Hunger Shames

A comparative book review:

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 Times Literary Supplement



Interventions – A Life in War and Peace

Kofi Annan’s memoirs narrate his career as a flying peacemaker, working for the United Nations. Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, takes us from one diplomatic precipice to the next. We traverse devastating failures and lasting successes. In the book’s chaotic world, Annan’s unwavering determination and moral conviction is perhaps the one constant.

Interventions is written by Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh, an ex-colleague, and focuses mostly on his efforts to prevent or resolve global conflict. After an opening chapter on his youth, observing the successful independence movement of Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, and engaging in student politics, we then jump to his career, as head of the UN’s peacekeeping operation, followed by his ten years as Secretary General.

Chapters primarily cover the interventions in all forms of war since the early 1990s. Specific innovations such as the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, the International Criminal Court and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are upheld. UN reform is explained, and UN resolutions are never far away.

The book could be more balanced, addressing Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan more, and Israel-Palestine a little less. It could also capture the rich detail of high-level political summits with more verve; at times the content is dry and excessively policy-orientated. Occasionally the language strays into latinate prose: “The impact of the MDGs in providing this coherence has not just secured the de-confliction of certain development paradigms…”

Despite these flaws in style, Interventions engages assiduously with key topics. Annan does not shy away from criticizing the Bush administration for undermining multilateralism over the Iraq war. He is right to point out that in development debates “the spotlight should not be on aid but trade. It should really be on the failures of rich countries to remove international trade regulations that stunt the economic ambitions of developing countries.”

Interventions really comes alive when we read about Annan’s efforts to work alongside difficult personalities such as the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. These passages reflect Annan’s sensitivity and steeliness, as well as his sense for human psychology. The book’s substance lies somewhere between the personal and the policy-driven – more of the former would have made it more readable, but nevertheless it remains a fascinating account of contemporary statecraft in the post-Cold War era.


Times Literary Supplement


Locust Control in Madagascar

What is hunger? An abdominal pang you feel around midday? A craving for snacks at five in the afternoon? For over a billion people worldwide, hunger is a chronic state: suffered almost all the time, every day.

It’s a struggle of mental endurance as well as sustenance. I once went five days without eating, but I knew at some point I’d be able to eat, so while I became thin and tired, I was never mentally weakened. Chronic hunger leaves no such comfort; it’s as psychologically debilitating as it is physically emaciating.

This month the United Nations meet in New York to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Despite what those assembled will say, MDG 1, to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people suffering from hunger, is an embarrassing failure. There were 817 million hungry people in 1990. We were aiming at close to 400 million. Today there are over a billion. So why have we failed so spectacularly to solve the problem of hunger, what causes it and can we do anything to solve it?

Humans have never conquered hunger. Look back through the records of ancient Rome, China, the Mayans – all were beset by food crises that lead to famine and starvation. But today, as rich countries’ supermarket shopping aisles are stuffed with thousands of foodstuffs, a phantasmagoria of branded edible products, man has hopped on the moon, and we have instantaneous satellite communication technology, how can we still have failed to master hunger?

Before trying to prescribe solutions to it, we should understand that hunger is not a distinct entity; there is no single hunger, but multiple hungers, of diverse forms, severity, duration, origin and consequence. Hunger can be seen as a nested concept, within the larger bracket of ‘food insecurity’, and part of a process that leads to undernutrition,  or clinical forms of hunger, resulting from serious deficiencies in one or a number of nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins and minerals). A food insecure person can become hungry if their food availability, access or utilization fails.

Decades of research and indeed the lessons of history have shown that hunger does not necessarily stem from inadequacy of food output and supply, as alarmists from the production side and neo-Malthusian development theorists are prone to propagate. The warnings that world food output is falling behind population growth not only fail to address the causes of hunger, but also blind us from the complex range of causes that demand our attention.

Steve Wiggins from development think tank ODI says, “It’s never about food availability [production]. The big issue is distribution.” Wiggins adds that “people go hungry because they are poor.” Wiggins proposes poverty reduction and a focus on child healthcare as macro and micro level solutions to hunger. However, macro increases in income have not translated into proportional decreases in hunger.

Oxfam’s Chris Leather describes political will, community-based participation, good governance, fulfilment of ODA pledges, social protection, appropriate humanitarian assistance, international systems, multilateral collaboration and accountability mechanisms as priority areas for solving hunger. The list is exhaustive, and narrated with weariness, so as to make these concepts mundane, like a shopping list. Hunger is always highly localised; such all-encompassing prescriptions seem almost abstract.

The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, perhaps the world’s most renowned scholar on famine and poverty, has maintained the need for a nuanced analytical approach, yet even he veers into prescriptive overload. Economic growth, expansion of gainful employment, diversification of production, enhanced medical and health care, safety nets for vulnerable women and children, increasing basic education and literacy, strengthening democracy and reducing gender inequalities are, he argues, the right causal avenues to address.

The problems lie in our social, political and economic systems; most were not designed for the purpose of sharing goods equitably. The ‘smaller’ our world appears to have become through miraculous transport and communications achievements, the more tragically evident this fact becomes. Despite the advantages of globalization and the supposed dominance of liberalism in the international system, we nevertheless remain unable to re-organise these systems according to all peoples’ equal needs. This failure is ultimately an ethical one.

At the global level, tackling hunger requires structural changes, like transforming global trading systems. U.S. and European subsidies schemes render their leaders’ rhetoric on the benefits of the free market hypocritical. Most African countries have gone from being net food exporters in the 1960s to net food importers today. As the prices of imported commodities creep up again, millions more risk going hungry. At the rural community level, where most of the hungry are located, we need to focus our efforts on expanding social protection and promoting nutritionally-enhanced, pro-poor agricultural development.

Progress should be about fulfilling mankind’s needs. Today’s political, economic and ethical systems incentivise economic growth and individual wealth over real human equality. If we really wanted to address people’s hunger, we would change these systems, and the systems of thought that underpin them. Hunger is becoming one of the great moral failures of the 21st century; it doesn’t have to be. We need to galvanise our moral and political strength to change this.

The East African