“If you had asked most mainstream development experts in the year 2000 to name those factors they thought would most imperil their efforts to reduce poverty globally in the new millennium, it is highly unlikely they would have mentioned a sudden radical spike in the price of the principal agricultural commodities, and the staple foods made from them, on which the poor of the world literally depended for their survival.” By 2006, as David Rieff goes on to show, prices of wheat, rice, corn and soybeans began to rise steeply on world markets. In Egypt, the price of bread doubled in a matter of months, and by some measures the food bill of the world’s poor rose by roughly 40 per cent. The result, in 30 of the world’s worst-affected countries, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan, was a rash of bread riots. Food prices peaked in 2008, but rose again, almost as sharply, in 2010 and 2011, and the rising cost of bread was among the triggers of the Arab spring.
Why were the experts so unprepared? One reason is that most of them believed that a formula for ridding the world of poverty had been found. All that was needed was the will to apply it, and this determination already existed in the many transnational institutions and NGOs dedicated to eliminating hunger. As Rieff writes, “The consensus in the development world is that the early 21st century really marks the ‘end-time’ for extreme poverty and hunger.” The Reproach of Hunger challenges this consensus, showing it for what it is – an ideology that simplifies the causes of extreme poverty and systematically underestimates the difficulties of eradicating it.
Rieff’s insight that the development consensus is ideological in nature is crucial for understanding the flaws in current thinking about hunger. The movement against global poverty imagines that it transcends political divisions yet it demands deep changes in the prevailing world order. Some in the movement want to insulate food from global markets; others favour “philanthrocapitalism” – a benignly transformed utopian variation on the existing economic system. But what all versions of the ruling consensus on hunger have in common is that they promote a radical political programme yet refuse to think politically about the limits of what can be achieved.
Chronic malnutrition and famine cannot be understood, let alone prevented, if they are detached from the realities of power. Consider the role of war. As Rieff writes, “While there have been famines in times of peace, there have been few major wars without famine.” Somewhere between 50 and 72 million people died on account of the Second World War. Roughly 20 million deaths were caused by hunger, about half of them in the Soviet Union. The famine in Greece in 1941-42, when some 300,000 people perished out of a population of less than 7.5 million, was mainly a result of plunder by German occupying forces and a British naval blockade. Exacerbated by a harsh winter, the last European famine of the Second World War occurred in those regions of the Netherlands still under German occupation in 1944-45.
Going further back, the Great Irish Famine of 1845-50 and the Great Bengal Famine of 1943-44 were both artefacts of imperial rule. The Soviet famine under Lenin in 1920-22 occurred during a civil war, but the famine in Ukraine in 1932-33 was a direct result of Stalin’s policies of collectivisation. The Chinese famine of 1958-62, which Rieff describes as “probably the most lethal single event in history”, was caused largely by Mao’s disastrous rush to industrialisation. Summing up, Rieff writes: “To the extent that one can view the last part of the 19th century as the age of imperialist famines, it is equally appropriate to view much of the 20th century as the age of socialist ones.”
All these famines were a result of the exercise of power. None of them came about because of the gap between food production and a rising population postulated in the theories of Thomas Malthus. Yet the clergyman-economist, whose forebodings are dismissed nowadays by citing the enormous increases in agricultural productivity achieved over the past decades, may yet have a point with regard to the future. “The stark fact is that to avoid famine recurring throughout a world that now has seven billion people and will almost certainly add two billion more by 2050, and possibly another billion in the two decades after that, agricultural production will have to increase unceasingly,” Rieff writes.
Maybe this increase will occur. GM crops may enhance agricultural productivity in the 21st century as the Green Revolution did in the 20th, while the dire effects of climate change – in many countries a grave threat to food production – may somehow be neutralised. Yet even if so, it does not follow that hunger can be eradicated any time soon. Those who look to technology for a quick fix to hunger assume that the global food crisis is fundamentally a problem of supply: in fact, it is largely a matter of distribution. The crucial preventative of chronic hunger and famine is not technology but access to food, which can only be secured by having decent and effective governance.
This is the message of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, whose work has had such a formative effect on thinking about development. Sen has declared that “famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties, and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort”. He cites as evidence for this view India, which has not suffered famine since the end of British rule. Yet if democracy is what is needed, famine will not be easy to prevent. Sen published his declaration in 1999, a time suffused by democratic triumphalism. The picture looks rather different today. Is there anyone – aside from incorrigibly delusional liberal interventionists – who believes that functioning democracy is possible in Syria or Libya in the near or medium-term future? Equally, is it true that only democracy can reliably prevent famine? One need not be an uncritical admirer of the post-Mao regime in China to accept that it has presided over the biggest and fastest decline in extreme poverty in history. The largest obstacle to preventing hunger in recent years has been failed states, not a lack of democracy.
The conquest of hunger is as much a matter of politics as it is one of food production, if not more so; and the politics of hunger is not at all simple. As long as there are wars, civil conflicts and collapsed states there will be hunger, sometimes chronic and extreme. But no public official will admit this fact. To the ruling culture in development agencies, well captured by Rieff, realistic thinking is a type of sacrilege against humanity:
There has come to be something almost impious in denying that all societies and all human problems this side of mortality can be radically made over and suffering brought to an end. And by definition, in a progress narrative, the good eventually triumphs and the bad is defeated. In this universe, perhaps more emotional (not to say narcissistic) than it is moral in the proper sense, it is almost an assertion of one’s membership in the party of the good not to treat sceptically the claims that the world is on the cusp of being made anew that are routinely made by development and aid officials from major Western governments.
Between 1992 and 2004 Rieff worked as a correspondent in some of the world’s most dangerously conflicted regions – the Balkans, Rwanda, Congo, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. It was during these years that he became interested in the “humanitarian” dimension of conflict, spending time in refugee camps and with UN agencies charged with relieving suffering. Today he is convinced that “the age of humanitarian war is largely over” and in this he is surely right. The idea of humanitarian warfare has been compromised by murky policies of regime change, and the most savage conflicts are being waged in regions where the UN and other transnational agencies have little leverage, such as Syria and Iraq. The question is whether the ambitious goals of the development movement – such as “ending hunger” within a decade – may not prove similarly ephemeral.
Rieff does not presume to answer the question definitively, but his unflinching analysis is an invaluable corrective to the happy-clappy unreality of much of our current thinking on hunger. A forceful critique of the ideology that has captured many transnational institutions in recent decades, The Reproach of Hunger is a substantial work of political thought.
Rieff cites the work of Cormac Ó Gráda on the history of famine as being “enormously important”, and Eating People Is Wrong . . . shows why this is so. Dealing with some of the most horrendous aspects of famine, the five essays collected here are meticulously scholarly and at the same time arrestingly vivid. The first of them discusses “famine’s darkest secret, a taboo topic”: cannibalism. “The horrors of famine include child abandonment, voluntary enslavement, including resort to prostitution, and the rupture of communal and neighbourly loyalties. But perhaps the greatest horror of all is being the victim (or even worse, the perpetrator) of cannibalism.” Ó Gráda is referring not to “customary cannibalism” – the ceremonial or ritual consumption of human flesh in non-emergency situations – but to the practice of cannibalism during life-threatening food shortages. It’s not only “survivor cannibalism” – survivors consuming the bodies of those who have already died – that occurs during famines. There is also what he calls “murder cannibalism”, or killing people in order to eat their flesh. In Russian, he tells us, there are different words to describe killing human beings for food and the consumption of human corpses. In Sichuan in China in 1936, according to a historian
whose work Ó Gráda cites, human flesh was sold at varying prices depending on whether it came from a corpse or someone freshly killed, the latter being more expensive.
Although famine cannibalism has never accounted for more than a minuscule fraction of famine deaths, it remains a continuing object of horror and fascination for what it shows of the fragility of human bonds in extreme situations. Yet by no means all famines have led to cannibalism. Ó Gráda cites a study suggesting that in the Soviet famine of 1920-22 the practice was linked with an atmosphere of despair and cruelty that was absent from the Biafran famine of the late 1960s and the Sahel drought of 1972-73. There is no evidence of cannibalism in the Great Bengal Famine, which is considered in illuminating detail in the longest essay in the book. Aside from dismissing cultural (and racist) explanations that invoke the idea of savagery, he does not attempt to account for some famines producing cannibalism and others not. Rightly, he believes there may be no simple explanation.
In the book’s penultimate essay, “Great Leap into Great Famine”, Ó Gráda considers the largest recorded famine in human history, which occurred in China as a result of the Great Leap Forward, “a reckless and misconceived campaign aimed at greatly accelerating economic development”. He describes the ensuing catastrophe, which led to widespread cannibalism in a country touted by its rulers as “the ultimate paradise in history”, as being “in a league of its own”. He is critical of recent work on the famine, notably Frank Dikötter’s pioneering study Mao’s Great Famine (2010), describing it as “highly politicised”. But as Ó Gráda acknowledges, this was a disaster whose scale was “both ‘hidden’ and ignored for several decades”. When a lack of food has been caused by politics, and then covered up for political reasons, a political judgement cannot be avoided. In these circumstances a stance of detached academic neutrality is impossible – and, to my mind, not desirable.
At the end of Eating People Is Wrong . . . the author declares:
Eliminating hunger is not at all as straightforward as the marketing agencies and street canvassers employed by some NGOs imply. In the past some development agencies had a tendency, understandable and well intentioned, to exaggerate the risks and dimensions of famine; today they risk a similar mistake by exaggerating the benefits of foreign aid and making conquering hunger seem “easy”. The NGOs have the major advantage of being for the most part corruption-free, and they have a lot of experience. But their efforts are constrained by vested interests, by power politics, by geography, by poverty, by ignorance, by cynicism, and by false analysis.
One might go further. Leaving out politics has been the besetting weakness of the dominant consensus on hunger. The underlying assumption is that conquering hunger is a goal everyone can agree upon. But governments and those over whom they rule have other priorities, and these come from political decisions. Such choices cannot be made by aid agencies, however well funded or strongly committed.
Formulaic solutions for ending hunger – more aid, better development programmes – are like the grandiose theories of human rights to which everyone defers these days; pleasant-sounding ideologies that conceal and deny the realities of human conflict. We can’t know when the next famine will occur, but it will be a by-product of war and politics. Whenever it does happen, it’s a safe bet that development experts will be as surprised as they were by the outbreak of bread riots just a few years ago.
The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century by David Rieff is published by Verso, 432pp, £20. Eating People Is Wrong and Other Essays: on Famine, Its Past and Its Future by Cormac Ó Gráda is published by Princeton University Press, 248pp, £24.95
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain