example, al-Hafiz removed Mohammed al-Khoja, the leader of the Tripoli militia running the Tariq al-Sikka detention centre. By September, however, it was clear al-Khoja had ignored this instruction and was still in Tripoli. One source said that al-Khoja’s influence had increased within the DCIM because of his role during the Battle for Tripoli. Removing al-Khoja would have increased Bashagha’s authority over the detention system, an effort that has failed.
In another example following the end of the fighting, one of the leaders of the armed group that runs the Mabani IDU was appointed in July by Libya’s prime minister to a senior position in the government’s intelligence service – despite the fact that his militia is known to extort detainees.
Prospects for Security Sector Reform
These developments hint at the contest at play between politicians vying for militia loyalty, and indicate the powerful influence militias exert over state officials and resources. They point to the fact that power in western Libya is still measured by military strength. Even though the conflict has subsided, armed groups continue to retain the power to shape national politics.
This has two worrying consequences. The first is that government officials are forced to formalize ad hoc power arrangements based on whichever armed group happens to hold martial advantage in a given area. The part-formalization of IDUs, where militia-run holding sites are given a veneer of legitimacy through the presence of DCIM officials, suggests as much. This effectively creates a path for individuals involved in armed organized crime, such as al-Khoja and others, to become part of the official state apparatus, whether military, intelligence or government.
Secondly, the fact that competing militia groups control the detention centres and their surrounding areas helps create resistance to a unified central authority. For example, the Abu Salim area of Tripoli, and its detention centre, is controlled as if it were a quasi mini-state by the ASCS.
This is an immensely challenging context in which to pursue security sector reform. Bashagha, the interior minister, has had limited success in pursuing this and he has faced opposition from politically connected militia elites.
In Bashagha’s favour, there have been protests around the country of late demanding better governance. Moreover, some of Libya’s key international partners maintain a particular interest in strengthening the country’s migration governance. Reforming the detention system is an area where several parties’ interests overlap. Delivering such a programme would heed those calls that followed the Tajoura airstrike, avert criminality and do a service to the thousands of migrants currently at risk of abuse. The question remains whether the GNA, faced with these internal divisions, can forge such a path.
Mansour Rajeb is wrapping a plastic protective sheet around a branch of dates in his oasis near the village of Bchelli, in southern Tunisia. Tying it up, he lingers.
“I’m worried,” he says. “The quality is getting worse. The dates are getting drier.”
Like thousands of farmers across the region, the effects of the climate crisis and water scarcity are threatening his livelihood. “When the quality is poor, we receive lower prices. I’m earning less. This year, I’ll earn a third of last year, which was an average year.”
On the road out of Bchelli, a gust of wind makes the sand rise like steam. Beyond the palm trees lies desert; a flat, barren terrain of scrub, rock and sand. Communities have survived here for thousands of years, but their changing environment and practices may soon make it uninhabitable.
Overall temperatures here have risen by about 1C since 1988, according to data collected by the meteorological office in Tozeur, the capital of the region’s western district. This far exceeds average global warming levels.
“Temperatures used to peak in August and then fall, but now the heat persists until October,” says Taieb Foudhaili, of South Organic, a date exporting company based in Kebili. Given this pattern of warming, humidity levels are falling. The plants adapt by releasing water. The result, says Taieb is a drier, poorer product. His company must now do more sorting to maintain quality standards.
Global heating has also created shorter periods where date palms can flower and pollinate, according to Nabila el Kabri, an agronomist based in Kebili. As a consequence, Nabila has observed a decline in the productivity of dates per hectare.
But it’s not just rising temperatures causing anxiety. Over the past few decades, and particularly after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, unlawful plantations have spread like blots across the white landscape. The state has failed to exert proper controls. There are now 38,000 declared hectares of palm tree across the Kebili region, though the real figure is probably as high as 50,000 hectares. Two thirds of the entire country’s dates are produced here.
Tunisia’s population has trebled since 1960, while gross national income per capita has fallen since 2010. In a region where almost half of young people are underemployed, agriculture offers a lifeline for many. After olive production, dates are Tunisia’s second most valuable agricultural export. The sector is worth more than US$ 200m. This revenue is vital, sustaining more than 600,000 people.
But a consequence of ever more palm plantations is water scarcity. Date palms are thirsty. On each hectare there are between 100 to 140 palm trees. Each tree requires the equivalent of 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of water each year. Neither the old natural springs nor base groundwater can meet this demand.
Farmers are resorting to drilling and pumping water from aquifers. There are now about 30,000 wells, hundreds of metres deep, across the country. Half of these were drilled illegally, according to a 2017 report by Tunisia’s Ministry of Agriculture. Water levels are being increasingly overexploited across southern Tunisia. Half of this water is not renewable.
“If we keep creating these new oases, with thousands of hectares of new trees, then over 10 to 15 years we won’t have any water left. It’s a question of sustainability,” says Nabila El Kabri.
From the 13th century, water systems and inter-cropping practices meant Tunisians were masters in managing their scarce resources. However, modern palm plantations are essentially monocultures, producing the valuable Deglet Noor variety of date and little else. When this crop fails, farmers have little to fall back on.
Some are already suffering. Mansour said he has farmer friends who have already sold their trees from the new, poorly irrigated oases, because their crop was “so feeble”. Nabila says it is only a matter of time before date production as a whole will have to migrate north to Gafsa.
Ultimately, both problems Tunisia’s date farmers face – climate change and water scarcity – arise from a similar myopia; a common failure to see things holistically. “We are only thinking about the product,” said Taieb, “when we should be thinking about the air, the tree and the soil. We need to change the way we think.”
Lying in the shade of a palm tree in Chebika, 71-year-old Younes Belgasim is an unlikely figure of hope. His oasis is thriving. Younes is one of 18,000 people benefitting from a US$ 5.7m World Bank project that launched in 2014. The project provided Younes with seeds for vegetables and fruit trees, it improved his land’s soil and irrigation, and he got better fencing (protecting his plot from local wild boars).
The World Bank initiative supported Younes in restoring the traditional ‘three levels’ inter-cropping system. On his oasis, the date palms give shade to vines, banana, pomegranate and fig trees, while vegetables and wild grasses grow beneath.
This system demands more from farmers, and it may deliver less immediate commercial pay-off than exclusive Deglet Noor date production.
Both factors deter those farmers looking to work less and earn their revenue in one date harvest season. Inter-cropping can use more water, though it preserves water by maintaining humidity levels within the oasis ecosystem. Crucially, it improves the soil quality and strengthens biodiversity. And it diversifies farmers’ assets. This ecosystem-based farming can be a win-win: it protects farmers from climate, economic or disease-related shocks, while also preserving the natural environment.
“It is getting hotter,” says Younes, “but I’m not worried about climate change”. In a situation that’s becoming seriously worrying, perhaps his sense of security, as well as year-round earnings, will persuade others to farm in this way.
Ebu squints and her face creases into a dozen lines. She is peering down into her well but the act is pointless. She knows there is nothing down there. In moments of despair, life in Mal Nor, her drought-stricken village in the Thar Desert, seems equally senseless. With the climatic changes under way here, her ancestral lands in this part of south-eastern Pakistan are becoming almost uninhabitable.
“It used to rain a lot before,” she says, speaking in the Marwari language that is specific to this region. “It doesn’t now. It has drastically stopped.”
We stand by her well, near a couple of thatched huts and six sleepy goats that are tethered to a post. Her son and two young women look on; her small grandson, chapatti in mouth, stares, then breaks into tears. The surrounding landscape is sparse: sand, shrubs, the odd teak tree.
Ebu and her family are from an indigenous tribe called the Meghvars, who have lived in the Thar Desert for thousands of years. The land is full of such tribes; pastoral people whose livelihoods have mostly depended on goats and cattle.
Camels, peacocks, snakes and blackbucks share the arid 200,000 sq km expanse, most of which lies across the border in Rajasthan, India’s north-western state.
Scarce rainfall is not new here. Many of the elders describe their age in relation to a chapano (drought). Ebu says she has survived several chapano, at times eating merely grass and ants. These people are born survivors but their days in Tharparkar, as the district is called, might be numbered.
Farmers are losing their crops, cattle and goats because of the drought. Children are starving to death. Villagers are taking their own lives. Near Mithi, Tharparkar’s main town, several locals tell me that rainfall has halved in this region over the past two decades.
And it’s getting hotter. Across a range of indices, the Nasa Earth Exchange (NEX) has found that, over the past 50 years, temperatures in Sindh province, south-eastern Pakistan, have risen by more than 1.5C, around double the global average. Something has changed.
For a decade, I worked as a policy analyst for the UN and other organisations around the world. Reading countless reports at my desk in Rome, I became familiar with Pakistan’s particular vulnerability to natural disasters.
Over a 20-year period between 1998 and 2017, it experienced more than 140 climate-related events, such as hurricanes, flooding and heatwaves, causing more than 10,000 deaths and $3.8bn in losses each year through damage.
When I left the UN a few years ago, it was to write independently about hunger, climate change and other development challenges. In January, I decided to visit Pakistan to try to learn more about the lives of some of those most vulnerable to global warming.
The road that I take from Digri to Mithi shimmers in the heat. It was improved recently, with coal money, though the funds mostly went into constructing an open-cast coal mine and power station, located 70km away. The complex, known as Thar Coal Block II, was developed as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $60bn energy and infrastructure scheme that is under way across Pakistan. It began supplying electricity to Pakistan’s national grid in June.
Despite the asphalt-softening heat, which is now killing animals and people in southern Pakistan, the country’s efforts to extract fossil fuels from the ground are accelerating, generating ever higher carbon emissions.
For years, Pakistan’s population and manufacturing industries have suffered blackouts. CPEC offers a means to resolve the country’s energy crisis and, like all developed countries have done in the past, it helps both Pakistan and China pursue their fossil-fuelled industrial growth.
Banaras Khan, who is supporting climate-smart agriculture in Pakistan for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Islamabad, tells me the recurrent drought phenomenon in Tharparkar “gained momentum after 2013 and is becoming more frequent”. He says that a recent climate analysis the FAO conducted for Sindh province shows this can be attributed to climate change.
On the ground in Tharparkar, the land is so barren that even pasture cannot grow. Along the roadside, there are carcasses of animals, abandoned and atrophying, their skin caved-in between their bones. Locals here say “your livestock are like your diamonds” — a coping strategy when all else fails. When their animals starve, the owners are crushed.
A local historian called Bharomal Bheel tells me he visited a village called Jorvu, and saw a man who had just lost 300 sheep. Starving and dehydrated, they were killed by diseases. He was “completely broken”, crying in despair, says Bheel.
Alexander More, a climate historian at Harvard University, says Pakistan exemplifies how climate change can drive existing weather patterns to new extremes. “When we think of climate change, we usually think of global warming. But the reality is that, while temperatures are going upwards, with it also comes a pattern of increasing climate extremes. Southern Pakistan is an example of a place that is experiencing increasing droughts.”
Across the whole country, the risks are growing. The Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges in the north of the country hold 5,000 glaciers. Temperature rises or earthquakes can trigger what are called glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOF, which threaten populations living in the valleys and plains below.
In 2010, the Booni Gol outburst killed almost 2,000 people and destroyed 1.6 million homes. Thousands of acres of farmland were damaged. Today, analysts say seven million people in Pakistan are vulnerable to such floods.
The effects of rising temperatures are equally ominous for Pakistan’s lowland populations. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report described how a global rise of 2C would have appalling consequences for South Asia’s megacities. By 2050, Karachi will have an estimated population of 24 million, and be likely to experience “deadly heatwaves” of 49C on an annual basis.
Sindh province was once at the heart of the great Indus Valley civilisation, which emerged more than 6,000 years ago, and thrived by channelling water via canals and dykes.
Today, high population levels and poor water management mean that Pakistan is running out of fresh water. The Indus River Basin Authority believes the country will suffer a shortage of 37 billion litres by 2025. These concerns will be intensified by potential “water wars” between India and Pakistan, should current tensions between the neighbouring countries escalate.
In the Thar Desert, communities already face an existential threat: there is nowhere near enough food to go round. Hundreds of thousands of people in Tharparkar, more than half the district’s population, face acute food insecurity, meaning they experience hunger but can go entire days without eating anything. Some 400,000 children under five are acutely malnourished, according to the FAO. More than 500 children died from hunger-related causes last year.
As crops fail, and livestock wither and die, the communal nature of life that has bound people in the Thar Desert together for so long is breaking apart. Villagers can no longer afford to stay on their lands. Ebu says that “most healthy men” have had to migrate to cities or towns where they hope to find work as day-labourers. “When they return,” she says, “they only bring things for their own family.”
Others complain in similar terms. Bheel calls it a “drought in community”. Perhaps it is this — the sense of togetherness evaporating — that causes most unease. “We are constantly worried,” says Ebu. “We’re in a constant state of anxiety. It’s as if we are drowning.”
As with most slow-motion humanitarian crises, the issue is not that there are no solutions — but that they require political will, finance and attention. For dry-land communities like those of the Thar Desert, technologies such as land terracing, drip irrigation and mulching can save water and preserve soil quality, sustaining the livestock and crops on which people depend. Such steps would mean major financing as well as government and international support.
The broader need to meet Pakistan’s energy requirements is also not unattainable; billions of dollars of investment are pledged at climate conferences every year. Some of this money could and should be invested in developing countries like Pakistan, enabling them to shift their fossil fuel-powered growth models towards renewable energy alternatives. Overall, it is a massive project and, in relative terms, there is very little time. It’s hard to feel optimistic.
One evening, Bheel tells me several tales, from legend and personal experience, recalling djinns (ghosts) and deos (spirits) and the alarming feats of the goddess Aver Devi. “My grandmother’s ghost stories were the worst,” he says, “because they seemed so true.”
Reality is beginning to attain something of these stories.
Late one night, with a guide, I visit a village in the desert. The moon and stars are bright enough to reveal our shadows on the sand. In the monochrome light, the landscape resembles a blackish sea. In silence, we come across some abandoned thatched huts; black shapes in the darkness.
We find other huts. Two figures emerge. A man says his eight brothers and their families have left this village. His is the last family left. It is a ghost village. Soon, because of climate change, places like these will be uninhabited, and the desert wind will be the only sound; a long, drawn-out gasp of what once was.
In the cool interior of his troglodyte cave, Ali Diglish is speaking at full tilt. The 26-year-old guide from Chenini barely draws breath. Like much of the country these days, this Berber village in southern Tunisia doesn’t get many visitors, so Diglish is seizing his chance.
This article featured in the Travel section of the Financial Times Weekend edition. The full article can be found by clicking on the link here.
“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds, / Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds, / In little parcels, little minds to please, / With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease”. These dispirited lines were written by the “anti-enclosure” poet John Clare at the turn of the nineteenth century. “The thorns are gone, the woodlark’s song is hush, / Spring more resembles winter now than spring”, he wrote in another verse, ruing the stark “emptying” that enclosure wrought upon the natural world.
Clare is quoted in the conclusion to Patrick Bresnihan’s elegantly written book, Transforming the Fisheries. As an academic text, filled with social research, it seems far removed from the rural poetry of Clare. But despite their different forms and periods, their subject, and lament, is similar. Both champion the richness that they perceive lies in the “commons”.
Today’s seas and oceans, Bresnihan recognizes, are subject to enclosure of a less visible form: through regulatory regimes imposed by governing bodies that seek to manage fish stocks for economic gains. This phenomenon is associated with “biopower” – a Foucaultian term denoting capitalism’s power over the sphere of “reproduction” (i.e. nature) since the eighteenth century. Bresnihan assesses the efforts of Irish government officials, worried about “the crisis of overfishing” and “scarcity”, who seek to protect and improve the industry. He considers policies designed to “rationalise” fisheries towards economic and environmental goals. The LEADER programme, the Maximum Sustainable Yield, individual transferable quotas and community-based resource management initiatives have all been proposed by policymakers to push fishermen towards greater profitability and sustainable, “locally-managed” fish stocks, in line with the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy.
Transforming the Fisheries is partly ethnographic. Bresnihan spends eighteen months living in the fishing community of Castletownbere, Ireland. He helps out on big, commercial fishing trawlers, as well as smaller, inshore boats. In these places, he realizes that fishermen live within a respectful, complex and unpredictable “collectivity” between humans and non-humans. These environments are described as the “more-than-human commons”, where “resources [are] circulated and shared rather than accumulated, owned or controlled”. As such, the everyday activities of fishermen do “not translate easily into the terms of political economy or liberal frameworks of governance”. Instead, Bresnihan sees their behaviour more as “commoning”, denoting the continuous making and remaking of relationships with society and nature. With this notion he challenges certain neoliberal assumptions about human ways of being in the world.
THE END OF PLENTY – The race to feed a crowded world, by Joel K. Bourne
THE REPROACH OF HUNGER – Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century, by David Rieff
Joel K. Bourne considers a world seemingly destined for even more hungry people. The planet’s human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Food production increases are barely able to match population increases. Food stocks are diminishing. The extraordinary growth of food production brought about by the “Green Revolution” since the 1960s is now levelling out due to soil nutrient depletion, a result of the intensive farming that was deemed necessary to address unprecedented global population growth. The increasing consumption of meat and dairy products, which requires and releases more carbon dioxide to produce, is exacerbating climate change. Climate change is already reducing production for farmers throughout the world.
It makes for scary reading. Bourne is happy to furnish our fears. He writes, “The world’s farmers face a . . . Herculean, task: to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, floods and heat waves. And they must do it without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends. It is the biggest collective hurdle humanity has ever faced”. Later he adds, “we’re on a roller coaster that has just left the tracks”.
This catastrophic scenario is relieved somewhat by the book’s narrative structure. Bourne eases our worries with stories of ingenious and personable farmers doing their bit to help themselves and, implicitly, humanity.
Bourne has a passion for seeds and soil. He admires people working the land, none more so than the father of the “Green Revolution”, Norman Borlaug. He describes an “iconic” image of Borlaug in a Mexican field in 1964: “His shirtsleeves are rolled high, revealing a brawny, sun-darkened right arm that scribbles in a large notebook . . . his eyes steeled on the wheat field in front of him, judging its height, vigor and yield.” Borlaug is one of many heroic figures in this story. Other hopeful characters include: a maverick American aquaculturist off the coast of Panama, an Ivy League microirrigation engineer launching his start-up in India, and corporate farmers in Ukraine looking to exploit the potential of Europe’s breadbasket.
The End of Plenty is both readable and compelling as a series of largely apolitical tales of farmers’ challenges and triumphs set against the wider environmental context.
Yet The End of Plenty does not go far enough, both in terms of analysis or prescription. As its subtitle states, this book is about “the race to feed a crowded world”. But Bourne sees the problem of hunger narrowly, as largely one of food supply, and suggests answers mainly in agricultural innovation alone.
This tendency to see the solution to global hunger through “innovative” agricultural development is the view of the “mainstream”, as David Rieff makes clear in The Reproach of Hunger: Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century. The mainstream comprises all the major players apparently aiming to tackle hunger: the United Nations, bilateral aid agencies such as USAID and DFID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank, international NGOs and even agro-industrial multinationals. Reiff argues that they share a misguided “faith” that hunger can be eradicated – for that is their aim – through “smart aid”, scientific innovation and “best practices” drawn from the private sector.
Rieff correctly asserts that this mainstream development consensus represents an ideology that simplifies the causes of hunger and underestimates the scale of the changes required to tackle it. He argues that “hope has become the default of our age, and realism . . . is now widely considered to be a moral solecism and almost a betrayal of what it should mean to be a compassionate human being.” He laments this status quo, “in which good intentions are too often conflated with good deeds and good deeds with effective ones”. He deplores “an age where it is a fact and not an opinion that inequality is deepening across the world, that power and wealth are more and more concentrated in the hands of the tiny minority of the world’s population, and that politics even in democratic countries is increasingly unresponsive”. He concludes that “all this talk about individuals making a difference [is] at best a consoling farce”.
The Reproach of Hunger is a long, rambling book filled with long, rambling sentences. But Rieff’s insight on the illusory quality of the development consensus is important. As is his assertion that hunger is fundamentally a political problem, not a technical one. But Rieff, like Bourne, fails to offer an alternative. His overriding scepticism precludes it. Disconsolate, he agrees with the philosopher John Gray that the “emancipation of market forces from social and political control” represents the only revolution currently underway.
These books – one fearful, the other despairing – offer divergent visions of the challenges we face in feeding the “bottom billion”. Bourne fears we may not produce enough food considering existing farming methods, population growth and the effects of climate change, while Rieff doubts that “philanthrocapitalism” – the present approach – offers a real solution. Yet they struggle with the same binary: either working with, or against, capitalism. Neither ventures a credible political alternative.
Alternatives do exist, however. As with water, we must defend the aim of “enough food for all” from the vicissitudes of market economics. As a norm and an ideal, ending hunger should be a cross-party political goal. This should be safeguarded legally, by enshrining rights within all state constitutions. Governments that breach their citizens’ “right to food” should be liable.
The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on 20 November was symptomatic of Mali’s protracted social conflict. Twenty-one people were killed during the day-long siege, including the two jihadists from Al-Mourabitoun, one of several radical Muslim factions operating in the north of the country. A recurring conflict between northern Tuareg actors and the government has also plagued Mali since it gained independence in 1960. In 2012, the ‘fifth Tuareg uprising’ and almost simultaneous jihadist attacks broke out across the north, expelling government forces from Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao regions. These parallel movements threatened Mali’s state sovereignty, prompting French military and UN peacekeeping interventions as well as an internationally mediated peace process. Three years later, it remains to be seen whether lasting peace can be achieved in Mali.
In the short term, successive French military interventions Serval and Barkhane have weakened northern radical Islamic militant groups such as Ansar Dine, which led the 2012 jihad, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The French army recently reported that between July 2014 and 2015 Operation Barkhane had removed 125 terrorists from Mali and seized 20 tonnes of munitions. The UN peacekeeping force (MINUSMA) has also helped to stabilise the conflict, despite recently becoming the fourth-deadliest mission in the history of the blue helmets. In addition, Mali’s neighbouring states coordinate to tackle security challenges as part of the Nouakchott Process, which started in late 2014. These initiatives have de-escalated the conflict for now.
The peace process has also made some advances in conflict transformation between 2014 and 2015. The large number of northern armed actors were united in their hostility towards a Malian state they saw as exclusionary and corrupt, but splintered over goals and methods. By July 2014, the mediation team, led by Algeria, had successfully coalesced the actors into two coalitions – the more statist, government-leaning Platform, and the more secessionist Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad(known as ‘Coordination’) – which became compliant within a political process. By the time the Coordination signed the ‘Algiers Accord’ on 20 June 2015, the process had achieved notable compromises among parties. For example, the Coordination dropped its goal of a separate ‘Azawad’ territory and agreed to back a single, secular Malian state. The government also shifted its position, agreeing to the official use of the name ‘Azawad’ for the northeastern region, and several additional political concessions.
Significantly, the Accord offers considerable devolution to northern Tuareg populations represented by the Coordination. It also promises economic investment in the north, which both the Platform and the Coordination desire. Meanwhile, both northern factions have agreed to disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and reinsertion (DDRR), including merging some elements into the national security forces. Socially, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Committee, which aims to investigate violence and abuses committed in the country during 1960–2013, is an important step towards fostering a culture of reconciliation.
The peace deal also generated a positive international response, with France pledging €360 million in reconstruction assistance on 21 October. The following day the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) hosted an international conference on Mali, to solicit further investment from the public and private sectors. The meeting concluded by stating that Mali requires some €3.5 billion in humanitarian and development assistance during the next six years.
All of these initiatives are de-escalating conflict in Mali. But the question remains whether they are actually transforming the conflict. Three developments in 2015 would suggest not. Firstly, the Coordination refused to sign the Algiers Accord when the Platform did so in March, because, among other unmet aspirations, the group rejected the proposed security arrangements. This rejection was almost certainly based on concerns that its forces would not be stationed optimally when ‘guarding’ northern roads. Secondly, both the Platform and the Coordination broke the ceasefire agreement, central to the Accord, several times between May and September, halting the implementation of the peace deal. Each breach was a result of armed elements moving into ‘forbidden’ territories in the northern regions. Their objective, again, was to claim key strategic roads when, through the Accord, they would soon be entrusted to ‘police’ them. This manoeuvring led to several clashes, the last of which, on 17 September, resulted in 15 fatalities. Following this ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, the third key event was a three-week long meeting in Anefis between the Platform and the Coordination, which ended in mid-October with a deal to end hostilities. According to reports, this so-called ‘pact of honour’ again centred around cantonments along the northern roads.
Both parties’ concerns over the control of roads in the north is explained by the prevalence of smuggling in the area. Illicit trade across Mali’s northern border has grown since the 1970s – from cigarettes, to cannabis, to cocaine, heroin, arms and human beings – and has become a vital source of revenue for northern communities. Controlling roads heading into Algeria guarantees vital income through bribery and kickbacks. A worrying associated trend has been kidnapping, particularly by terrorist networks seeking cash for the release of hostages.
The fact that so much of the peace process has, in effect, hinged on control over trafficking routes reveals two key insights: firstly, that criminality and corruption is endemic both in the north, but also reputedly in Bamako, massively undermining Mali’s long-term governance and security. Secondly, that people engaged in such activities seek this income for themselves and their communities, revealing the persistent poverty and deprivation of the north, which is still resource-poor and economically marginalised. As Paul Collier has forcefully argued, this kind of poverty is a key driver of conflict. Both insights suggest that the structurally rooted nature of conflict in Mali persists, despite efforts at delivering peace.
For real conflict transformation in Mali to occur, northern criminality needs to be tackled by force, but also through strengthened governance and rule of law. Broader recognition of the problem is necessary: Mali’s diplomatic community still treats cross-border trafficking as a taboo; radical ‘Islamists’ or tribal dynamics are instead seen as the key drivers of conflict. The Nouakchott Declaration refers to transnational trafficking networks merely in passing. Donors should force Bamako to tackle the issue by disinvesting, for example, when trafficking indicators are triggered. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) remains weak in Mali. International organisations must be capable of confronting corruption at the central level.
But in parallel with such efforts, the international community must support the government in promoting legitimate forms of income to replace this criminal economy. France’s financial pledge is undoubtedly important, but it remains a ‘pledge’, only €80 million of which was dedicated to the north. The government must honour its commitments, enshrined in the Algiers Accord, to northern political and economic integration. Moreover, the international community must incentivise this assimilation into the national economy by promoting existing assets, like tourism, and identifying alternate revenue streams. In this way, the northern groups can be legitimately empowered, in conflict analysis terms, so as to be able to negotiate effectively with the government within an ongoing political process.
As long as trafficking and criminality are allowed to continue, and no viable alternative exists, then this war economy will prevail throughout northern Mali. In this context, armed actors will continue to rise against the state. And jihadi ‘spoilers’ will continue to kidnap and kill, as they did in Bamako on 20 November. As such, Mali’s prospects for peace remain worryingly remote.
“It is time at last for the debate that never happened to happen. It is time at last for the silence on unequal rights for rich and poor to end. It is time at last for all men and women to be equally free.” Thus ends The Tyranny of Experts, William Easterley’s latest insightful book about international development.
Since the early 20th century, and after World War II, argues Easterley, the architects and managers of international aid – governments and “experts” – have unanimously favoured an apolitical approach to development that attempts to achieve economic growth through centralized, technocratic means.
Through this “blank slate” vision of development these “experts” have neglected the rights of poor people. As a result, they have actually undermined poor people’s prospects for greater material wealth over the long term. Easterley suggests that the racist colonial belief in poor people’s inability to think for themselves is sustained through mainstream development practice today.
The Tyranny of Experts draws heavily on the ideas of 20th century Nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. One of Hayek’s most popular books, The Road to Serfdom, challenged the wisdom of top-down central planning. Easterley takes his cue, arguing that development should be achieved via what Hayek described as “spontaneous order” rather than the “conscious design” favoured by Hayek’s contemporary, Gunnar Myrdal, and successive generations of development economists.
Easterley invokes Adam Smith’s notion of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to illustrate how individuals seek opportunities within complex systems when incentives exist. Easterley wants the “experts” to focus more on creating these incentives by pushing for poor people to be granted their political and economic rights. These rights are intrinsically good, he argues, plus they help individuals pursue the market opportunities that will ultimately lead to national growth. He uses the phenomenal success of South Korean car giant, Hyundai, founded by Chung Ju Yung, to make his point.
Unfortunately, the latter half of the book is problematic. Easterley uses too many threads of research simultaneously, including a continuous reference to the history of Greene Street, New York, as a weakly conceived example of how “spontaneous solutions” triumph over central planning.
Though it loses some coherence, The Tyranny of Experts nonetheless compels us to re-examine the purpose and methods of international aid.
I have just read Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents (2002).
Stiglitz was the Chief Economist at the World Bank and Chairman of President Clinton’s Council for Economic Advisors. He won the Nobel prize for Economics in 2001.
He has formidable expertise and experience and has succeeded in writing a book about economics that is both readable and compelling.
His basic argument runs that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the international economic institution responsible for supporting countries facing economic crisis, was largely responsible for the failure of globalization in the 1990s.
The IMF, states Stiglitz, continuously adopted an out-dated and dogmatic adherence to market fundamentalism – the belief in letting the free market deliver economic stability and growth. Their policy to achieve this, in East Asia and Russia, was incoherent and went against the basic tenets of Keynesian economics.
The IMF’s failed policy prescriptions included fiscal austerity, high interest rates, rapid trade liberalization, liberalizing capital markets and privatization.The IMF’s institutional “fear of default” also comes in for criticism.
I enjoyed this book though I found the focus a little too narrow; it rarely deviates from its specific critique of the IMF. Surely other players should come into consideration if you intend to address the failings of a phenomenon as broad as globalization? Only the World Trade Organization, the U.S. Government and the World Bank, are addressed in this context.
The “behind the scenes” actions of corporations and foreign governments in influencing policy are ignored. Here Stiglitz misses an important trick. I would also have liked to see more analysis of how poor economic decisions directly affected people in these developing countries; the repercussions of, for example, liberalization policies were often enumerated only very vaguely.
Stiglitz undoubtedly succeeds in revealing the impudence and irresponsibility of the IMF’s interventions in developing countries. But I wonder how else it could operate? The “international bureaucrats” to which he so often refers must work according to very tight timelines. Sometimes these seemingly mundane factors help to explain their lack of flexibility or foresight.
But it’s nevertheless shocking to learn how much the IMF is governed by the narrow interests of the Western financial community, whose investments are recouped via the multi-billion dollar cash injections into these developing economies, while their poor lose their jobs and livelihoods and the middle classes foot the tax bill that ensues.