Not to be confused with Enough by John Naish, or Enough by Bill McKibben, this is a searing new book about hunger. It’s the work of two journalists. Roger Thurow is an Africa correspondent, Scott Kilman an agriculture reporter, and their co-authored series on famine for the Wall Street Journal won them a Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting in 2004. Enough builds on that series, fills in the gaps, and is a superb piece of work.
The authors set out to discover why anyone still goes hungry today, when we know that we grow enough food in the world to feed everyone. We know the causes of famine and how to prevent it, but the number of malnourished people is currently rising. “Famine is by and large preventable” they write. There are still disasters and droughts, but much of the problem is “a man-made catastrophe, caused one anonymous decision at a time, one day at a time, by people, institutions, and governments doing what they thought was best for themselves or sometimes even what they thought at the time was best for Africa.”
Africa is the focus here, because it is overwhelmingly the continent that suffers most from hunger. To investigate why that should be so, the authors begin their story with a biography of Norman Borlaug. This energetic plant biologist began his work in Mexico, where he developed a new breed of wheat that was resistant to rust blight, which was ruining the country’s harvest. Famine disappeared from Mexico and Borlaug moved on to India to repeat the experiment. By spreading the word about the new seed, teaching farmers how to use fertilizer efficiently, and persuading the government to offer support to the farmers, India’s regular famines became a thing of the past.
History knows this era as the Green Revolution. The big question is why it never reached Africa, and this is where it starts to get political. The United States has always produced large grain surpluses, encouraged by the generous subsidies to farmers that were introduced during the Great Depression. They used to be able to sell some of this surplus to Mexico and to India, but with every country that became self sufficient, the danger of a glut increased. The US needed places to dump its surpluses, and the government solved the problem by buying up the excess and giving it away as Food Aid, even though this swamps local markets and drives local farmers out of business.
Everyone knows it that buying local food is quicker and saves more lives in a famine – there were storehouses full of grain in Ethiopia during the 2003 famine, but the food still gets shipped from the US. It is written into law that all Food Aid must be grown in America, something that is vigorously defended by the agricultural lobby, and 75% of it must be shipped on American ships. It’s a hugely self-serving system, and to their shame, one that is propped up by the NGOs – agencies such as Catholic Relief or World Vision depend on US Food Aid for much of their funding. When the Bush administration tried to reform aid policy to allow more local food to be bought, the aid agencies campaigned against it. It is an “Iron Triangle” of self interest. As one Ethiopian farmer puts it, “American farmers need Ethiopian famine.”
Alongside this, development policy also changed. Mexico, India, and others were able to support their farmers with subsidized seeds and fertilizer, guaranteed prices at harvest time, and other such structures. Higher yields meant that fewer people had to work the land, and this freed up labour for manufacturing and other industries. The Green Revolution kick-started development in South America and Asia. Africa came too late to the party. With the rise of free market theory in the 80s and 90s, the IMF and the World Bank had basically outlawed subsidies. As a condition of aid and debt relied, por countries had to cut government spending, shrink their involvement and make space for private initiative. The structural ajustment schemes denied Africa the very tools that the rest of the world had used to end hunger and start development.
This is the great hypocrisy: the rich world preaches free trade, but doesn’t practice it. Africa is forbidden to subsidize its poor and struggling farmers, while the US and EU pour billions into agricultural subsidies that are almost entirely unnecessary. This destroys any comparative advantage that African countries might have. Thurow and Kilman compare American cotton and West African cotton, and find that although West Africa produces better cotton more efficiently, the subsidies make US cotton cheaper. Countries such as Mali lose out in billion of dollars in export, and the development aid doesn’t make up for it.
This book made me more angry than anything I’ve read for quite some time. A multinational grain company CEO protests that “it is our right to provide aid in the form of food instead of cash,” and I need to put the book for a moment before I throw it at something. Fortunately, the book divides neatly in half between the problems and the solutions, offering much more than the usual ‘happy chapter’ at the end. The second half deals with the development of boards of trade in Africa, so that farmers can sell futures and guarantee that they’ll cover their costs – Ethiopia’s 2003 famine followed a bumper year, because there was too much grain and farmers actually made a loss. There’s the heartening story of Malawi introducing subsidies in 2005, giving the finger to the IMF in the process. “These are Malawi’s children who are starving, not the World Bank’s” said president Mutharika. Despite the protests of Britain’s DfiD and the IMF, the plan worked and has now got their official support.
One thing that the book seems to suggest is that while the international institutions such as the UN or the WTO have become paralysed by old-fashioned notions of national interest, others have picked up the challenge. The initiative has moved to private finance and even business. There are sections here about the Gates Foundation, or Norman Buffett (son of Warren), philanthropists putting up the funds for agriculture that governments won’t deliver. There are intriguing partnerships between the World Food Programme and the logistics group TNT, and there are businesses that exist solely to solve hunger among the poorest. I loved the story of the French nutrionists behind Plumpy’nut, the nutrient-rich, peanut butter based super-food that is now used in famine relief around the world. Despite the infuriating lack of political will to solve hunger, progress is being made, and the book is ultimately much more optimistic than I expected.
The journalistic approach means that Enough is well researched and full of facts and stats, but it’s also full of stories and real life situations. Thurow and Kilman introduce famine victims and aid workers, African businessmen and politicians, celebrity activists, wealthy American farmers. It’s a very human book, telling both sides and avoiding undue blame. It’s also full of inspiring individuals and interesting ideas, and is thoroughly engaging. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in development, Africa, or social justice.
- Roger Thurow’s blog, global food for thought
- Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel