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On Second Street
E. Wayne Ross
World Hunger: Twelve Myths
John h. Rodgers
Badges of Color
Crime & Punishment
Gay & Lesbian Community
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World Hunger: Twelve Myths
New York: Grove Press, 1998, 270 pp, paperback, second edition
Review by John H. Rodgers
In the wake of one crisis after another in the world financial system, there is growing space for the reconsideration of many economic nostrums cherished by the neoliberal establishment. The efficiency of the free market in the allocation of goodsespecially of financial resourcesis no longer a solid pillar to which economic planners can moor their policies. After years of having their voices drowned out in the din of capitalist triumphalism, the critics can be heard in the debates over austerity plans, growing inequality, and economic decline in the formerly developing countries.
Stepping into the fray comes a revision of a classic book on the needlessness of hunger in a world characterized by sufficient food production. By dissecting the myths that hold the public in a miasma of helplessness about alleviating hunger, the authors hope to invigorate peoples moral courage to develop just and equitable systems for distributing essential resources such as food. Their carefully researched analysis contains surprising revelations about the causes of persistent and catastrophe-linked malnutrition, since reality contradicts our putative knowledge. Even in the midst of famine attributed to weather conditions, the authors find in country after country that large amounts of agricultural products were being exported during the crisis. The unveiling of these jarring facts compel us to investigate the complexities of the economic system and the claims by neoliberals that unfettering the markets and world trade is the answer to all our problems.
Studies of modern famines by Amartya Sen, who last year won the Nobel Prize in Economics, demonstrate that they occurred not because of a shortage of food, but because peoples claim to food is disrupted. These disruptions include falling incomes, which prohibit farmers from purchasing seeds and retaining a surplus for personal sustenance, and rising costs of goods, which prohibit non-farmers from purchasing food. While the authors critique the economic system, they do not call for the abolition of markets altogether but for reshaping markets and peoples participation in them. Government policies of developing countries, in the developed world, and international bodiesfrom the promotion of export-led development and free trade to the dispensation of foreign aidreflect and fuel the forces generating needless hunger. The debate, however, should be over who benefits from government actions, not over the elimination of the public sector altogether.
The authors challenge simplistic explanations of hunger based on overpopulation, which ignore the steeply falling population growth rates and the lack of correlation between population density and hunger. Poverty and inequality are responsible for both hunger and high fertility rates thus our efforts need to be refocused on these economic issues. Addressing overpopulation without calling for changes in the economic system will not likely reduce peoples inadequate access to food or reverse environmental degradation. They question the efficacy of technological fixes alone and advocate small-scale sustainable agriculture, which they claim is just as productively efficient as industrial agriculture techniques.
The authors make the case that there is not a strict tradeoff between our standard of living in developed countries and the goal of providing sufficient nourishment for the world population. Their economic arguments could have been expanded upon. John Maynard Keynes argued that the economic pie is not fixed, but rather grows if the purchasing power of the average person is raised. Redistribution of resources may increase the efficiency of the economy since production would be geared toward the betterment of the average person, rather than the luxury wants of the well-to-do. Conservative economists argue that investment would be shortchanged, but investment dollars come from a variety of sources not just from the wealthy. Indeed, improving the condition of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid is not a threat to those in the middle, only perhaps to those at the top. Any alternative of growing the economic pie must certainly be tempered by environmental concerns. Following the suggestion of Herman Daly and others the expansion of the economy could be achieved through qualitative change, rather than through quantitative change. In any case, we need to challenge the zero sum game argument made by conservative economists that a just redistribution of resources and power will reduce all of us to penury. Z
John H. Rodgers is a researcher who lives in San Francisco, California. His articles have appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, In These Times, and Earth Island Journal.