Worse Than It Seems

The Reproach of Hungerby David Rieff

Simon & Schuster. 432p $27

If you ask Bill Gates, Jim Yong Kim, Jeffrey Sachs and other well-known figures in the development world, we are just around the corner from eliminating global poverty and hunger. In his latest book, however, The Reproach of Hunger, David Rieff is far less sanguine. He argues that the mainstream stance, in which the marriage of innovative technology and liberal capitalism provides the magic bullet to solve the poor world’s ills, is a combination of hubris, ideology and naïve optimism.

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Rieff is quick to admit that hunger has been greatly reduced in recent decades. This has been largely due to the “Green Revolution,” which brought modern mechanized farming methods and increased agricultural productivity to much (but not all) of the developing world. Famine, which he defines as an overall shortage of available food and which has been part and parcel of the human condition since we have been a species, has become much more rare in the latter part of the 20th century. Also in that time period, agricultural prices began to stabilize and even decline.

This was true until the first decade of the 21st century. Rieff sees the 2007-8 global food crises as bellwethers of even more trouble ahead for the world’s “bottom billion.” By early 2008, the price of agricultural staples like rice, wheat, soybeans and corn (the basic foodstuffs of the poor) had increased by as much as 130 percent. There was still sufficient food, but desperately poor people, who spend a much higher percentage of their income on food, simply could not afford to buy it.

The price shocks of 2007-8 were the result of a perfect storm: high oil prices driving up the cost of fuel and fertilizer, droughts and a cyclone that reduced food production, diversion of crops into ethanol production (40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is turned into auto fuel) and financial speculators increasing the volatility of global commodities markets. Even though prices have since settled down, they remain higher than before the crisis. And, Rieff reminds readers, all the factors that created that crisis are still in play, plus the additional long-term, non-episodic threats of global warming, degraded farmland, rising global population, political instability and shortage of capital to invest in modern mechanized farming. Price shocks may indeed become a “new normal,” which will threaten the poor with hunger in the form of undernutrition (insufficient calories) or malnutrition (inadequate nutrients and food variety).

As Rieff explains it, the developed world addresses food issues according to the following paradigm. Innovative technical experts, increasingly from the private sector, endeavor to help poor countries enter the global food system, which depends on machine fuel, fertilizer and capital-intensive industrial farming techniques. This transition, of course, will mean that poor countries must follow the path of rich Western nations, allowing themselves to be guided by socially responsible corporations and the invisible hand of market forces into the same liberal capitalist economies that support such production-intensive, exports-based agriculture. The rising economic tide in developing nations, so goes the trope, will lift the boats of their poor along with everyone else.

According to Rieff, it is seen not only as gauche but as a moral failure to question this “techno-utopian” paradigm. And yet Rieff, certainly not seeking (or likely) to win any popularity contests in the developed world, asserts that this paradigm is nothing short of an ideology—one with many problematic assumptions and dangerous blind spots.

To begin, the prevailing development model assumes the superiority of modern industrial agriculture. It fails to consider whether poor countries can and should adopt it—along with the attendant costs it exacts on the socio-cultural fabric (as unemployed farmers migrate to cities), ecosystems and the remaining farmers, who become vulnerable when they raise crops for a global commodity market rather than for local markets and personal subsistence.

A second weakness of the current development model is that it places “excessive faith in the liberal progress narrative” and technical innovation while soft-pedaling the very real obstacles—if history is any guide—of epidemics, population growth and other natural and human-caused disasters. It also fails to address the disturbing and real trend that as countries jump on the capitalist bandwagon and become wealthier, the increased wealth flows mostly toward those who are already well off, exacerbating income inequality, impeding democracy and providing the desperately poor with little, no or even negative progress out of poverty.

Third, the modern development movement also places too much faith in the good intentions of powerful yet unaccountable private-sector efforts. The work of Bill and Melinda Gates is admirable, and their intentions certainly seem noble, for example, but to whom do they ultimately answer? What if their interests suddenly turn, for example, from solving the problems of poverty to exploring the far reaches of outer space? Who could stop them, and what would be the fallout for development?

Along similar lines, Rieff is dubious about this brave new world of “philanthrocapitalism,” a term for philanthropy fueled by big business profits. He sees it (though few else in the developed world seem to) as no little irony that many of the problems wealthy First Worlders are trying to solve in the developing world may be the very ones they have helped create or maintain by the very way they do business, like evading taxes or exploiting cheap labor and lax environmental regulations in poorer nations. “Corporate social responsibility,” the latest term of art, may end up being a smokescreen or an oxymoron.

Rieff’s most profound objection to the development model is that it almost completely ignores the issues of human rights, politics and culture. Other than their vague and weak language calling for “transparency” in governance, Rieff opines that today’s development experts assume their technical fixes can be carried out irrespective of a country’s political and cultural realities.

That, Rieff argues, is a fatally flawed assumption. Even the most elegant technical solutions can—and likely, will—be sabotaged by ineffective or corrupt governments or by counterproductive (and deeply rooted) social and cultural practices. Human societies are not just machines needing the proper parts and adjustment; we are in large part guided by beliefs and impulses that are irrational, subjective and often self-destructive. It is in this respect that Rieff comes closest to Catholic social teaching: claiming that “the fundamental problems of the world have always been moral not technological.”

Rieff’s argument concludes with two suggestions. The first is to steer away from the Scylla of techno-utopian “food security” promises and from the Charybdis of the activist-led, antiglobalization, revolutionary “food sovereignty” movement. Instead, he favors the attempt to strengthen democratic governance in poor nations. The second is to have a bit more humility about what we can achieve and in what time frame. Optimism is a bad religion when it ignores the facts on the ground.

Rieff’s tome is not pleasant reading. His dense prose can often be serpentine and hard to follow. His subject is painful and difficult, although he treats it in an abstract and cerebral way that, unfortunately, includes no flesh-and-blood stories of the poor about whom he is deeply concerned. And by his own admission, Rieff offers scant hope. But his argument is copiously researched and his critique is well worth considering. It is an important voice in the essential conversation about how better to serve the poor and hungry of our world.

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