Why the poor starve in age of plenty

Every year, around the globe, more than 9 million people die of hunger. Most of them are children.

For those of us living in a nation where many people die from the effects of too much food, it seems as if it should be a simple problem to solve: Get more food to the people who need it.

Worldwide, there is plenty to eat; since the "green revolution" sparked by American Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug more than four decades ago, we've known how to grow more than enough to feed everyone.

Getting it to them is another matter.

In Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman take a penetrating, fascinating look at famine and food aid.

The two Wall Street Journal investigative reporters put the problem of feeding the hungry into its complex political, economic and cultural context, as well as personalizing it with reporting on the people who suffer from hunger and those who try to solve it.

Enough, published in 2009, earned Thurow and Kilman the Action Against Hunger Humanitarian Award. It was published in paperback last week. Below is an excerpt.

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

Who's aiding whom? Nazareth, Ethiopia, 2003

… In 2003, Americans imagined their food aid arriving to save the day amid blighted landscapes of misery where everything was brown, dying and grim. Their perceptions of the situation — and of their own best intentions — were perhaps most clearly expressed on one of the trucks that rolled up to the Ethiopian government's strategic grain storehouse in Nazareth, groaning under the weight of American wheat and corn to be unloaded there. The truck's passenger-side window had been converted into a stained-glass painting of Jesus. It was perfect imagery: Jesus, in Nazareth, bringing salvation to the Ethiopians.

Americans certainly didn't imagine their food aid arriving in green fields, rolling past warehouses of local food. They didn't imagine African countries producing grain surpluses, certainly not those countries with all those starving people. And they certainly didn't imagine their aid being welcomed by bitter sarcasm from the local farmers.

"American farmers have a market in Ethiopia, but we don't have a market in Ethiopia," huffed Kedir Geleto, who managed a grain-trading operation in Nazareth. Kedir … led a tour of their warehouses in Nazareth, just off the main road from Djibouti to Addis Ababa. Doing a quick inventory in their heads, they estimated that at least 100,000 metric tons of Ethiopian-grown grain, beans, and peas were idling here. …

Why, the men wondered, didn't America provide cash aid to buy up the local surplus, and then send food to cover the rest of the shortage? "If the Americans really want to help us, to feed our hungry and to help our farmers," Kedir said, "first of all they must buy what is available from the farmers and merchants in the country."

But the Americans couldn't buy from the local farmers. Since the 1940s, the U.S. Congress followed the principle that American food aid must be grown in America. As the years went by, the U.S. business and political interests had come to wield ever more influence over food-aid policy, keeping the focus on what was best for American agribusiness and for the politicians it supported rather than on what was best for the world's hungry. Even as American generosity grew — half of all international food aid is provided by the United States — so did its self-interest. …

In 2003, U.S. emergency food aid jumped to more than $500 million, compared to less than $5 million spent on agricultural development. And when that food aid came streaming in while Ethiopian farmers couldn't sell their surplus from the year earlier, a dark cynicism spread across the land: Maybe food aid was meant not to solve the hunger problem but to perpetuate it. "American farmers need Ethiopian famine," said Bulbula (Tulle, a warehouse owner) bluntly. "If American farmers aren't putting their crops in here, then where would they go?"

Why the poor starve in age of plenty 06/26/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 7:54pm]

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