Books

Rich Countries Are Betting on 3rd World Famine

Jean Ziegler's new book explains how Western nations' priorities lie in bailing out delinquent bankers instead of solving world hunger.

Photo Credit: The New Press

The following is an excerpt from Jean Ziegler's new book, "Betting on Famine; Why the World Still Goes Hungry." (The New Press, 2013) In this chapter, Ziegler examines the ways in which the Western world's decisions surrouding the global economy impact world hunger for the worse: 

Chapter 5: God Is Not A Farmer

The macroeconomic situation, or in other words, the state of the world economy, is the ultimate determining factor in the struggle against hunger.

In 2009, the World Bank announced that, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007–8, the number of people in “extreme poverty” (meaning, as I have said, those living on less than $1.25 per day) would rapidly increase by 89 million. As for “poor people,” those living on less than $2 a day, their number would increase by 120 million. These predictions have been confirmed as millions of new victims of hunger have been added to the victims of normal “structural” hunger.

In 2009, the gross domestic product in every country in the world remained stagnant or fell for the first time since World War II. Worldwide industrial production tumbled by 20 percent. Those countries of the South that have most eagerly sought to integrate their economies within the world market are today the hardest hit: 2010 saw the biggest shrinkage of world trade in eighty years.

In 2009, the flow of private capital to the countries of the South, and in particular to the “emerging” economies, fell by 82 percent. The World Bank estimates that, in 2009, the developing countries lost between $600 billion and $700 billion in capital investment. With global financial markets dried up, private capital is lacking.

In addition to this problem is the high level of debt owed by private companies, especially those in emerging countries, to Western banks. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of debt came due in 2010. Given the insolvency of many of the companies based in countries in the South, this has caused a chain reaction leading to bankruptcies, factory closings, and waves of unemployment.

Another scourge has descended upon the poor countries: for many of them, transfers of foreign currency back home to their countries of origin by workers who have migrated to North America and Europe constitute an important part of their gross domestic product. In Haiti, for example, such transfers reached almost 49 percent of gross domestic product; in Guatemala, 39 percent; in El Salvador, 61 percent. Yet in North America and Europe, immigrants have been among the first to lose their jobs. Foreign-currency transfers to the developing world have thus drastically diminished or stopped altogether.

The speculative mania of the predators of the globalized financial industry cost, in total, $8.9 trillion in the industrialized Western nations in 2008–9. The Western nations have in particular spent trillions of dollars to bail out their delinquent bankers. But since the resources of their governments are not unlimited, their expenditures devoted to cooperative development ventures and humanitarian aid to the poorest countries have fallen dramatically. The Berne Declaration, a Swiss NGO, has calculated that the $8.9 trillion that the governments of the industrialized nations spent in 2008–9 to bail out their respective banks would equal seventy-five years of government development aid. The FAO estimates that for an investment of $44 billion in agricultural food production in the countries of the South over five years, the first of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals could be realized: to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day; to achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people; and to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.

***

Mamadou Cissokho cuts a figure that inspires respect. In his sixties, with a close-cropped cap of gray hair and strong features, a quick wit and ready, booming laughter, he is unquestionably one of the most widely listened-to leaders among the farmers of West Africa. A former teacher, he renounced his vocation at a young age and in 1974 returned to the village where he was born, Bamba Thialène, in Senegal, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the capital city, Dakar, to become a farmer. Since then, he has fed his large family as a subsistence farmer on a modest scale.

In the late 1970s, Cissokho joined together with all the farmers of the villages in the area around Bamba Thialène to found the country’s first farmers’ union. Since then, seed cooperatives have sprung up, first in the nearby region, then throughout Senegal, and finally in neighboring countries. The Réseau des Organisations Paysannes et des Producteurs d’Afrique de l’Ouest (ROPPA; Network of Farmers’ and Agricultural Producers’ Organizations of West Africa) was soon founded. ROPPA is today the most powerful farmers’ organization not only in West Africa but on the entire continent. Cissokho is its director.

In 2008, the farmers’ unions and cooperatives in countries in South, East, and Central Africa asked Cissokho to organize the Plateforme Panafricaine des Producteurs d’Afrique (Pan-African Producers’ Platform), a continent-wide union of farmers (raising both crops and livestock) and fishers that is today African producers’ principal representative organization to the European Union in Brussels, African national governments, and the main intergovernmental organizations concerned with agriculture: the World Bank, the IMF, IFAD, and UNCTAD.

From time to time, I run into Cissokho in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. He also often comes to Geneva. He works in Geneva with Jean Feyder, who since 2005 has been the courageous Permanent Representative of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourgto the United Nations, international organizations, and the World Trade Organization in Geneva. In 2007, Feyder was named president of the Committee on Trade and Development of the WTO, which attempts to defend the interests of the fifty poorest countries against the industrialized countries that control 81 percent of world trade. Since 2009, Feyder has also served as president of UNCTAD’s executive council. In both these positions, he has made a certain modest farmer from Bamba Thialène his principal adviser. In the face of the most powerful forces in world agriculture, Cissokho assumed this role with determination, effectiveness—and humor. The battle against the inertia of African governments and intergovernmental organizations, and against the mercenary oligarchies of global finance, is a Sisyphean struggle. Between 1980 and 2004, the proportion of government development aid devoted to investment in agriculture, both multilateral and bilateral, fell from 18 to 4 percent.

But, to paraphrase British historian Eric Hobsbawm, nothing sharpens the mind like defeat. Every time I meet him, Cissokho’s mind is even sharper than before. Fighting his way through interminable meetings in Geneva, Brussels, and New York with agrifood industry giants and the Western governments that serve their interests, Cissokho is nonetheless hardly an optimist. I have seen him recently exhausted, pensive, sad, worried. The title of the single book he has published sums up his current state of mind very well: God Is Not a Farmer.

Published with permission from The New Press.