MAY 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 5
B O O K R E V I E W
Hungry for a Solution
This is a good and bad book; good because it reveals the worldwide scope of hunger and acknowledges the utter ineffectiveness of so-called helping nations and their entourages of development experts to alleviate the problem; and bad because it gives the illusion that there have been consequential breakthroughs on world hunger that are worth writing home about. Anyone who has come close to the problem of world hunger either through travel or reading is anxious to gain a respite from the history of "shortage, poverty and failure," hoping to catch a glimpse of a "quiet revolution of positive change" and the "pushing back [of] the forces of greed" described by Richard Harley.
We are instant suckers for a book that promises breakthroughs. Unfortunately, in discussing small-scale successes, Breakthroughs on Hunger obscures the reality of an enduring substratum of failure and contradictory recommendations, and fails to suggest a comprehensive way to alleviate world hunger. And those people in business, government and international helping agencies who have been an integral part of the failure will be the ones to guide the next attack on hunger if the author's recommendations are not dismissed.
The book champions the new development professionals, researchers and sociologists who are willing to engage in "poor-oriented advocacy." These new-style members of the development community will become partners with the rural poor, act as catalysts rather than charismatic leaders and be willing to learn from earlier failures. Harley reports, for example, about a gigantic expert-inspired wrong turn in Mexico toward monoculture in corn which peasants had the sense to abandon before it ruined them. (Without authorization, they went back to mixed farming and multiple cropping.) Harley sticks with the experts who, instead of leaving the area in disgrace for their dreadful errors, merely added a new arrow to their professional quiver: the mark of a new-styled expert is to listen to peasant wisdom and to include "feedback" from local farmers in any development scheme. The author never asks what the presence of these experts turned good listeners will do for peasants who now must run a kind of school as well as feed their families.
Harley wants to take us out of the doom and gloom of regular accounts of worldwide hunger by describing some success stories- -thus the book's title Breakthroughs on Hunger . A PBS series based on the book has an equally immoderate title: "Local Heroes, Global Change." Unfortunately, the book does not describe anything so extraordinary as the titles suggest.
According to the author, local heroes in local projects working with local people will make the difference--rediscovery of mixed farming and small scale husbandry in Peubla, Mexico; water conservation projects to improve agricultural possibilities in Sahel; banking by bike in Pakistan to medium-sized farmers (it is not clear, but their product maybe headed toward international trade instead of local stomachs); banking in Bangladesh on a group basis in amounts up to $50 to poor people who have no collateral (the borrowers will turn the loans into income through petty businesses and buy food); ecological conservation while earning a living in the Himalayas; a milk-marketing system known as Operation Flood for the dairy women of India (the milk and milk by-products go via cooperatives to the city; it is not clear how much is drunk and eaten by producers, or how much the income from the sale of raw milk will buy); a local rice mill for Bolivian farmers. These projects are sometimes suspect in themselves, but even those that seem to be truly positive are piddling when compared to the enormity of the hunger problem.
A first egregious error of Harley's work lies in is equating access to money with access to food. The two can be correlated, but there is one important difference. Food is food, and income is subject to price level changes that often put food out of reach. In most Third World countries, incomes have not kept up with rapidly rising food costs. Nevertheless, the author unqualifiedly endorses the Indian milk-marketing strategy of one of his local heroes: "Malnutrition is a function of poverty ... The answer to malnutrition is increasing income, giving people something to do to earn more. Operation Flood is the greatest nutritional project in the world--not because it produces more food, but because it doubles the income of millions of families."
Some of the participants in Operation Flood who did try to connect income and purchasing power complain that what they derived from milk sales was not enough to provide for their families' nutrition and health. In the end, the women tending the cows were simply part of the hierarchically run "milksheds" serving large cities.
Making income the primary goal of the poor short-circuits the impulse to address the fundamental causes of hunger through land reform or other efforts to bring the poor into control over their own food supplies. None of the "breakthrough" stories involve land reform and neither "land" nor "land reform" is listed in the book's index. There are, of course, reasons why income improvement is preferred by some to land reform. Land reform might take people out of national and international trade; food produced for home use or petty trade in local markets creates no cash-commodity nexus between peasants and large-scale trade and finance; it simply improves the chances of people to avoid hunger!
A more consequential error that renders the account virtually useless lies in the fact that the major actors in world food production, distribution and finance are totally absent from the book. The index has no entries for multinational corporations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or agribusiness. There is no mention anywhere in the text of the Third World debt crisis and how it impinges on the ability of conscientious Third World governments to set land policy, or make decisions about which crops to grow, for whom and with what impacts on foreign exchange and debt service. Nor is there any mention of the world's largest commercial banks which want the Third World loans in their portfolios to be "performing," even at the expense of hungry peasants. No multinational corporate giant-- Cargill or other grain companies; international fruit companies; the giant tire and rubber companies; timber companies or mining companies--are mentioned anywhere in the book, despite the profound effect their activities have on land use and hunger throughout the world.
The unwarranted optimism of Harley's central claim most obvious in his concluding chapter.
[Citizens and experts] want to know if things are really as bad as they seem in media reports--saturated as they are with images of Third World disaster, revolution and starving children with pleading eyes. The view from inside the programs we have called "exceptional performers" is, in fact, strikingly different from the common impression. To be sure the hardship, squalor, hunger and disease are still there. But so is change in the traditional order of things, a fundamental reordering of structures that makes age-old "fixed" patterns of suffering appear not quite so fixed after all.Two things about this passage are notable; first, an admission that "hunger and disease are still there;" and second, the assertion that fundamental reordering is going on, as evidenced in the heroic cases documented. When one considers the larger actors, however, one can see why hunger and disease are still widespread; nothing in the stories recounted reaches the power and privilege that are rampant in food production, distribution and finance. And no fundamental reordering of food priorities can take place absent a more direct confrontation with these power-privilege systems. The identifiable governments, international agencies and multinational companies, whose interests lie in perpetuating the current order, will not lie down and play dead for the new developmental professionals who want to be advocates of the poor.
No matter how ready we may be for good news on hunger, we should not be taken in by saccharin-sweet books that are designed to put people at ease about a problem that is growing in size and scope every day. The harsh reality is that international and national actors' decisions about food dwarf the isolated acts of heroism on which Harley focuses.
John Bonsignore is an associate professor at the University of Massachusettsat Amherst.