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Justice, not Philanthropy

This week José Graziano da Silva, the Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, announced that the famine in Somalia has ended. A combination of good rain, the most successful harvest in seventeen years, and the effective dispersal and deployment of food and agricultural aid means that most Somalis now have adequate access to food. But this is likely to be a temporary reprieve: it’s uncertain if food stocks will last until April, when the next rainy season begins and the main planting is done.

This already fragile situation is compounded by Somalia’s complicated politics: the southern part of the country is still controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which banned the Red Cross from operating in the area this week, and has disrupted food supplies in the past. Tellingly, around half of the 2.34 million people still in need of humanitarian assistance and seventy per cent of the country’s acutely malnourished children are in southern Somalia.

The end of the famine is no cause for celebration, then. Thirty-one per cent of the Somali population remains reliant on food aid, famine looms in another three months, and there are the after-effects of the famine to cope with: the plight of the refugees scattered around Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya; and the generation of malnourished children.

It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine, half of them children.

Clearly, something isn’t working.

And as one famine comes to an end – or, at least, a halt – in East Africa, another one seems to be developing on the other side of the continent. Niger, and, indeed, its neighbours Chad and Mali, is both drought- and famine-prone. Even in good years, it struggles to feed itself. Fifteen per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in Niger. But poor rainfall at the end of 2011 and a spike in global food prices means that the country’s population faces famine.

Niger’s last famine was in 2010, when the World Food Programme provided food to 4.5 million people. But things seem to be more hopeful there than in Somalia, and largely because Niger has a government which functions relatively well. Realising that it needs to store its food supply properly, provide jobs so that its population can afford to buy food, and also limit the growth of its population, the government of Niger is introducing measures to improve people’s access to food. One new piece of legislation will make it compulsory for children to remain in school until the age of sixteen, partly because of the strong link between girls’ education and declining family size.

Somalia’s weak and ineffectual government can’t do anything to prevent famine from occurring there again. With all the will in the world, there is no way that Somalia’s food crisis will end until its political situation stabilises.

The comparison of Niger and Somalia is particularly useful for demonstrating the extent to which responses to famine – from the media, NGOs, charities, and other international organisations – are heavily politicised. Reporting on the Niger famine in 2010 was fairly muted and I’ve only seen a couple of references to its most recent food crisis. Somalia, though, never seems to be out of the news. The reason for this is depressingly simple:

Niger, the large West African country whose name is best known for being just one unfortunate letter away from a pejorative racial insult, has a few terrorists, but not enough to really matter. Elements from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wander across Niger’s border every now and then, taking advantage of the large desolate areas which characterise most of the country, but for the most part its contribution to the War on Terror is minimal.

Al-Shabaab is loosely affiliated to al Qaeda and the United States fears that the Horn of Africa could prove to be a useful base for planning future terrorist activities. It probably also helps that Somalia has media-friendly pirates too.

So all famines aren’t equal. All famines are complicated. Indeed, the whole question of ‘hunger’ is complex. I was amused to note that Monday marks the beginning of the WFP’s Free Rice Week. The project encourages individuals to play a game on a website. For every correct answer, Free Rice Week’s sponsors donate ten grains of rice to the WFP. The aim of the project is to ‘provide education to everyone for free’. Hmm…. ok – it includes some basic, if vague, information about ‘hunger’. And also to ‘help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.’

Huh?

So this is going to end world hunger by giving all hungry people rice?

Seriously?

Other than the fact that it would be as – or even more – effective for the project’s sponsors and participants to skip the cute competition and simply donate rice to the WFP (or, even better, to a local feeding scheme or food bank), this really isn’t going to end world hunger.

I know that this seems like a soft target to shout at, and, really, there’s nothing wrong with donating food or money to the WFP, but my annoyance with projects and competitions like this one, stems from the fact that they’re dishonest. There is no way that Free Rice Week is going to end world hunger. It’s a pity that the WFP sees fit to inform people that by taking part in it they’re contributing to solving the food crisis.

In fact, I think that Free Rice Week and other, similar projects actually contribute to the problem.

Firstly, they fudge the meaning of ‘hunger’.  Over the past year or so, we’ve become familiar with the FAO’s horrifying statistic that one billion people go hungry every day – that one sixth of the world’s population does not have adequate access to food. But there are problems with this statistic:

it is not the only way to measure food insecurity. Over the years, it has been criticised on many fronts: for the poor quality of underlying data; for the focus on calorie intake, without consideration of proteins, vitamins and minerals; and for the emphasis on availability – rather than affordability, accessibility or actual use – of food. Some say we’d be better off focusing on improving household consumption surveys, opinion polls, and direct measures of height and body weight.

These figures need to be accurate because they ‘are also used to help guide where to send foreign aid, track progress towards international development goals, and hold governments to account for promises made.’

Moreover, it glosses over the fact that there are many kinds of hunger: the extreme events – the famines – which are the products of natural disasters, conflict, and state collapse; the hunger which is the product of poor diets and an inability to buy or access enough food; and the hunger in developed nations. In Britain and the United States, the numbers of people now reliant on food stamps and food banks has spiked during the recession.

Secondly, these projects ignore the fact that responding to various kinds of hunger requires far, far more than throwing money at the problem. In fact, the WFP’s website even acknowledges this: ‘People can go hungry even when there’s plenty of food around. Often it’s a question of access – they can’t afford food or they can’t get to local markets.’ Famines in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries occur as a result of a collapse of distribution systems, usually caused by conflict or a crisis in government. Famines tend not to happen in stable democracies. The WFP must receive money for food aid – that is absolutely non-negotiable – but long-term change, as we’ve seen in the cases of Somalia and Niger, can only occur once stable, effective governments are in place. No amount of free rice is going to end famine in Somalia.

In other cases of hunger, it’s clear that people are simply too poor to buy food: employment, education, good health systems, and higher wages will go far in remedying this situation. But even then, we have to accommodate the choices that poor people make when spending their money. In an article for Foreign Policy’s special edition on food last year, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo took a closer look at the lives of the ‘one billion hungry’ and came to some interesting conclusions:

We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don’t invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more sceptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

We asked Oucha Mbarbk [a Moroccan peasant] what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, ‘Oh, but television is more important than food!’

We need to take people’s choices about how they spend their limited funds, more seriously.

Thirdly, by focussing on raising funds, the WFP transforms itself into a philanthropic organisation. Donations of food and other forms humanitarian aid are absolutely necessary to alleviating food crises, but they won’t end these crises – or end ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that). In an excellent article for the Guardian, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter argues:

our global food system…is in crisis. Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, and the current woes in the Sahel, are the surface cracks of a broken system. These regional outbreaks of hunger are not, as such, extreme events.

Beyond semantics, this is a crucial distinction. In viewing these events as extreme and unexpected, we fail to acknowledge the regularity and predictability of hunger. This flaw is fatal, for it means failing to acknowledge that the food system itself is broken. It means failing to build readiness for persistent famine into international development and humanitarian policy. And it means waiting until people starve before doing anything.

Food aid doesn’t address the deeper, structural problems underlying the food crisis. It doesn’t consider bad governance; the impact of food speculation on rising food prices; and agricultural efficiency, particularly in the light of climate change.

By appealing to people to donate money to fund their response to food crises – which could have been avoided – the WFP and others cast hunger as something which can be remedied with old-fashioned philanthropy. It’s certainly true that philanthropic organisations can do immensely good work – like reducing rates of polio and malaria in the developing world. But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problems which give rise to these crises:

the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.

Precisely. The world’s poor should not be dependent on the goodwill of wealthy people who have the time and inclination to play games on the internet.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Margarine Myths

So this week’s blog post was going to be about food and fiction – having had drinks and supper at Pablo Neruda-themed Maremoto last night, it seemed appropriate – but along with the post on authenticity which I promised yonks ago, it will have to wait while I simmer with annoyance at the World Food Programme’s decision to solve the world’s food problems by working with Unilever.

Yes, you read that correctly. The World Food Programme is working with Unilever to alleviate the hunger crisis.

Unilever. The Anglo-Dutch food, margarine, and cosmetics giant which also happens to be the biggest consumer goods company in the world. Is this really a good idea?

I have nothing whatsoever against corporate social responsibility. In fact, I wish that more countries encouraged the private sector to become involved in philanthropic work. With their efficient logistical support and understanding of the market, there are few organisations better positioned to help poor communities that those which provide services or produce consumer products.

And as big corporations go, Unilever ranks pretty high up the sustainability stakes. Last year it launched its Sustainable Living Plan which aims not only to reduce Unilever’s greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use, but that of its suppliers and customers as well. It’s an ambitious plan which seeks to make the whole supply chain sustainable – while doubling Unilever’s profits. The company is also funding a range of projects, including encouraging the sustainable production of palm oil (although who knows if it’ll be able to roll back the incredible damage it did by investing in palm oil in the first place), and sponsoring hygiene programmes in the developing world to reduce the numbers of children who die as a result of diarrhoea.  I really hope that they succeed, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that we need to consume less for social and ecological good.

I think that my concern about the WFP’s enthusiasm for Unilever is connected to the fact that this business makes a profit by selling food which isn’t particularly good for its customers. However much Unilever might like to promote its fluffy credentials – and buying Ben and Jerry’s, the business which gave away scoops of Yes Pecan! ice cream on the day of Obama’s inauguration, was certainly part of this – its purpose is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The question we need to ask is how it goes about raising those profits.

For all of Unilever’s good intentions, it has a patchy track record on the quality of the food it produces. Consider the ingredients in a jar of Skippy peanut butter:

Roasted peanuts, corn syrup solids, sugar, soy protein, salt, hydrogenated vegetable oils (cottonseed, soybean, and rapeseed) to prevent separation, mono- and diglycerides, minerals (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, ferric orthophosphate, copper sulfate), vitamins (niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid)

In comparison, the sugar- and salt-free version of South Africa’s Black Cat peanut butter (also the product of a big food company), contains peanuts and ‘stabiliser’. There are other brands of mass-produced peanut butter which contain only peanuts and oil.

I know that this might seem like nitpicking, but the point is that Unilever doesn’t sell ‘whole’, unprocessed food to make a profit: like any other big food company, it adds strange and occasionally harmful ingredients to its products to make them taste better or last longer, and it hides this fact with a vast advertising budget. In 2009, for example, it spent £148 million on advertising in the UK alone. In the same year, in Canada it promoted Hellman’s mayonnaise as part of an ‘eat localdrive. Two years before that, a US-based campaign around ‘real food’ suggested that Hellman’s could be included in a diet of ‘real’, ‘whole’ food. Hellman’s is neither ‘local’, nor ‘real’. Its low-fat version contains the following:

Water, modified corn starch, soybean oil, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, egg whites, salt, sugar, xantham gum, lemon and lime peel fibres, colours added, lactic acid, (sodium benzoate, calcium disodium edta) used to protect quality, phosphoric acid, natural flavours

The bulk of Unilever’s profits come from margarine, which it promotes heavily on the grounds of its health benefits – something which still divides the medical world. This is a business which chooses its ethics carefully.

Consider its involvement in the Public Health Commission, a body created in 2008 by the UK’s then-shadow Minister of Health, Andrew Lansley (greedy):

In the chair of the commission, by invitation of Lansley, was Dave Lewis, UK and Ireland chairman of Unilever, one of the largest processors of industrial fats in the world.

With him were Lucy Neville-Rolfe, corporate affairs director of Tesco, , the supermarket that has been a leading opponent of the traffic light food labelling scheme favoured by the Food Standards Agency, and Lady Buscombe, Conservative peer and former head of the Advertising Association, where she established herself as a formidable political champion of the ad industry’s right to operate free of restrictions.

Asda’s corporate affairs director, Paul Kelly, formerly PR head of Compass, the school meals company of turkey twizzler fame, had to send his apologies. Mark Leverton, policy director of Diageo, manufacturer of leading vodka, whisky and beer brands, joined them by phone.

Lansley – who has links with the food industry – is now Minister of Health and, surprise, surprise, had invited this dubious collection of businesses, alongside McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, and Mars, to help shape Britain’s public health policies around obesity and diet-related diseases. This is as pointless as asking BP, Shell, and Chevron to end the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the first outcomes of this public-private partnership was the Department of Health’s ‘Great Swapathon’ which encourages families in England to choose healthy products through a voucher scheme. The vouchers

can be exchanged for products deemed to be healthy, including Unilever’s Flora Light margarine, Mars’ Uncle Ben’s rice and Molson’s alcohol free lagers. Other businesses offering vouchers will include supermarket Asda, for its own brand goods; sportswear firm JJB Sports; outdoor activity provider Haven Holidays; Weight Watchers; and private gym group the Fitness Industry Association. The News of the World will help promote the scheme.

The list of companies includes food manufacturers whose products have been blamed for increasing obesity. Unilever’s product range includes ice creams, Pot Noodle and Peperami, while Mars makes chocolate and Molson is a brewer.

‘The News of the World will help promote the scheme.’ Priceless.

This is so misguided it’s almost amusing. A scheme to promote healthy eating actually benefits a clutch of big food companies whose products facilitate Britain’s obesity crisis.

The WFP is engaged in a similar project. It also works in partnership with PepsiCo, manufacturer of crisps, soft drinks, and a range of non-foods; Cargill, whose inhumane and unhygienic slaughterhouse practises contributed to an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in some of its meat in the US; Yum! Brands, whose chains include KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell; and Vodafone, a company’s whose outstanding £6 billion tax bill in 2010 could have paid the UK’s welfare bill for a year.

The WFP was established in 1961 to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Its focus is on providing food aid, but aims ultimately to reform the food system to the extent that food aid will become largely unnecessary. While the WFP has been invaluable in bringing emergency supplies of food to disaster areas, it has singularly failed to do anything else. We are in the midst of a global food crisis where food aid is needed more than ever before.

One could argue that this is precisely the reason why it’s necessary for the WFP to work with big organisations: they have money and resources. The WFP can only respond to the crisis with adequate funding and assistance. But even given the fact that the WFP is desperately in need of funds at the moment, there is no great imperative for it to work with Unilever, PepsiCo, Vodafone or any other dodgy multinational – and I think that these partnerships only serve to undermine the WFP’s aims. (And it’s worth taking a closer link at the WFP’s finances, as this excellent investigation into the WFP by Sheila Dillon of the BBC’s Food Programme does.)

Famine and malnutrition are caused by a range of factors and, paradoxically, a lack of food isn’t one of them. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote, people starve or go hungry when they can’t buy food: when food becomes too expensive for them to afford it, or when distribution systems fail or are inadequate. There’s usually enough food to go around, but people have difficulty accessing it.

One of the best, and most poignant, examples of this was the 1992 famine in Somalia which occurred in Bay, one of the country’s most agriculturally productive regions. People starved because militias prevented food from being cultivated and distributed efficiently. It’s no coincidence that famines occur in countries with dysfunctional – or no – governments. The Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s began after the collapse of its government – the country had managed to feed itself before then.

Democracies tend to have food systems which function properly. Instead of focussing on raising money and sending food parcels, promoting democracy and drawing attention to the connection between bad governance and hunger should be at the top of the WFP’s agenda.

Getting big food and agriculture companies to sponsor the WFP’s work will not bring democracy to the developing world, nor will it end the food crisis. These are organisations have little or no interest in promoting good governance if it’s bad for business.

And, secondly, some of these organisations have actually benefitted from the food crisis. Cargill is the world’s biggest agricultural commodities trader, and it’s been doing rather well recently, as the Financial Times reported in January:

Cargill benefited from supply disruptions in the global food chain and rising prices to report a tripling in profits in the second quarter of its fiscal year.

The world’s largest agricultural commodities trader said net income in the three months to November 30 rose to $1.49bn, up from $489m in the same period a year earlier.

First-half earnings more than doubled to $2.37bn, up from $1.01bn in the six months to the end of November 2010.

The windfall highlights the big margins in the sector led by Cargill, which rose to prominence in the 2007-08 food crisis, when agricultural commodities prices hit all-time highs.

Chris Johnson, credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s in New York, said that droughts in some of the key grain-producing regions and the ensuing trade dislocations were behind the strong results.

‘To the extent that you’re able to provide grains in parts of the world where they cost more you can get a larger profit margin,’ he said.

Food prices have been driven up by food speculation. Cargill is both a hedge fund and a commodities trader, so it not only benefits from higher food prices – but is partly responsible for causing them to rise too.

The title of this post comes from an essay by Roland Barthes from his collection Mythologies (1957). In ‘Operation Margarine’ he argues that advertisers use a kind of reverse psychology to persuade us to buy things we know aren’t all that good for us: the advertisement acknowledges that the product, margarine in the example Barthes provides, isn’t as tasty or healthy as its rivals, but then turns this on its head by emphasising its convenience and cheapness. Margarine then becomes the obvious product to buy.

The WFP is attempting some margarine-mythmaking in insisting that its work can only be achieved in partnership with these big multinationals: yes, they’re bad, but – hey, what can you do? They have money and power and people are hungry. Nonsense. The WFP is inadvertently giving the best PR possible to a clutch of businesses which, at best, have very little interest in producing good, healthy food. At worst, the WFP is trying to solve world hunger in partnership with organisations which have a vested interest in keeping the world hungry.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

No Famine is Inevitable

Last week there was a flurry of excitement as commentators compared the R1 million pledged by the South African government to aid the victims of the famine in the Horn of Africa, and the potential billion rand loan which it is currently considering for Swaziland. Not only could Africa’s economic powerhouse donate considerably more than a million rand (about £90,000 or US$150,000) to Somalia, but granting a conditions-free loan to King Mswati III’s dysfunctional kingdom would serve only to prop up the continent’s last absolute monarch.

Although I was as outraged by my government’s apparent indifference to the plight of Somalis, I did begin to wonder if that money could be used more wisely. Of course, South Africa must – and can – contribute to the international effort to distribute food in Somalia. Given the scrutiny of aid agencies working in the region, as well as the awareness of how aid money has been channelled to elites over the past few decades, it’s likely that South Africa’s donation will go to those who need it. But giving money to alleviate the famine is a short-term fix.

Possibly because of the way it echoes Africa’s other best-known famine, the Live Aid-engendering Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985, the famine in the Horn of Africa has generated an enormous amount of coverage in the international press. More information and analysis can only ever be a good thing, but much of the discussion around the famine suggests that it’s a crisis which emerged suddenly and without any warning. As the Guardian’s John Vidal put it, ‘A massive drought, as if out of nowhere, has settled over the Horn of Africa’. Moreover, some commentators, like Vidal, have blamed the famine on only one or two factors, usually climate change or Western indifference to African suffering.

The causes of famines are complex, but they are never entirely unpredictable. Counterintuitively, they are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but are, rather, the result of long-term systemic failure: in agriculture, trade, and, most importantly, in government. By suggesting that South Africa’s paltry million rand donation would be better spent, my point is that South Africa’s involvement in the Somali crisis should go beyond giving money for food. It needs to stop famines from happening in the first place, and that is not impossible.

We have managed largely to eradicate famine in the twentieth century. Before then, food shortages and famines were part of the rhythms of everyday life. In societies where food production was inefficient both in terms of labour and technology – and until the eighteenth century, eighty per cent of the population of Europe was engaged in agriculture – frequent crop failures meant that famine occurred often. But during the 1700s, an agricultural revolution allowed greater, more regular, and, crucially, more reliable yields to be produced by smaller numbers of people. International trade also meant that countries could buy food to supplement local shortfalls. For example, during the 1870s, the failure of the European grain crop boosted Canadian and American wheat exports, as these two countries fed Europe for almost a decade.

Although initially developed in the Netherlands and Britain (and there is a strong link between the development of capitalist economies and efficient food systems), the methods pioneered during this green revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spread around the globe. By the early 1900s, famine was caused increasingly by people, rather than only by nature. That said, the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852) was certainly the product of the potato blight, but it also occurred at a time when Ireland was an exporter of wheat: there was enough food to go around, it was just that those who were starving couldn’t afford to buy bread. The Cattle Killing Movement in South Africa (1856-1857) caused widespread famine among the Xhosa. Around 40,000 people died of starvation, 33,000 moved away from the eastern Cape to seek work, and the authority of the Xhosa polity was fatally undermined. But this was caused by a decision to slaughter cattle and destroy crops on a mass scale.

Equally, some twentieth-century famines were caused partly by crop failure, but were also the product of bad governance and ineffective systems of food distribution. As Cormac Ó Gráda explains:

Wars, blockades, poor governance, and civil unrest can also lead to famines; panics about the food supply and poorly performing markets can exacerbate them. In such cases…factors other than crop shortfalls reduce the purchasing power or ‘entitlements’ of vulnerable sections of the population: the size of the loaf matters less than its distribution.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued in Poverty and Famines (1981) that – contra Thomas Malthus who suggested that exponential population growth would result inevitably in famine – famines can occur in times of peak food production. Why? I think it’s worth quoting Sen in full:

In every society that exists, the amount of food that a person or a family can command is governed by one set of rules or another, combined with the contingent circumstances in which that person or that family happens to be placed vis-à-vis those rules. For example, in a private ownership market economy, how much food a person can command will depend on (1) what he owns, and (2) what he can get in exchange for what he owns either through trade, or through production, or some combination of the two. Obviously, in such an economy a person may suddenly face starvation either because his ownership bundle collapses (e.g., through alienation of land to the money lenders), or because the ‘exchange entitlement’ of his ownership (i.e., the command of what he owns) collapses (e.g., through his becoming unemployed and not being able to sell his labour power, or through a decline in his terms of trade vis-à-vis food).

In other words, people starve when they can’t buy food – either because they no longer have the money to exchange for food (as a result of unemployment, for example) or because food prices become prohibitively high. Peaks in food prices could be due to droughts and other ecological factors, conflict, and speculation.

The crisis in Somalia demonstrates particularly well how state intervention can prevent or cause famine. In 1960, British Somaliland and Italian Somalia became the independent Republic of Somalia. Nine years later, Major-General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup and ruled Somalia through a military dictatorship until the collapse of his government in 1991. Somalia’s experience of food shortages and famine must be understood in this context of Barre’s government (or lack thereof) and economic policies. In 1970, he announced the implementation of ‘scientific socialism’, introduced strict central planning, and viciously stamped out all forms of opposition. Peter T. Leeson writes:

The government slaughtered civilians who posed threats to the government’s plans or political power, used coercive intimidation to create artificial support for its activities, and forcibly relocated others to further the political or economic ends of Barre and his cronies. ‘Both the urban population and nomads living in the countryside [were] subjected to summary killings, arbitrary arrest, detention in squalid conditions, torture, rape, crippling constraints on freedom of movement and expression and a pattern of psychological intimidation’. The state ruthlessly suppressed free speech and controlled all forms of information reaching Somalis. Newspapers (only one was officially permitted by the government), radio, and television were fully censored and dissent in any form squelched with force. Under Somalia’s National Security Law No. 54, ‘gossip’ became a capital offense. Twenty other basic civil freedoms involving speech, association and organisation also carried the death penalty.

Funds were diverted from public works, education, healthcare, and infrastructure to the military, on whose support and ability to terrify and brutalise the Somali population Barre depended. The nationalisation of land and industry in 1975 was, predictably, a disaster. The abandonment of socialism at the end of the 1970s in order to attract assistance from the International Monetary Fund made very little difference either. Somalia was heavily dependent on international food aid during the 1970s and 1980s. The Horn of Africa is prone to drought, but it’s worth noting that despite catastrophic droughts in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, Somalia managed to avoid famine – unlike its war-torn neighbour, Ethiopia, whose government ignored the plight of its population.

As Abdi Ismail Samatar notes,

Somalia’s last major famine was in 1992 and was not caused by drought. Nearly 300,000 innocent people starved to death because of sectarian politics. The epicentre of that famine was in Bay, one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions, and starvation was induced by warlords who used food as a weapon against farmers and pastoralists.

Barre’s government collapsed in 1991, plunging Somalia into civil war and a chaos from which it has yet to emerge. It’s telling that a country which had managed to avoid famine for over half a century, despite drought, food shortages, and incredible food insecurity, saw widespread famine only after food supplies were disrupted by war.

So why famine now? Over the course of sixteen years, Somalia has been the subject of fourteen reconciliation conferences, none of which managed to produce a stable government. In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), an anti-Islamist, pro-Ethiopian political grouping, was put into power in Somalia under the leadership of Abdullahi Yusuf and with the support of the United Nations. However, the TGF was neither popular nor effective as a government. In the absence of effective leadership, a number of attempts were made by Islamic groups, war lords, civil society organisations, and others to create some sort of order in Somalia, and particularly in Mogadishu. One of these, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, was formed by a group of war lords in February 2006. They were backed by the United States who saw them as allies against Islamic groups in the region.

Armed clashes between the Alliance and Islamist groups soon broke out and developed into a war which the Islamists won decisively. By the middle of 2006, they had taken control of Mogadishu as well as central and southern Somalia. Not only was this an embarrassment to the United States and its ally Ethiopia, but for the first time it seemed that Somalia was offered the possibility of a relatively popular and effective government in the hands of the Islamists, who quickly organised themselves into the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). However, an invasion by Ethiopia at the end of 2006 caused the collapse of the CIC, the reinstallment of the almost entirely ineffective TFG, and the beginning of a new civil war between the Government and opposition groups. The most successful of these was Al-Shabab. Originally the CIC’s youth wing and affiliated with al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab is an Islamist group which now controls most of southern Somalia.

Years of political uncertainty, conflict, and chaos (best exemplified by the way piracy has flourished along the Somali coast) have left Somalis particularly vulnerable to drought and the less predictable effects of climate change. A combination of a US- and UN-backed blockade of the parts of Somalia controlled by Al-Shabab, as well as this organisation’s unwillingness to allow the World Food Programme to deliver food to southern Somalis has caused the famine. Samatar explains:

Normally, societies have three lines of defence against mass starvation: local capacity, national government and the international community. When a disaster hits a region, the first help comes from local administrations and the communities themselves. If events overwhelm the first responders, then the national government takes charge of operations; and when the crisis exceeds the wherewithal of the nation, international actors come to the rescue.

It is clear that all three levels of livelihood protections have failed in Somalia. Al-Shabab has prohibited the local population from organising their municipal governments and charities to fend off the disaster. Similarly, Somalia’s national government, which is beholden to sectarian leadership and international patrons, has been oblivious to the emerging calamity, and has thwarted the international community from coming to its aid

This was a famine which could have been avoided had order been established in Somalia. Here, Somali politicians and war lords are as much to blame as the international community, East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the UN, and, crucially in my view, the African Union. This famine is not the result solely of dastardly foreign countries plundering Africa, nor can blame be laid entirely on Somalis themselves. But after the effort to feed Somalis has ended, reconstruction needs to begin. And it’s here where South Africa must – and I think is obliged to – take a leading role.

Somalia also demonstrates the extent to which food security is linked to strong, functioning governments. Countries which are badly run, have weak economies, and, most importantly, are authoritarian, are the most strongly disposed towards famine. Last year’s narrowly-avoided famine in West Africa was due largely to the incompetence of Niger and Chad’s malfunctioning, undemocratic political dispensations. Only the spread of democratic and open government, with, crucially, a free flow of information, will prevent famines from happening in Africa. As Sen remarked, ‘There is, indeed, no such thing as an apolitical food problem.’

Note: I try to use sources which are easily available, but for this post I’ve relied on articles from academic journals. Unfortunately, these are securely behind paywalls. If you’d like copies of them, let me know.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York and London: W.W. Norton, [2010] 2011).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

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Revolution, Revival, and Food

Over the past fortnight another corporate conglomerate has bid to replace the evil empire Monsanto as the most problematic business within the global food industry. It has emerged that the Swiss-based Glencore,  a commodity trader specialising in energy and food which was listed publicly for the first time this week, was partly responsible for causing the hike in food prices at the end of last year when it became clear that Russia’s grain crop would be badly damaged by catastrophic fires. Raj Patel explains:

Glencore has now revealed its traders placed bets that the price of wheat would go up. On 2 August Glencore’s head of Russian grain trading called on Russia’s government to ban wheat exports. Three days later, that’s what it did. The price of wheat went up by 15% in two days. Of course, just because a senior executive at one of the world’s most powerful companies suggested a course of action that a country chose to follow doesn’t mean Glencore made it happen. But happen it did, and the consequences rippled round the world.

At the time, Mozambique experienced a massive uprising in response to increased food and fuel prices. Protests were organised via text messages and, in actions that foreshadowed those of governments in the Arab spring, the Mozambican state responded by shutting down text capability for pre-paid phones and sweeping up hundreds of protesters. Over a dozen people died, many were injured, and millions of dollars of damage was caused. It’s safe to say that tens of thousands were pushed further towards hunger as a result of the higher wheat prices.

Six months later, the Arab world exploded. The riots which began the insurrection in Tunisia were partly in response to high food prices. In Egypt, the government increased spending on wheat to compensate for a fifty percent hike in the cost of imported grain and cereals – even so, the price of bread rose by a quarter in Cairo’s private markets. In Libya, expensive and scarce food has fuelled the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. Even the World Bank has woken up to the connection between food prices and political unrest, and warned that unstable regimes in North Africa and the Middle East were seriously undermined by discontent over the price of staples, like bread and pulses.

This association of high food prices and revolution isn’t anything new, as this graph posted by Paul Mason on his blog, shows:

Bread Prices, 1848 and 2011

What this graphic demonstrates is the extent to which political instability and the cost of food, and bread especially, are connected. This is particularly interesting because the graph links the Springtime of the Peoples, the ‘failed’ revolutions of 1848, with this year’s Arab Spring. In 1848, only four countries were immune to the revolution which swept Europe: Russia and Poland, and Britain and Belgium. The first two had small middle classes – the group largely responsible for the upheaval in the rest of Europe – and very efficient means of controlling and monitoring dissent. The second two had strong, flexible constitutional governments which could implement change and respond effectively to demands for reform.

High food prices are not, then, the main cause of revolutions, but it is telling that Britain could feed her population for less than did other nations in Europe in 1848. With the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846 and improvements in technology which allowed commodities to be shipped around the world more quickly, grain prices remained low in Britain throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

I think that it’s best to think about food protests as catalysts for revolutions: they cause people who would not normally take to the streets – women in particular – to become involved in anti-government demonstrations. Protesting about food prices or shortages is not an especially politically partisan activity. Food protests demand simply that the state successfully distribute food and regulate prices – that it, in other words, fulfil one of its most basic obligations to its citizens.

As the Nobel prize-winning economist and all-round good egg Amartya Sen argued in his classic Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), food shortages and famines tend to occur not when there isn’t enough food to go around, but, rather, when it isn’t distributed effectively. This happens when systems of exchange – a labourer works in exchange for money which she can exchange for food – break down or change radically. Writing in 1976, Sen explained:

A recent example was the 1974 famine in Bangladesh. The flood that destroyed the crop did reduce the availability of food, but the sharp decline in employment and the failure of exchange entitlement of labour was immediate, and the famine was made severe by that.

The European potato crop failed in the mid-1840s because of an infection of Phytophthora infestans, but it was only in Ireland that this caused widespread and devastating famine. In 1845, at least a third of the Irish population ate only potatoes. When the blight destroyed the year’s supply of potatoes there seemed to be nothing else to eat. Why? After all, not all Irish people were dependent on potatoes in the mid-nineteenth century: about half ate grains as well. A century and a half previously, all the Irish ate a considerably more varied diet. The difference was that the system of assizes – rules originating during the medieval period which governed the weight, quality, and distribution of bread – were repealed in 1838, allowing the price of bread the rise according to market forces. This meant that the Irish who were starving in 1845, and these were, overwhelmingly, the poorest proportion of the population, weren’t able to buy bread – of which there was enough to feed everyone.

Famines are caused by bad harvests, but they are also the product of dysfunctional systems of trade and distribution. It’s little wonder that they should cause revolutions: they demonstrate very clearly when governments are no longer able to respond to the needs of populations. In France, the Flour War erupted in 1775 after the introduction of laissez-faire economic policies caused the ancient guild system to go into a terminal decline: the groups of merchants who had once controlled the pricing and trade of grain and flour in France were no longer responsible for doing so, and bread prices rocketed. The widespread violence – caused frequently by women – forced Louis XVI to fire Jacques Turgot, his controller general.

This was a prime example of the state’s inability to feed and care for its subjects. The War was also partly responsible for politicising poor French women, who on 5 October 1789 marched to Versailles to demand that Louis sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and that he lower the price of bread. This very, very angry mob of women forced the royal family not only to accede to the new revolutionary Assembly, but to move to Paris.

The Women's March to Versailles, 5 October 1789

It isn’t necessarily the case the famine and food shortages will cause revolution: there was a catastrophic famine in North Korea in the mid-nineties and the country still has periodic food shortages, but dissent has not been allowed to grow into any significant anti-government activity. This is due to the effectiveness of North Korea’s security forces and to the fact that North Koreans are simply too hungry, too tired, and too broken to overthrow their leadership. They have been starved into submission.

But food shortages are responsible for other mass movements too. The Cape Colony experienced a series of bad droughts during the second half of the nineteenth century, the worst of which occurred in the late 1850s and early 1860s, at the same time as outbreaks of rust on the wheat and the appearance of the oidium mildew on vineyards. The Cape’s newspapers described the increasingly desperate situation in rural areas: all the water dried up in Swellendam, farmers lost their sheep and horses, and the land was too dry to plough; there were allegations that farmers were stealing water from neighbouring farms’ rivers in Ladysmith; in Victoria West and Calvinia the cost of meat, groceries and other household goods rose sharply, and transporting produce to Port Elizabeth was almost impossible as draught animals were in short supply. Finding freshly-slaughtered mutton – the meat of choice in the Cape – was difficult. On top of this, the population, many of whom had already been weakened physically by food shortages, was also subjected to ‘unusually virulent’ epidemics of measles, typhus, and ‘white sore throat’ (diphtheria).

It is no coincidence that the 1860 Great Revival began in the worst affected rural areas. From the 1850s onwards, the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church – numerically the biggest church in the Colony and the most politically powerful – had encouraged its members to pray for revival and religious ‘awakening’. Religious revivals are group manifestations of intense emotion, ranging from weeping and fainting to trances and speaking in tongues during which supplicants pray for conversion and salvation. Clergymen ascribed these outbursts of extreme religious enthusiasm to the presence of the Holy Spirit, but they were as much the product of social and economic change as anything else. There were at least three major revivals which swept most of the congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church in the nineteenth century (in 1860, 1874-1875, and 1884-1885), as well as several smaller, more localised ones.

The Great Revival in 1860 began in the colony’s impoverished, hungry, and desperate rural interior. It was brought to the attention of the church’s leadership when a fifteen year-old coloured servant girl went into an ecstatic trance during a service in Worcester – then the parish of Andrew Murray jnr, one of the church’s most prominent ministers. The girl lived in the rural village of Montagu and was visiting friends in Worcester. Her behaviour, which whipped the other congregants into a religious frenzy, mimicked that which had taken root at her church in Montagu. The revival subsequently from Worcester throughout the Cape.

The colonial state – rightly – blamed farmers’ unwillingness to conserve water during times of plenty for the devastating effects of the drought. But others – including members of the Dutch Reformed Church – accused the Cape’s government of not doing enough to help them, and believed that the scarcity of rain and food were a punishment from God. People’s willingness to turn to the church and to religion – away, in other words, from the state – showed that the authority of the state was being undermined by the crisis.

Similar circumstances contributed to the uprisings in the Arab world: instead of turning to charismatic religion, people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere demanded the removal of unpopular, corrupt, and dysfunctional regimes. In a time of increasing food scarcity and volatility, governments will have to work harder to prove their necessity to their citizenry.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Cynthia A. Bouton, The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993).

L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (London: Granta, 2010).

S.E. Duff, ‘What will this child be? Children, Childhood, and the Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony, 1860-1895’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 2010).

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Barbara Clark Smith, ‘Food Rioters and the American Revolution,’ The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 3-38.

Other sources:

Wayne Dooling, Slavery, Emancipation, and Colonial Rule in South Africa (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

André du Toit, ‘The Cape Afrikaners’ Failed Liberal Moment, 1850-1870,’ in Democratic Liberalism in South Africa: Its History and Prospect, eds. Jeffrey Butler, Richard Elphick, and David Welsh (Middletown and Cape Town: Wesleyan University Press and David Philip, 1987), pp. 35-64.

Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, trans. R.A. Wilson (London: SCM, 1976).

Steven Laurence Kaplan, Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade during the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Rhoads Murphey, ‘Provisioning Istanbul: The State and Subsistence in the Early Modern Middle East,’ Food and Foodways 2 (1988), pp. 217-263.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.