Hunger in the Midst of Plenty

While the celebrations on the eve of 2006 were going on all over the world and the people with means were bursting crackers, drinking champagne and dancing enthusiastically, one person was desperately reminding them of widespread incidence of poverty all around. Almost all television channels except TV5, a French language Canadian channel, ignored him and his message. Perhaps they did not think it pleasant to remind the revellers that there were hundreds of millions of people all over the world going without food and at least 100,000 people were dying every day of hunger and malnutrition-related diseases. This person was no other than redoubtable Jean Ziegler, a professor of economics at University of Geneva and Sorbonne, Paris.

Born on April 19, 1934 and educated in Switzerland, France and America, he received his doctorate from the University of Berne. For a number of years, he was a prominent member of Federal Swiss Parliament’s foreign affairs committee where he exposed the secret link up between the criminals all over the world and the Swiss banks.  In September 2000, he was chosen by the UN Human Rights Commission as a rapporteur for the committee on ‘The Right to Nutrition’. Since then he has submitted a number of reports on the problem of hunger in developing countries. Last year he published The Empire of Shame, which is English translation of his French book L’Empire de la Honte. Till date, it has come out in 14 languages.

At the time of the French Revolution (1789), nobody believed that enough food could be provided to all inhabitants of the world. It was then termed a utopian dream. Now, the situation is radically different. As a result of the development of science and technology, world agriculture is capable of feeding 12 billion people at the rate of 2700 calories of food every day. In view of the fact that the world population is only around 6 billion, it follows that no one should normally go hungry or fall a prey to malnutrition. Yet, 100,000 persons die annually of hunger or hunger-related diseases. At present not less than 826 million people all over the world suffer from serious chronic malnutrition. Out of these, 34 million are in the developed countries while 515 million are in Asia where they account for 24 per cent of the total population. In black Africa 34 per cent of the total population or 186 million people suffer from “extreme hunger”, which means each one of them hardly gets 300 calories a day so that he somehow or the other just survives. In the words of Ziegler, “For people in the Third World, World War III is now raging, claiming every seven minutes the life of one child under 10 as a result of hunger.”

It is apparent that the situation is really tragic. “While the rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer at a much faster rate.  … 20 per cent of the world’s population controls more than 80 per cent of its resources, they own more than 80 per cent of its cars and consume 60 per cent of its energy resources. More than one billion men, women and children share one per cent of the world income.” This situation he terms as New Barbarism! When Ziegler was asked: “Your book is entitled Empire of Shame. What is this empire? What is this shame?”, what he revealed was really shocking. To Ziegler, “In the favelas (shanty towns) in the north of Brazil, some mothers may, in the evening, put water in a pot and then put stones in it. They explain to their children who are crying because of hunger that “soon the meal will be ready…,” while hoping that meanwhile the children will fall asleep. Can one measure the shame felt by a mother facing her children who are tortured by hunger and whom she is unable to feed?” He goes on to add: “Empire of shame? It could be referring to the generalized impact of the feeling of shame caused by the inhumanity of the world order. What is actually implied here is the empire of the private transnational companies, directed by the cosmocrats. The 500 most powerful of these companies last year [i.e. 2004] controlled 52% of the gross world product, i.e. of the entire wealth produced on the planet.”

The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 proclaimed economic, social and cultural rights. The right to food is among them, which means “The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. It implies the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy dietary needs of individuals and acceptable within a culture. It is indivisibly linked to inherent dignity of the human person.” The right to food was endorsed by the World Food Summit of 1996 organized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. It meant that the production, distribution and transportation should be left solely to the market and profit motive. In spite of this decision, nothing much has changed on the ground. The Chicago Commodity Exchange continues to fix the price of every major foodstuff daily as a result of its speculative activities. Ziegler points out that six transnational agro-industrial and financial corporations dominate this exchange and “usually, its daily prices are the outcome of complex speculation involving forward contracts and pyramids of derivatives.”

In April 1990, the UN Commission on Human Rights set up a special group to draw up new standard of international law to help realize the right to food. This was not to the liking of the United States, Consequently, as Ziegler says, “the US, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the largest transcontinental private corporations favour what is called the Washington Consensus as their response to the right to food. This has four precepts that apply globally at any time to any economy: privatization and deregulation, macroeconomic stability and budget cuts…. For the peoples of the third world, the consequences of the opposition between the right to food and the Washington Consensus are a disaster. The Bretton Woods institutions, the WTO and the US Treasury have powers of constraint, financial clout, far greater than FAO, the WFP, Unicef, the World Health Organisation or the UN Commission on Human Rights.”

Ziegler calls hunger “the weapon of mass destruction”. It is used to crush and humiliate the countries of the Third World. One must not forget that hunger is man made because, as has already been noted, at the current rate of productivity world agriculture is in a position to feed adequately more than twice the present world population. It is the greed for profit that is responsible for restraining production in order to maintain the situation of scarcity. One may mention here that T. W. Schultz, the noted agricultural economist, while accepting Nobel Prize, underlined years ago that land was no longer a limiting factor in agricultural production. Better organisation and adequate capital could push up production enormously. In view of this, hunger no longer remains a matter of fate.

Certain immediate steps have been suggested for developing countries. They include completion of land reforms, adequate prices for agricultural products to farmers and just terms of trade for agricultural products of developing countries, curbing the activities of speculators along with the closure of Chicago Commodity Exchange and fight against privatization of water both for drinking and irrigation.

Jean Ziegler has declared: “There is no choice. Either you choose development and normative organisation or you choose the invisible hand of the market, the violence of the strongest and the arbitrary. Feudal power and social justice are radically paradoxical.”

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