Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Nigel Harris

Thinking it over...

The politics of famine

(May 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.76, May 1985, p.8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE RAINS appear to be more promising and already the newspapers have passed on to other things; that is, until the next famine arrives. The horror of Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Mali, Niger, Mozambique and the others, joins a fitting series that began with Hiroshima, and so recently has passed through Kampuchea, Bangladesh, the Boat People, Biafra, Bhopal.

The film of Mohammed Amin which, last autumn, dropped the starving of Ethiopia into every sitting room, was an uncanny replay. For in 1974, Jonathan Dimbleby’s The Hidden Hunger showed no lesser horrors in Ethiopia, and was one element in the overthrow of the emperor, Hailie Selassie (but not before 200,000 had died). In March, the United Nations Conference on Famine in Africa likewise mimicked the 1974 Rome World Food Conference. This time round, Mrs Thatcher refused any increase in aid (only a redistribution between aided countries). Last time, the unlovely Fred Peart, Labour Minister of Agriculture, told his Roman audience: ‘I believe a lot of people in Britain are not eating enough. I do not want malnutrition to appear in Britain.’ Watch this space for the 1994 headlines.

We should be grateful for the film even if the warnings came long before. In 1980, one in four of the world’s population ate too little for good health; every ninth suffered chronic hunger; every 73rd died from the effects of malnutrition; twelve million children died from protein deficiency. Since 1973 the income per head in most of Africa has been falling. Between the late sixties and the early eighties, food production per head in Africa has declined by 21 per cent – 32 per cent for Mozambique and 18 per cent for Ethiopia. In 1981, 29 countries of Africa were notified as at risk of famine, but Western governments paid little attention.

Without Mohammed Amin’s film, few people would have been any wiser. It linked genuine compassion to the razzamattazz of commercial exploitation, a media event with a cast of thousands: charity is the heart of a heartless world, even when the heart is made of plastic. The Sun can always be relied to transform the tragic into the banal, to vulgarise the horror, and this time was no exception with its slogan, ‘Give a tiddler to save a toddler’. On the other side, the Mirror shifted gear from a one million pound bingo game to a one million pound ‘mercy mission’ (‘Thank God You’ve Come!’ was the absurd headline when the British, unable to send food, sent instead Robert Maxwell). And everyone visited – Charles Heston, Edward Kennedy, Cardinal Basil Hume and a clutch of others.

This was merely the surface froth. Underneath, the real horror penetrated a mass audience with astonishing speed, and released a flood of spontaneous generosity. Very little was raised in Britain up to the time of the film, then £25 million in two months. A Cambridge farmer appealed for one tonne of wheat per farmer and raised 1,000 tonnes in November. In the United States the average contribution was $40 per head.

The mass compassion is sharply contrasted with the vicious parsimony and hypocrisy of the governments. Just as Hailie Selassie denied there was a famine in 1974 (and used his army to drive the dying out of Addis Ababa beyond the range of the cameras), so did Russia this time. That gave an opportunity to Washington (and the little yes-woman in London) to exploit the opportunity to discredit Russia and Ethiopia. The press settled down to identifying the military government as the real villain even though it had done far more than Hailie Selassie.

The key issue is that Western Europe and North America control seventy five per cent of the world grain trade. It is a degree of control far greater than that exercised over any other commodity (much greater for example, than OPEC’s share of the world oil trade). Everyone knows of the mountains of decaying cereals held in stock in Europe – 8.7 million tonnes last year. But Brussels offered only to divert grain supplies from Bangladesh and Egypt to Ethiopia. Mrs Thatcher did the same.

Famine relief is one thing. More important in the medium term is the Common Agricultural Policy of the EEC. It has wrecked markets for agricultural exports from Third World countries. The EEC charges high food prices in Europe to subsidise the purchase of food, its processing and storage, and finally its export. Through massive subsidies, it has tripled its share of food exports in the last decade. In July 1984 the cost of producing sugar in the EEC was £346.50 per tonne and EEC sugar exports were priced at £93.50. A subsidy of £253 wrecks the markets of all Third World sugar producers. If the subsidies had affected cereals in 1984, it would have done far more to feed Ethiopia’s hungry than any of the relief. But grain prices stayed high up until it was clear 1984 was a bumper harvest.

There was no shortage of food in the world. Per head of the world’s population, more food is available in 1985 than ever before in the history of the world. And the estimates suggest continued growth to the end of the century, well ahead of the growth of population. The real problems are elsewhere – 12 million Americans in ill health because of inadequate food intake, while American farmers are bankrupted by high debts and US agricultural banks stumble.

American farmers, like Ethiopia, have not been bankrupted by a shortage of food, but rather by rising interest rates, declining commodity prices, and rising import (or input) prices. Africa – with a level of debt equal to 58 per cent of its gross product – is financing the advanced capitalist world with its interest payments. The problem of Ethiopia, like the farmers’, is one of slump, not food production.

The function of slump is to ‘restore incentives’. That means raising profit rates for capital by bankrupting segments of capital, cutting capacity and labour costs. For workers, it means enforcing the disciplines of work through the enhanced fears of unemployment, cutting back welfare and trade union protections. And famine is part of that process. Slump is a time when the rate of return on the sale of some forms of labour power falls below the minimum socially necessary income required to secure survival. The physical elimination of firms is paralleled by the physical elimination of part of the world’s labour force.

Famine also shifts the balance of class power. Domestically, it redistributes land, equipment, livestock and cash to the rich, and it cuts wages. Internationally, the dominant powers in the world are able to force their wishes on the governments of hungry countries. One US aid official expressed the view succinctly: ‘In a sense, we’re talking about a kind of recolonisation – about sending smart white boys to tell them how to run their countries.’

The causes of famine have little to do with a shortage of food. And its results likewise produce no abundance.

Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 28 March 2010