VI Readings on Poverty, Hunger,
and Economic Development
Approximately one-fifth of the world's population, over one billion people, earns
less than $1.00 a day. According to the 1998 UN World Development Report, the three
richest people in the world own assets that exceed the combined Gross Domestic Products of
the world's 48 poorest countries, and Forbes
Magazine reports that 358 billionaires had a combined net worth equal to the combined
income of the bottom 45 percent of the world's population. Each day, over a billion
people in the world lack basic food needs. And each day 35,000 children under the age of five
die of starvation or preventable infectious disease. Furthermore the problems of
growing inequality, poverty, and hunger are getting worse in spite of the huge surge of
global economic growth over the past 50 years. In this section will will address the
issues of the amount of food in the world, the role it plays in a capitalist economy, why
people are poor, and what measures can be taken to eliminate poverty and hunger.
|A. Hunger and the
World Food Supply
||We often hear about the world running out
of enough food to feed our growing population. For various reasons, however, that is
not likely. The overwhelming evidence is that people are not hungry because of a
lack of food; they are hungry because they don't have the money to pay for it. The
following readings address the issue of the world food supply.
Global Hunger Quiz
||See how much you
know about global hunger with this quick quiz.
Myths About Hunger
||Check out some of
the things you thought you knew about world hunger.
Myths of Scarcity
||A common view about
hunger is that it is caused by a scarcity of food. As this article
from Food First reveals, scarcity is not the problem. The article
questions the idea that we are running out of land to farm, even in areas
where hunger is most severe.
|Reading 3. Food Supply Gap
||This brief report and graphic from
the Food and Agricultural Organization of the
United Nations displays and discusses the availability of food from one part of the
world to another. It calculates the DES for each area, an estimate of the
average daily food energy available per person over a given period. Note that this
is not what is simply available in a given area or country; it is what people have the
ability to pay for. As they make clear, there is sufficient food for everyone (in
spite of the fact that growers ostensibly grow what they believe can be paid for, not what
is needed). As one UN official said, "If you look at the world as a whole, there is
enough food produced to feed each person, each day. But it isn't happening because
it's access to food that's the real problem."
|Reading 4. Increase in the Number of
Undernourished People in the World
||This brief summary of the UN 1998
State of Food and Agriculture report provides you some basic information on the
present-day food situation, as well as some of the future prospects. You can also
read the brief press
release describing the main findings of the report.
|B. Food as a Commodity
||To understand why people go hungry you
must stop thinking about food as something farmers grow for others to eat, and begin
thinking about it as something companies produce for other people to buy. Food is a
commodity. Furthermore, agricultural producers choose to grow, not only what people
will and can buy, but they grow things for which they will get the best price. This
has various implications. For example, much of the best agricultural land in the
world is used to grow commodities such as cotton, sisal, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, and
cocoa, items which are non-food products or are maginally nutritious, but for which there
is a large market. Millions of acres of potentially productive farmland is used to
pasture cattle, an extremely inefficient use of land, water and energy, but one for which
there is a market in wealthy countries. More than half the grain grown in the United
States (requiring half the water used in the U.S.) is fed to livestock, grain that would
feed far more people than would the livestock to which it is fed. Furthermore,
growers must be careful not to "overproduce"; that is they must not grow or
raise more food than people can pay for. In many countries agricultural
producers are discouraged from producing; furthermore, as food producing corporations grow
larger, they are able to control production to ensure they don't "overproduce."
The problem, of course, is that people who don't have enough money to buy food (and
more than one billion people earn less than $1.00 a day), simply don't count in the food
equation. In other words, if you don't have the money to buy food, no one is going
to grow it for you. Put yet another way, you would not expect The Gap to manufacture
clothes, Adidas to manufacture sneakers, or IBM to provide computers for those people
earning $1.00 a day or less; likewise, you would not expect ADM ("Supermarket to the
World") to produce food for them. Aid programs or governments may take up some
of the slack by purchasing food from producers, and distributing it; but, as we discuss in
Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism,
this may do more harm than good. What this means is that ending hunger requires doing away
with poverty, or, at the very least, ensuring that people have enough money or the means
to acquire it, to buy, and hence create a market demand for food.
|Exercise 2. Food Outlook
||Each month Food Outlook produces a
newsletter that reports on the international food situation. It might report, for
example, that grain production in certain countries is down because of flooding or
hurricanes (as in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch), or that rice production is up, or that
prices on one commodity or another have declined. However, you have to remember that
when there are reports of production declines, the decline is relative to how much of a
given crop was planted, and the decision of how much to plant is a market decision; that
is, the amount planted depends on what the grower believes the market demand for the
product will be. In other words, what and how much is planted does not depend on
people's need for food; it depends on what they are able and willing to pay for it.
Browse the latest issue of Food Outlook. Read the Highlight section, browse
through the rest. From your browsing through the report, what do you think
determines what farmers (largely agribusiness) grow? What determines how much of a
given commodity they plant? If they can get a larger return on one commodity over
another which will they grow?
|Reading 5. Public
Action to Remedy Hunger
||Nobel Prize winning economist,
Amartya Sen is one of the foremost spokespersons on global hunger and poverty. His book,
written with Jean Dreze, Hunger and Public Action, is one of the most comprehensive
studies of hunger yet written. In this address, Sen summarizes the major points of the
book. There are, he says, two types of hunger: famine and endemic depravation-- the daily
lack of sufficient food. Famine, while receiving the most attention, is less prevalent
that the largely hidden endemic hunger from which some one billion people suffer. While
the problem of hunger is widespread, Sen warns about being pessimistic. People are hungry,
says Sen, because they lose their entitlement to food--they lack either the land to grow
food, the money to buy it, or access to state programs of food or wage distribution. With
the will, he says, no one needs to go hungry. Among the most important features necessary
to prevent hunger, he says, is a democratic (and thereby accountable) government and a
free press that publicizes the threat of hunger.
|C. Why are People Poor?
||If, as most researchers claim, people are
hungry because they lack the money to buy food, then eliminating hunger requires
eliminating poverty, or, at the very least, ensuring that people, particularly women and
children, receive food entitlements. But that requires understanding the reasons for
global poverty. The following readings address that issue.
|Reading 6. Poverty and
||This lecture by Vandana Shiva, founder Director of the
Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in New Delhi comprised
one of the BBC's Reith Lecture series. She argues that, contrary to popular opinion,
it is the small farmer that feeds the world. But, she says, the small farmer is being
destroyed, driven into poverty by the spread of corporate agriculture and the introduction
of genetically engineered crops. What is also being destroyed, she says, is an
agricultural method that is sustainable and more efficient. She also points out that
it is women who are at the center of this sustainable agriculture and who are being
systematically driven into poverty.
|Reading 7. Globalization:
Threat or Opportunity
||This report from the International Monetary Fund
(IMF) addresses some of the
criticisms of globalization and the role of multilateral institutions such as the World
Bank and IMF. It argues that, while there have been some setbacks, including an
increase in poverty, globalization represents real opportunities for developing countries.
The report concludes that "The international community should endeavorby
strengthening the international financial system, through trade, and through aidto
help the poorest countries integrate into the world economy, grow more rapidly, and reduce
poverty. That is the way to ensure all people in all countries have access to the benefits
The Politics of Hunger
||In this article from Le Monde
Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet argues that world hunger is a political problem that arises
from the uneven distribution of wealth. Citing a UN report, Ramonet points out that
"the whole of the world population's basic needs for food, drinking water, education
and medical care could be covered by a levy of less than 4 % on the accumulated wealth of
the 225 largest fortunes. To satisfy all the world's sanitation and food requirements
would cost only $13 billion, hardly as much as the people of the United States and the
European Union spend each year on perfume."
|Reading 9. Global Poverty
in the Late 20th Century
||In this paper, economist Michel
Chossudovsky presents a different perspective from that offered by the authors of Reading
7. He proposes that increased poverty is a consequence of the global integration of
the capitalist economy that we examined in the readings on The Capitalist. He also explains
how the "globalization of poverty" is affecting the former Soviet Union, as well
as other Western countries.
|D. How Can We
Eliminate Hunger and Poverty?
||There is widespread agreement across the
political spectrum that poverty and hunger can and must be alleviated; The World Bank has
even set the elimination of poverty as its major goal. The problem is how do we do
it? In theory, it's easy; just increase taxes on the wealthy and redistribute the
income. But since the wealthy control most global institutions, that's not too
likely to happen. Once we eliminate that option, proposals to eliminate poverty
range from accelerating economic growth in poor countries (although that doesn't do much
for the poor in rich countries), to overhauling our way of living, to helping the poor
create their own economic opportunities. The following selections each address these
|Reading 10. Economic Growth and Human
||This report from the World Resources Institute
describes the growing inequality of wealth in the world, and examines its implication.
The report concludes that "In the longer term, reducing income
inequality and ensuring adequate human development for all is likely to depend on greater
commitment to the implementation of policies for broader-based economic growth and poverty
reduction through increased investment in public education and health."
Economic Inequality: More or less equal?
||Is global economic
inequality increasing or decreasing? This article from The
Economist attempts to answer that question, concluding, generally,
that there are worse things that the expansion of global capitalism. There
is an alternative, and more nuanced view contained in the article, Global economic inequality and international trade
by Ajit K. Ghose that makes a distinction between inter-country and
intra-country inequality and the role of liberalized trade in inequality
What kind of growth
||Theologian John B. Cobb questions
the assumption made by most economists that the growth in a countries GNP or GDP is
synonymous with "progress," and improvements in "standard of living."
He suggests that "economic policies designed to increase gross national
product repeatedly work against human community." Cobb suggests that we must pay more
attention to local communities, and that local communities must, if quality of life is to
be improved, detach themselves to some extent from the global market. Most of his essay
address life in the United States, but it applies globally.
Extreme Poverty Be Eliminated?
||Economic growth is
often cited as the major way to end poverty. A major proponent of
this view is Jeffery D. Sachs who has spent the last 15 to 20 years
advising developing and emerging countries on economic policy. Sachs
begins his paper by claiming that for all the centuries prior to the
industrial revolution human beings lived in wretched poverty, facing
constant threats from disease and famine. While this assumption is
often contradicted by archeological and ethnographic evidence, Sachs takes
off from this point to argue that economic growth has already lifted 5/6s
of the world out of extreme poverty and that with modest economic reforms
and help from wealthy nations, the rest may also escape destitution.
As a foremost proponent of economic growth has the solution to the world's
ills, Sachs is worth reading and discussing. This article from Scientific
American summarizes the main points that he makes in his book, The
End of Poverty.
Social Indicators of
||As an alternative to measuring
"progress" by the GNP or GDP (the quantity of goods and services produced)
social scientists developed the Social Indicators of Development, that attempts to include
various quality of life indicators in the measure of progress and standard of living.
This site contains the World Bank's most detailed data collection for assessing
human welfare to provide a picture of the social effects of economic development. Data are
presented for over 170 economies, omitting only those for which data are inadequate.
Find out how different countries stand in relation to each other. After reading the
text, go to the search interface.
Politics in the Age of Globalization: The World Bank and Corporations
||One of the major institutions that
seeks to promote economic development is the World Bank, and its subsidiaries collectively
known as the Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs). Yet in spite of lending
billions of dollars to so-called developing countries, poverty in most has continually
increased. One of the reasons, suggest the authors of this article, is that most of
the aid functions far more to promote corporate profit than it does to alleviate poverty.
|Exercise 5. The Microcredit Movement
||This is the PBS Web site that
accompanied their two-part documentary on microcredit. Microcredit represents an
attempt to target particularly vulnerable portions of the population--largely women--and,
through a small loan program, assist them to start small businesses. In Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism we
discuss the best known of these programs, The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Browse the site beginning with
the brief summary,
and then review some of the facts about the Grameen Bank, About Global Poverty
Additional Resources on Hunger, Poverty and Economic Development