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Market Famines


Starving children get media attention, well-fed imperial economists don’t. Yet modern history shows they are usually two sides of the famine coin.

Over the past month thousands have died of starvation in Niger. All the while food has been available. The poor simply don’t have the money to pay rising food costs, so they starve.

In the spring the International Monetary Fund pressured Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja to implement a 19 percent value added tax with foodstuffs included. The tax was added even though food costs rose more then 75 percent in the previous five years. Concurrently the country’s nomadic herders main income – livestock – fell a quarter in value, leaving the poor with less money to purchase basic foods.

When international groups began drawing attention to the worsening food crisis the interests of the “market” were placed above those of the poor. “The Niger government,” August 7th London Observer reveals,  “under instruction from the IMF and European Union, at first refused to distribute free food to those most in need.” The powers that be did not want “to depress the market prices” that benefited wholesalers and speculators.

Two summers ago famine hit Ethiopia not long after ‘aid’ institutions controlled by Western governments pressured the country to eliminate intervention in the agricultural sector. The Wall Street Journal reported that, “the government, under pressure from international lenders and aid donors, was pulling out of the grain markets in favor of an under-funded and inexperienced private sector. However, little provision was made to support this fledgling free market with storage facilities, transport and financing.” (July 1, 2003) At first, reducing government involvement didn’t appear to be a problem since, according to the Journal, Ethiopian “grain harvests in the latter half of the 1990s averaged 11 million tons annually, about four million tons more than in the 1980s. In the bumper years of 2000 and 2001, harvests hit more than 13 million tons.” Improved harvests concealed the wrongheaded nature of market-based agricultural policies. Larger harvests actually exacerbated the eventual food shortage.

As the state reduced its role as a price stabilizer, farmers began to produce less, since big yields brought less income. “A 220-pound bag of corn that could go for $10 in good times”, the Journal reported,  “was getting as little as about $2—and that was less than half of the standard production costs.” Farmers who produced for sale decreased their production or focused on subsistence crops. Suddenly food became scarce and thousands died.

Similar to the situation in Ethiopia, in 2002 there was a famine in Malawi. The World Bank, IMF and EU pressured the Malawian government to reduce its grain reserves from 167,000 tonnes down to 30,000 tonnes. Malawi was pressured to reduce grain reserves for ideological reasons and to pay off a $300 million loan to a South African bank. The sell-off caused a drop in local prices, reducing many farmers’ ability to produce. It also resulted in a smaller drought reserve. In human terms, these “market” policies resulted in the unnecessary deaths of countless individuals.

Pressure to reform agricultural security has developed across Africa. “The [World] bank has long prodded poor African governments”, according to the Journal,  “to privatize their agriculture sectors and abandon any type of farming subsidies.” Likewise, IMF ideologues oppose the state as food security guarantor. Commodity boards that fixed producer prices and collected farmers’ produce are being abolished and the task handed over to an incapable or unwilling private sector. In addition, subsidies to small farmers are being curtailed.

The supply of food, however, is too important to be left up to the market, which is why most countries in Europe and North America have supply management systems and plan for food security. Many African nations are under immense pressure to follow food policies that no industrialized country follows. Unfortunately, unnecessary famines exacerbated and even brought about by forced economic liberalization is nothing new. Mike Davis in his book titled “Late Victorian Holocaust” recounts the circumstances surrounding a number of horrific famines in India, Brazil and China between 1870 and 1900.

In the late 1870s and 1890s somewhere between 30 and 60 million people died during famines in those three countries. The reason, Davis argues, is that “free” market reforms exacerbated ecological devastation. British imperialists undermined domestic agricultural security, consciously destroying China and India’s long established food security systems. According to a British statistician, who analyzed Indian food security measures in the two millennia prior to 1800, there was one major famine a century in India. Under British rule there was one every four years.

On top of the roughly 20 million Indians who died from starvation, India’s economy stagnated. In 1800 India’s share of the world’s manufactured product was four times that of Britain. By 1900 India was almost totally under British control and the ratio was 8-1 in England’s favor.  Likewise African economies that have adopted neoliberal reforms have stagnated or declined.

If the North American media allowed Niger’s starving child a few words she might tell the neoliberal economist; “free markets and food don’t mix, unless you’re trying to kill me.”

Yves Engler is the author of two upcoming books: Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority (with Anthony Fenton) and Playing Left Wing; From Rink Rat to Student Radical. Both books are published by RED/Fernwood and available at http://infoshopdirect.com/redpublishing/ or www.turning.ca in Canada.

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