14 June 2013

Hunger, markets and good feelings: how hunger feeds profits of multinationals

During the recent conference ‘Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science’ which was held in London on June 8, one of the leitmotivs of interventions made was to take stock of the fact that efforts to eradicate hunger, despite some progress, have not really been successful as could have been expected in a world which is richer than ever today and where food is sufficient and shockingly wasted.

The responsibility for this failure, in these first years of the XXIst Century, is largely attributed to governments and to their alleged inability to assist efficiently and effectively those who suffer from hunger. The logical consequence of this view is to turn to the private sector with hope that it could solve the problem. This view is reinforced by the fact that  today governments are submitted to a policy of austerity on the ground that public expenditure is bad for the economy (as if public expenditure were disappearing in a black hole and were not funding consumption of civil servant households or activities of firms from which governments purchase goods and services...). But whereas the logic of the state is first of all to avail goods and services of a public nature, the objective of private companies is primarily to make profits for their shareholders by selling goods and services which are, in their majority, of a private nature.

This rather Manichean analysis (State=bad; private=good) allows those who dominate the current debate to do without a more subtle analysis, of a mostly political nature, which would help to understand why governments have failed against hunger (but is it possible to speak of a failure when often there have not been really serious attempts made?). Some elements of analysis, which will need to be complemented in its own time, can be found here (in French only). A rather crisp summary has been recently produced by Small Planet which shows that the really key factors of success in those countries which have succeeded in reducing hunger are (i) determinant public efforts and (ii) a high level of organization of civil society.

But what do those who believe that the private sector can resolve the issue of hunger propose?

  1. To promote private investment in agriculture, which amounts in most cases to allow private interests to grab natural resources (land, water, forests and genetic resources) which so far had been used by rural communities who are precisely those who are most hit by persistent hunger. This movement is strongly supported by the World Bank and even the European Union, the former acknowledging the consequences this approach will have on the local population (proletarianization, migration to towns or abroad) [read], and the latter standing ready to support financially private investment by subsidizing them partially with public resources [read]

  2. To turn the undernourished into a new market for agribusinesses by having aid agencies buy, transport and distribute to the hungry enriched food (in proteins, vitamins and other food supplements) developed by the private sector, instead of giving to those who do not have sufficient access to food the capacity to produce it or to get jobs that could give them the purchasing power to buy food in sufficient quantity and quality [lire]

  3. To promote an agriculture based on the massive use of inputs and equipment produced by a small number of private multinational firms based mainly in industrial and emergent economies and which generates huge profits for them, but also has disastrous ecological consequences, while it would be possible to produce enough to feed the world with low input technologies with less negative impact on the environment and which would be more accessible to poor producers.

  4. Finally, to propose, adding insult to injury, to give tax benefits to those private firms who would participate in this ‘development’ effort. 

How not to feel seriously upset when reading the declaration made by the British Prime Minister, current chair of the G8, on June 8, who declared being proud to promote such an approach for the good of humankind! Is this not the height of cynicism?


Last update:    June 2013

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