The Profits of Famine
Southern Africa's Long Decade
by Raj Patel with Alexa Delwiche
Food First Backgrounder,
At the end of September, Colin Powell
requested an altogether earthly intercession from Archbishop Jean-Louis
Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister The Secretary of State wanted
the Vatican to persuade the Zambian government to accept U.S.-supplied
genetically modified (GM) food aid. With a population under 10
million and with the vast majority of people earning under $1,000
a year,' Zambia is a mouse that has roared. In refusing to accept
U.S. GM corn, and by dealing with its famine by sourcing grain
from within the region, the Zambian government has sent a clear
signal that it understands both why famines happen and that U.S.
aid is part of the problem, not the solution.
By the end of 2002, a little under 15
million people will have faced starvation in Southern Africa.
Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are
among the most severely affected. Thus, while the U.S. State Department
blames the Zimbabwean government for the famine there, that explanation
is clearly inadequate to account for a famine that has affected
the entire region. For a meaningful explanation, we need to understand
what a famine means, and put it into the context of a phenomenon
that has affected the entire region-structural adjustment.
How to Define a Famine
Definitions of famine run a gamut. The
World Health Organization (WHO), for example, declares a famine
when "the severity of critical malnutrition levels exceed
15 percent of children aged 6 to 59.9 months." The U.N.'s
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines famine as "an
extreme collapse in local availability [ofl and access to food
that causes [a] widespread rise in mortality from outright starvation
or hunger-related illnesses."
These definitions focus on the threshold
a situation crosses in order for chronic hunger to be officially
declared acute. But this threshold is essentially arbitrary. For
example, because rates of acute malnutrition have remained stable
in most Southern African countries, the WHO has not yet declared
a state of famine in every country.
Mike Davis, who has written on famine
in recent history, points us away from this sort of threshold
thinking: "We must acknowledge that famine is part of a continuum
with the silent violence of malnutrition that precedes and conditions
it, and with the mortality of the shadow of debilitation and disease
that follows it." Famine does not arise spontaneously with
the failure of a harvest season; rather it is the outcome of a
system that places greater importance upon the market than upon
those going hungry.
The Silent Violence of Malnutrition
It's no wonder the people of Southern
Africa are starving in 2002-they have been starving for over a
decade. The Southern African Development Community reports that
in Zambia in 1991, the chronic malnutrition (stunting) rate of
children between the ages of 6 and 59 months was 39 percent. Since
then it has increased to (and leveled off at) about 55 percent.
At the same time, acute malnutrition (wasting) rates have thus
far remained stable at 4.4 percent in Zambia. In Malawi, the rate
of chronic malnutrition has remained at 49 percent since 1990.'
It is only acute malnutrition that has slightly increased over
the same period, by 1 percent for a total rate of 6 percent. The
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated in 2000
that 35 percent of the people in the famine region were undernourished,
with 54 percent of Mozambique's population undernourished. Among
those most vulnerable to chronic hunger are women, children, and
the elderly. The UNDP reported in 2000 that 20 percent of children
in the region under the age of five were underweight.
In 2002, rampant Southern African hunger
was tipped over the official "famine" threshold by two
years of bad harvests. That's one reason we're now hearing news
of it. Another likely reason is that some Southern African countries
aren't behaving as the U.S. would want them to, and the word "famine,"
with the desperate urgency it conveys, helps put pressure on those
governments. That sense of emergency also masks the question we
must ask: why, even before the current food crisis, have so many
people suffered for so long from chronic malnutrition?
The Ingredients for Hunger
Man-made famine isn't new in world history.
For example, an 1878 study published in the prestigious Journal
of the Statistical Society found thirty-one serious famines in
120 years of British rule in India and only seventeen recorded
famines in the entire previous two millennia.'° The reason
for the change? According to Mike Davis' recent commentary, it
happened because the British integrated the Indian food system
into the world economy while simultaneously removing the traditional
supports that had existed to feed the hungry in times of crisis-supports
that were rejected as the trappings of a hopelessly backward and
indolent society. And so, by the end of the 1800s, "Millions
died, not outside the 'modern world system,' but in the very process
of being dynamically conscripted into its economic and political
structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism.""
This lesson was not lost on the first
generation of African governments. At the beginning of the 1980s,
African states had a very clear idea of what their economies and
societies needed in order to flourish. In the Lagos Plan of Action,'
heads of state called for a type of economic growth disconnected
from the vicissitudes of the world market, relying on import-substitution
policies, food sovereignty and trade within Africa, and, critically,
a reduction in the level of external indebtedness that was systematically
siphoning value out of Africa.
The World Bank disagreed, insisting in
its Berg Report that state interference in the smooth functioning
of the market was precisely the cause of low levels of growth.'
As most African governments were buried in debt, their futures
mortgaged on declining commodity prices, the Bank's plan prevailed.
Under the Bank's regime, African nations are forced to produce
foreign exchange earning (i.e., cash) crops to pay off increasing
debt, and find themselves importing more and more
food. In a perfect, stable market, this
ought not pose a problem: the farmer will grow an export crop
in which she or he has a comparative advantage, and will use the
cash to buy imported food, goods, and services. But in the real
world, this model increases farming communities' vulnerability
to a number of risks:
1. Commodity price fluctuations and decline:
Primary commodity prices have been falling consistently for thirty
years, and have been exceptionally variable within this time frame.
In part, the World Bank is to blame; its structural adjustment
programs enforced the export of a few key commodities in high
demand in the North, putting Southern countries on the receiving
end of volatile and decreasing prices for their exports.
2. Currency fluctuations: Southern countries
have also suffered fluctuations in the currency market. Even the
most efficient farmers are unable to buy food on the world market
if their currency is undervalued. Yet this is what every economic
model suggests will happen when countries follow World Bank recommendations
to liberalize exchange markets: the currency will depreciate and
require stabilization, which these countries, because of their
debt burden and structural adjustment obligations, cannot provide.
3. Loss of food sovereignty: The World
Bank and the international aid community tend to use the term
"food security" to talk about the availability of food
and people's access to it. Since the 1996 World Food Summit, Via
Campesina, the international farmers' movement, has pushed for
an alternative concept: food sovereignty, which it defines as
"the right of countries and peoples to define their own agricultural
and food policies which are ecologically, socially, economically,
and culturally appropriate for them." The difference between
these approaches lies in the issue of who controls access to food,
seed, land, and the market. Movement towards a free trade economy
takes control away from the majority of rural people. This is
a fundamental issue of justice, dignity, and democracy.
Debt: The Tie that Binds
Vast debt was instrumental in forcing
Third World governments to accept World Bank control. The level
of debt is staggering. The Bank itself suggests that debt is "unsustainable"
if it is above 5 percent of the total gross national product of
a country. Meanwhile, Zambia, for example, is paying three times
as much in debt service as on health care.
But the debt level isn't the whole story.
Debt is also a discipline wielded over Southern economies High
levels of external debt mean foreign creditors call the shots.
And when countries with limited foreign cash decide which creditor
gets paid and which has to wait, they always put the World Bank
first. This special position gives the Bank considerable power.
On behalf of itself and other creditors-and in return for an increased
line of credit-it imposes conditions on the governments that owe
it money. These conditions, though clothed in the language of
impartial economics, are nevertheless political decisions. Ideas
about interest rates, exchange rates, and the "appropriate"
level of unemployment are always politically motivated, and always
justified by talking about untouchable, mysterious phenomena like
"investor confidence." Governments transform their economies
to make them "credible" places for investors to come,
and to pull back capital that has flown the country in the wake
of structural adjustment policies. Investors who want to be "confident"
about Southern economies essentially control those economies,
overseeing outflows of resources and wealth that invariably make
the lives of the people in those countries less democratic and
Trade: The Gift That Keeps on Taking
Within Southern Africa-where, for example,
tobacco production has expanded by 50 percent per year over the
past three years in communal, small-scale, and resettlement areas
-the most desirable land is continually used for export agriculture,
and food production is sacrificed to boost agricultural production.
After each year's harvest the soil is often left unprotected,
accelerating erosion. And small farmers are pushed ever farther
into marginal land. This marginalization is not trivial: it affects
the African majority, who remain wage laborers and small-scale
farmers without savings or capital to devote to expansion.
Export and foreign exchange-oriented trade
has consigned most African farmers to shrinking returns The declining
real price of all primary commodities forces many farmers to sell
what land they have to pay the debts their crop income can no
longer sustain. Still, even until the 1990s in Southern Africa,
government-run marketing boards protected farmers by assuring
a fixed price for their crops published in advance. Structural
adjustment decreed the effective elimination of marketing boards
in favor of private buyers Now, in addition to enduring direct
exposure to international market fluctuations, farmers are often
unsure when private buyers will next appear, and are thus forced
to sell cheap to the first trader. Finally, many remote areas
remain unserviced by private traders who prefer to buy from a
few large farmers near better roads
The World Bank's policies of increased
trade, lower government spending on health and education, and
increased debt have made poverty blossom. As Giovanni Arrighi,
a scholar of the world economy, has noted: "In 1975, the
regional GNP per capita of Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 17.6 percent
of the world' per capita GNP; by 1999 it had dropped to 10.5 percent."
And in these countries, the removal of social supports to redistribute
what little there is has rendered the poorest destitute.
Between 1996 and 2001, population living
below the poverty line in Zambia rose from 69 percent to 86 percent.
Twenty-eight million people, or 51 percent of those living in
Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe,
live below the national poverty lines. And we know that the face
of the poorest 10 percent is likely to be black and female: since
women are responsible for 70 percent of food production in Africa,
the shift away from food production toward export production has
been extremely detrimental to them.' Men's leaving the farm for
wage labor makes women responsible for all domestic responsibilities
A Shortage of Food?
Famine is not caused by a lack of food,
but by poverty. For example, according to the World Food Programme
(WFP) there are no shortages of food products in the markets in
Lesotho. However, two-thirds of the population live below the
poverty line and half are classified as destitute. Purchased cereals
comprise 75 percent of annual food needs for Lesotho's poor, and
over 70 percent of the households classified "very poor"
in Lesotho have no cereal in reserve. Rapidly escalating prices
and vanishing incomes are a lethal combination. The people of
Lesotho cannot afford to buy the food that is available.
The situation is similar in Malawi where,
in 2001, the IMF told the government to slash its strategic grain
reserve from 165,000 metric tons (MT) to between 30,000 and 60,000
MT. The IMF advocated this on cost grounds, and because erroneous
data persuaded them that the coming year's harvest would increase
stocks. A year later, when people were already beginning to die
of starvation, the IMF denied disbursement of a $47 million tranche
of loans to the Malawian government amid accusations of impropriety
in the government's efforts to mitigate the famine. The government
accused the IMF of causing the famine, while the IMF blamed the
government for corruption before admitting that it had, perhaps,
behaved insensitively. Horst Koehler, managing director of the
IMF, said at a British parliamentary hearing:
[I]n the past we (the IMF) have not given
enough attention to poverty and social safety nets when proposing
structural changes. But structural changes are always accompanied
by dislocation. We must live with permanent change in order to
achieve economic growth in developing countries. .. [developing
countries] should be able to produce food for themselves-and we
should help them strengthen capacity to produce food.
Meanwhile, thousands were starving, and
grain was being stockpiled by speculators betting that the famine
would drive up maize prices-behaving, in short, precisely as they
ought in a free market with high demand and a tight supply.
Who Benefits from Famine?
It's a continuing tragedy that still today,
when we know what causes famine, we continue to witness it. Why
does it persist? To answer this, we need to ask a still more painful
question: Who benefits from famine?
Consumers in the U.S. and E.U. do well
by having food and agricultural products that are cheap compared
to the true cost of production. But the greatest beneficiaries
are the transnational food corporations that market the food and
control our food systems. Altria, the Philip Morris group of companies,
which includes Kraft and Miller, made over $8 billion in profits
last year. In the past six months, Switzerland-based Nestle S.A.
posted profits of a little under $4 billion on sales of $29 billion.
To put this in perspective, the entire gross domestic product
for all six countries in the famine region was a little over $20
billion in 2001.
These corporations depend on cheap inputs,
such as the agricultural products grown in the Third World, to
make their food processing profitable. In fact, with the decline
of every currency in Southern Africa against the U.S. dollar and
the oversupply (and hence falling prices) of primary commodities,
food industry inputs have never been cheaper. And profits never
The Role of U.S. Policy
Such profits would never be possible without
the constant mentorship of the U.S. government. It has a twenty-year
history of first generating hunger through macroeconomic policy
that, while selling itself as "austere," systematically
enriches large corporations and impoverishes working families.
Then the government hen-feeds the hungry with the surplus food
this policy produces.' This two-step trick was perfected within
the U.S. In 1981, Congress told the USDA to reduce the storage
costs associated with its dairy support program. Simultaneous
cuts in welfare provisions for the poor and the incipient recession
provided a ready market for the surplus. Now this discipline is
being applied in Southern Africa as a way to force open markets
for U.S.-produced GM grain.
The U.S. GM grain stockpile, created through
the vast, ongoing subsidy of U.S. agriculture, needs a home. This
grain cannot be sold to the E.U. or Japan because of their embargoes
on genetically modified food for human consumption. The figures
for U.S. farm exports tell the story: U.S. corn exports to the
European Union shrank from $426 million in 199 5 to $1 million
Particularly while E.U. and U.S. negotiators
are bickering over U.S. farm support in the run-up to the World
Trade Organization ministerial in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, explicit
subsidies for agribusiness aren't in vogue. But food aid serves
as a de facto means of product support and has an unimpeachable
veneer of humanitarianism, and USAID spends over $1 billion a
year buying American crops from agricultural corporations and
shipping them to the starving. By insisting that this food aid
be purchased from U.S. companies, Congress is able to support
U.S. industry while appearing to help the Third World. United
Nations agencies (the WHO, the WFP, and the UNDP) have all lauded
the safety of GM food. However, no independent scientific human
trials of GM food have yet taken place. And scientists in Africa
remain concerned at their inability to limit the sort of genetic
pollution that resulted from GM contamination of corn in Mexico.
In recent months, many countries in the
region have protested a food aid arrangement that they see as
a cynical ploy by the U.S. to dump its GM corn on a captive and
starving market. However, discreet threats to slash nonfood aid
budgets and suspend funding for other projects soon brought these
countries into line. Except Zambia.
Glimmers of an Alternative in Zambia
The Zambian government has recognized
that the problem is the lack of food available within the means
of the poor Their short-term solution is to reject the output
of U.S. agribusinesses (which are subsidized at a rate of $1 million
in taxpayer dollars per hour). Instead, they have purchased grain
from domestic and regional suppliers and made it available to
the hungry. This approach directly threatens U.S. business interests.
But it has begun to feed the hungry in Africa. Of course, it needs
to be supplemented by more enduring social change for the poor-investment
in education and health, serious measures to tackle HIV/AIDS,
and land reform are key issues, and ones that cannot be resolved
with the vast debt that currently shackles the region. Yet bypassing
the U.S. aid industry is a heaven-sent idea, because it gives
governments of poor countries some control of their economies
and their farming systems.
NEPAD: A Siren, Not A Savior
Zambia is something of an exception in
Southern Africa. Its independent clarion call has been drowned
out by the clamor about the New Partnership for Africa's Development
(NEPAD), a plan for completing the integration of African economies
begun by structural adjustment policies. Proposed by South African
president Thabo Mbeki, NEPAD has been heralded as the solution
to Africa's ongoing marginalization from globalization. It calls
for the privatization of social services, a further shift towards
export-oriented economic growth, and public-private partnerships
to increase the efficiency with which scarce resources are used.
The thinking is that Africa's integration into the global economy
will alleviate widespread poverty, because Africans will be able
to work in export industries, and thus buy food.
At the recent World Summit on Sustainable
Development in Johannesburg, 50,000 protesters chanted "phansi
NEPAD"-"down with NEPAD." This is a conclusion
that has been reached by hundreds of groups in Africa. Patrick
Bond, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,
attacks the lack of democracy in the NEPAD process: "During
the formulation of NEPAD, no civil society, church, political
party, parliamentary, or other potentially democratic or progressive
forces were consulted." Several groups, including the Economic
Justice Network, Third World Network-Africa, the Secretariat of
the Gender & Trade Network in Africa, and the Alternative
Information and Development Centre, say this: "In essence,
the document is an attempt to negotiate with Northern powers the
terms of Africa's integration into the world economy without challenging
the systemic and structural dynamics by which globalization has
further marginalized and created polarization within Africa, both
within individual African countries and between them." In
short, NEPAD seems to be a plan for elites in Africa and elsewhere
to mine the resources of the continent and its people. In fact,
the reason many African countries are in such a parlous state
is because they've been following NEPAD-like policies for the
past twenty years. It is hardly likely that more of the same toxin
will cure the continent.
This is a bleak picture. But there are
spaces of hope, such as the recent development of soil fertility
replenishment programs in the region.' These new methods rejuvenate
the soil with leguminous tree fallows rather than with fertilizers
that cost between two and six times more in Africa than in Europe
and the U.S. Tens of thousands of farmers have adopted this practice
with rapid success and increased productivity in their fields.
This method far outshines the Green Revolution technology and
high-tech innovations that have continuously failed in Africa.
Agroecology is only a small component
in turning the tables for Africa. The grassroots spread of soil
fertility programs is an example of how the active participation
of local communities creates genuine change. Local communities
in the U.S. can effect change, too. The WTO, IMF, and World Bank
are controlled by the U.S. government, in the name of U.S. citizens.
Yet these institutions hurt the poor around the world. Closing
these three organizations, redistributing resources from rich
to poor, and repaying debt to the global South - these are policies
we could adopt today, if there were political will.
What You Can Do
Write to your elected representatives,
challenge the myths in the mainstream media, and become involved
in this struggle-because despite the World Bank, the IMF, and
local elites, there is always hope for real social transformation.
The answer will come from the relentless work and resistance of
those oppressed. The African people have been left out of the
solution to their problems for far too long and their anger will
be heard. It is our responsibility to join that chorus.
and Third World