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Political problem

October 31, 2011

Although there is more than enough food to feed the world's growing population, a global economic system that benefits the industrialized nations creates hunger in developing countries, says DW's Ute Schaeffer.

A small girl eating from a food package
Children around the world are dependent on development aidImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A world without hunger, where all seven billion people are well fed, can indeed be achieved. The planet produces enough food. Hunger is not a problem simply caused by natural crises. It is tolerated because other things are deemed more important. The voices of European consumers and farmers, for example, carry more political weight. If we took all our fine words about solidarity seriously, then subsidies would have to be abolished, trade relationships revolutionized and the price of food in the industrial states would rise.

The voices of the hungry carry little weight - they have no lobby. Perversely, people go hungry - of all places - where food is produced, among small farmers in rural regions. These people have nobody to represent their interests in multilateral economic institutions. When free trade treaties and global trade flows are negotiated, they have no voice, despite the fact that there are very many of them: Just under half of all people worldwide live either directly or indirectly from agriculture. The large, unheard majority in the developing world pays the price for our economic system: One billion people are hungry or undernourished.

European politicians always behave as if they were helpless and ask how they should convince voters to restructure taxes to the benefit of the world's poorest people. That wouldn't be so difficult. Elected officials simply need to convince their constituencies that fighting hunger is in the interest of their own well being. How will Europe cope with 150 million potential refugees fleeing hunger in sub-Saharan Africa for our continent by the year 2020?

Politicians should explain to voters that they shouldn't have to pay taxes twice. What we create with development aid and projects we destroy with our own economic policies and global trade order. In the end, we create nothing more than dependency between the developed and developing worlds, not to mention the absurd subsidies that are doled out for an unsustainable agricultural sector in the Global North.

Ute Schaeffer
Deutsche Welle Editor-in-Chief Ute Schaeffer

The humanitarian consequences of hunger are often reported on, but those who profit from hunger have largely escaped public scrutiny. It has to be clearly stated that there are interests which benefit from the current hunger-producing system.

We, the consumers, profit from this system. We pay less for food today than 20 years ago. We buy bread for one euro and milk for 70 cents. We are convinced that food should cost nothing. One hundred years ago, two-thirds of consumer spending in Germany went toward food. Today, it's just 20 percent.

Europe's farmers also are among those who profit. They can produce much more than the market actually demands without having to worry, since high subsidies with broad political support guarantee that they will make ends meet. Farmers in developing countries can only dream of such a system. The large agro-business conglomerates, which flood entire markets with their seed and fertilizers, are also among the profiteers.

That benefits the elites in the South, where policy decisions often are made for a specific clientele and for voters in the capital. People there decide how much development aid will be distributed to rural development. At the same time, it's considered backward to invest in rural development and agriculture. Countries that rely on agriculture for up to 80 percent of their livelihoods actually believe they don't need farm policies. Worse still, Mozambique, a country with a large and largely fertile expanse, has the capacity to become an exporter of rice or corn to all of southern Africa. Instead, it's dependent on expensive imports simply because the political elites are not interested in the issue.

A supermarket aisle
Germans spend around 20 percent of their income on foodImage: picture-alliance/ZB

This is a case that requires a lot of work to persuade countries to change their ways - at every bilateral summit and every international conference. And the industrial states will only succeed if they can make clear to developing countries how much they have to gain: more export opportunities than today, access to European markets, fair prices for agricultural products on the world market.

Then there are those who speculate on the food market. In the second half of 2010, the prices for staple foods rose by around 30 percent - it's a lucrative business for investors and speculators. But it's the people in Port-au-Prince, Dhaka and Agadez who are left on the hook with rising food prices that they cannot afford.

Let's end the lies of our affluent society. Famines, only partially caused by wars and natural catastrophes, are seldom a problem of the urban poor. Hunger is the result of politically tolerated social exclusion of large swathes of the population. Their needs and hardships are pushed to the side, ignored by the profiteers.

After decades of dependency on and exploitation by the colonial powers, the International Monetary (IMF) and World Bank forced the newly independent African states to restructure their economies in the 1980s. The motto was liberalization, privatization and deregulation in countries that did not have infrastructure, technical know-how, a functioning economy or domestic investors. The consequences were catastrophic not just for the agricultural sector, but also for education and health care.

Wheat growing in a field
Once food, now a commodity for speculationImage: picture alliance/dpa

The world community continues to demonstrate apathy and ignorance toward the scandal of hunger in the 21st century. It's a devastating mistake, and not just for moral reasons. We should not underestimate the political explosiveness of the hungry. Already in 2008, rising food prices led to hunger revolts from Cameroon to Egypt. In the coming decade, it will cost us billions in aid programs. Hunger jeopardizes political stability in developing countries and Europe alike.

When you understand the global context, then you have to come to the conclusion that radical political change is necessary. No construction project, no emergency aid package and no half-hearted, quickly forgotten promise at a summit can stop the social and economic erosion caused by hunger and poverty.

Just as the farmers in the global South are dependent on equitable trade rules and prices in the north, the affluent societies of the global North are also dependent on the political and economic stability of the quickly growing countries of the south. We have to tone down our short-term interest in more growth and more comfort so that nobody dies from hunger anymore.

It was almost 40 years ago that US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a very ambitious promise at a World Food Conference: "Within a decade no child will go to bed hungry." That goal is more distant than it ever has been.

Author: Ute Schaeffer / slk
Editor: Nancy Isenson