Monday, August 01, 2005

Plenty of Food -- But the Poor Are Starving

The Guardian gives us this low-down on the catastrophe in Niger, where the poor face starvation even while markets are stuffed with food. Once again, we see an appalling confirmation of the underlying -- and universally ignored -- truth about hunger and starvation in the world: the problem is not a lack of food -- there is more than enough food to feed everyone on the globe; the problem is greed, the rapacious economics of food distribution. Some excerpts:

"...This is the strange reality of Niger's hunger crisis. There is plenty of food, but children are dying because their parents cannot afford to buy it.

"The starvation in Niger is not the inevitable consequence of poverty, or simply the fault of locusts or drought. It is also the result of a belief that the free market can solve the problems of one of the world's poorest countries.

"The price of grain has skyrocketed; a 100kg bag of millet, the staple grain, costs around 8,000 to 12,000 West African francs (around £13) last year but now costs more than 22,000 francs (£25). According to Washington-based analysts the Famine Early Warning System Network (Fewsnet), drought and pests have only had a "modest impact" on grain production in Niger. The last harvest was only 11% below the five-yearly average. Prices have been rising also because traders in Niger have been exporting grain to wealthier neighbouring countries, including Nigeria and Ghana....."

One major problem is that the Niger government, eager to curry favor with the G8 nations who had just written off some of the country's debt, refused to allow free food distribution to the hardest-hit areas when the effects of drought and pest infestation first began emerging. Why the reluctance? Niger's leaders wanted to prove their "free market" bona fides to the G8 crew -- who had of course imposed draconian conditions on their "generous" cancellation of some African loans. Niger's government was backed by the UN in this refusal to distribute food; such an act of mercy would "interfere with the free market," the UN said.

Now, months later, with more than 3 million people going hungry -- and almost 1 million needing immediate emergency aid just to stay alive -- the government and the UN have relented, and are trying to mobilize a massive international relief effort. This is a grim necessity which will doubtless be repeated, as the West's massive subsidies to its own farmers destroy local economies in developing countries -- which, in order to obtain aid and debt relief, are not allowed to "interfere in the free market" for agriculture the way the G8 nations do. And thus, as always, the food will go where the money is -- in this case, to wealthier neighbors in Africa -- while, as always and forever, the weakest go to the wall.