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 goods—especially of financial resources—is
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 people’s “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 people’s 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 people’s participation in them. Government
policies of developing countries, in the developed world, and international
bodies—from the promotion of export-led development and free trade to the
dispensation of foreign aid—“reflect 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
people’s 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.


John H. Rodgers is a researcher who lives in San Francisco, California.
His articles have appeared in the
San Francisco Examiner, In These Times,
Earth Island Journal.