NOTE: please excuse overlap (redundancy) in the first section below with the prior post
Myths of Food-Production and Famine
< authorship redacted >, 1987
[formatting not preserved]
Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our cattle-shows and so-called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin (and purpose). It is the premium and the feast which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial “Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and selfishness, and a groveling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Food production is a struggle in which mankind seizes its sustenance from the environment. The rules of the struggle reflect the pattern of social relationships. In primitive societies where social relations are held relatively stable by firmly held tradition, society’s relationship with the environment is expressed in myth and magical beliefs. (Karl Marx, June 6, 1853) Marx suggested that all “mythology masters and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in and through the imagination; hence it disappears as soon as man gains mastery over the forces of nature.” (Marx, 1972) Where this mastery is lacking, mythology tends to remain.
Even though myths are a very imperfect description of reality, they frequently embody an unconscious strategy for coping with the material world. Because many primitive societies are almost completely dependent on their local habitat, environmental stability is a prerequisite for survival. (Perelman, 1977) The connection between ritual and agricultural technology is reflected in the Latin root of the word “cultivate”, which has the two-fold meaning of “tilling” and “worship”.
Nature sustains itself through three precious principles, which one does well to embrace and follow. These are gentleness, frugality, and humility.
Anthropologists have collected a wide array of examples of cultural systems with built-in mechanisms for environmental protection. The ability of myths to restrain behavior which might damage the environment is especially important in the tropics where the topsoil is generally very fragile. One common belief in these regions is that gods live in the mountains and the hillsides cannot be farmed because they are sacred. As a result, soil erosion is minimized. Guatemalian Indians believe that seeds become “homesick” and “pine away” if they are planted away from their “birthplace”. Consequently each village preserves the genes of its own particular strains of seeds and the genetic diversity of the plants is maintained.
Myth and ritual, therefore, tends to hold primitive societies within the limits imposed by their environments and contributes to an involvement with the environment. One of the consequences of this involvement is that the primitive societies accumulated an immense store of biological information. As a result of their accumulated biological information, the primitive cultures developed the capacity to manipulate the environment. Cultures that have been able to keep from destroying their natural resource base have tended to follow rituals celebrating humanity’s existence as a part of nature rather than its mastery over nature.
One of the most common of this type of ritual behavior is the sacrifice, either of plants, animals, or even other humans. The purpose of the sacrificial ritual is not so much the appeasement of the gods but a proclamation of the unity of human life within the cycle of nature. The violence of the sacrifice should not blind us to the basic vision; that each individual is able to identify with both the object of and the administrator of the sacrifice- that life is finite and part of a continual process whereby the life of each successive generation continues from and because of the “cuttings” of the last.
After traditional myths lost their power to protect the environment many societies developed without regard to their resource base. The fall of Grecian civilization and that of Rome, as examples of the many, has been traced to the root cause of faulty agricultural practices. Some civilizations, however, were able to survive their careless practices for a time. In Mesopotania, for instance, empires were able to outlast the fertility of their soils by militarizing their society to harvest, not food, but plunder and loot. For centuries, Egypt also, was able to waste much of their fertility since its soils received annual infusions of nutrients washed down from the African highlands. The construction of the Aswan High Dam has brought a halt to this process of millennia.
Parallel to the changes in the relationship between society and its environment, new social relationships develop so that society can turn its expanding intellectual powers to controlling and profiting from the environment. Gradually the role of the priests and lords gives way to the rule of bankers, industrialists, and merchants. The masses freed from direct slavery are still bound in a relationship of exploitation between worker and employer. Although these new social relationships aid the development of technical knowledge and multiplied productivity, the majority of the world’s people still suffer from degrading poverty which cannot be explained by myths or a lack of “technical” prowess.
The adoption of hybrid corn technology or any other technology cannot be explained by a physical law, such as the law of diminishing returns. Technologies are selected or rejected according to how well they serve the interests of the privileged class.
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”
(Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Feuerbach: . . . , 1970).
“The ruling ideas of a period have always been but the ideas of the ruling class.”
(Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Berlin, 1953, p. 93).
“The class that has the means of material production in its control, controls at the same time
the means of intellectual production.”
(Karl Marx and Frederick Endels, Stuttgart, 1953, p. 37).
Myth: Farmers produce all the crops that they can (that environmental conditions and technology permits).
” . . . In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the removed effects of actions directed to this end, turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character; that the harmony of supply and demand is transformed into the very . . . opposite.”
-Frederick Engels, “The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”
Farms today are designed to grow but one product: profit. “Efficiency” in agriculture rests on one idea: “Does it pay?” Anything else one might hear is a myth.
A realistic measure of the “efficiency” of a system must be based on consideration of its over-all impact on the present quality of life as well as its long term potential consequence for the future. The development of a holistic perspective on agriculture, however, would be a totally novel experience for most Westerners.
Most people, if asked to name the industry which consumes the largest amount of petroleum, would not guess correctly. “U.S. agriculture is the number one customer of the petroleum industry.” (Earl Butz, director of Dept. of Agri.) Sooner or later (more ‘sooner’ than we would like to admit) society must (and will) pay the price for these resources; resources which represent many million years of photosynthetic activity occurring at least millions of years ago. Even allowing for the discovery of as much oil as has already been discovered, given the present consumption rates the world oil reserves will be 80 percent depleted by 2030 (Meadows, et al.,1972). How would we feed the 1.5 billion that now directly depend on food produced with the oil based inputs, much less make provision for the much expanded population levels demographers expect.
Yet, when faced with the ‘false’ choice between continued stagnation and the mythical promises of U. S. agricultural technology, most developing nations opt for the later. In fact,
“The emphasis on investment expenditure as a propellant of development, though misleading, is comforting. It absolves people, especially those responsible for policy, from considering the possibilities and costs of operating in the basic determinants of material advance. It encourages the facile belief that such advance is possible without the qualities, attitudes and efforts which it has required elsewhere- in other words, that economic development is possible without cultural change.”
(Peter Bauer, et al., 1966, p. 49.)
Myth: Large modern farms are more efficient (produce more food per area cultivated with less inputs) than small ones.
“A small proprieter . . . who knows every part of his territory, who views it with all the affection which property, especially small property, naturally inspires, and who upon that account takes pleasure not only in cultivating but adorning it, is generally of all improvers, the most industrious, the most intelligent, and the most successful.”
– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
” The history of agriculture in the United States is not merely sequence of larger and larger machines; it also represents the complete restructuring of society according to the needs of agri-business. For more than a century, government, business, and the universities have thrown their combined weight behind this restructuring. In place of families who grow their own food, we now have farmers under the control of processors or banks, wives standing in supermarket lines and workers risking their lives in pesticide factories or fertilizer mines.1
“We work, we consume, we live our lives so that business may prosper. Human needs, truly human needs are forgotten. Where is the pride in spraying food with poisons? Where is the joy in a supermarket? Where is the sense of accomplishment in the tedious routine of the modern factory? More and more the satisfaction of a job well done is enjoyed by the well-to-do. The ingenuity of the lawyer, the resourcefulness of the entrepreneur, and the power of the corporate rulers shuffling the wealth back and forth, but they do nothing to raise a single grain of food. Farming, like carpentry or music or any other skill (art), will suffer unless it can be enjoyed in a proper setting. The creation of a proper setting is the great challenge to modern society. Only when this challenge is met will we be able to speak ambiguously of efficiency in agriculture.” (Perelman, 1977)
“Frankly, I think the agricultural system we’ve been following is self defeating. We’ve been concentrating on an elite-but “trickle down” doesn’t work. As regards China: they have put every resource into farm development- to the extent of putting every research scientist into the field. And they are carrying the people with them. My question is: Can we come up with a system fast enough to keep this system from overwhelming us?”
-Sterling Wortman, Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation
To illustrate how scientific methods could revolutionize agricultural production in the Third World, Richard Bradfield, an agronomist working in the Philippines, demonstrated that a single acre of land was capable of growing two to four tons of rice, 10 tons of sweet potatoes, one ton of soybeans, plus 18,000 ears of corn and 6,000 pounds of soybean pods. This represents enough calories to feed 29 people and enough protein for 53 people for an entire year. The same acre also produced 13 tons of stalks, vines and leaves which could nourish livestock. Production could also be intensified still further by the placement of the manure into ponds which would yield at least a ton of fish per acre.
As significant as these yields are, the inputs of modern science alone are not sufficient for development. Technology is, of course, not neutral 2; affecting each social structure and class differently. The specific technology used by Bradfield may not be appropriate for Third World agriculture as he relied heavily on expensive chemical inputs. Nevertheless, his experiment does show that significant yield increases can be expected from the application of scientific methods. Inputs such as education, tailored to specific cultural dynamics, such as the concept of nutrients and their management as a integrated system (or a holistic “organic” approach to food production) could significantly increase yields over most indigenous production methods.
The lack of scientific work on plants specifically tailored to the needs of the Third World is a significant handicap, because the crops which form the basis of temperate agriculture have been selected and
bred to take full advantage of the concentration of photosynthetic activity during the four-to-eight month growing season of the temperate lands. Since many tropical lands have the potential of a year-long growing season, much of the research work which has gone into developing crops suited to temperate agriculture is not of much value for the farmer of a tropical environment.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that only about 45 percent of the potential cropland in the Third World is being cultivated. Besides land which lies idle or degraded, many people are idle as well. No technical genius is required to know that if these unemployed and/or landless peoples are given the chance to farm previously uncultivated land or to restore degraded land, they will increase the food production capacity in their region(s). Furthermore, significant increases in production are possible even without increasing the area under cultivation. If they could take advantage of the frequently confirmed facts that yields per unit area are highest on small farms and that industrial inputs are smaller due to a careful husbandry, then they would produce more food with fewer resources.
Increasing production from small farms will require land reform polices in many areas; its economic potential relies on appropriate political action. Land reform does entail an upheaval in social relations as the large landholders are made obsolete and unemployed and underemployed workers become productive and economically active.
The actual performance of small farms in the Third World are better than most official statistics would indicate. Crops grown for home consumption and the production for clothing, housing, and/or furnishings are often overlooked. The amount of labor required for small farm production (in terms of man-hours/days per unit area) are typically overstated, because the farm-family labor force most often includes children and aged workers who are not capable of the same level of productivity as the so-labeled “farmer”. Further overestimates of labor arise where farmers devote part of their labor to other employment(s), an extremely common occurrence.
Myth: Capitalism provides the necessary incentive(s) for production.
To expose the fallacy of the foregoing, the case of China’s success in food self-sufficiency is given. In light of their communistic system and that it is the most populus nation on earth, their success is a direct contrast to the many faceted failures of western technology
and the free-market system.
The Chinese have had impressive successes in agricultural production and in raising the standard-of-living throughout their society. Perhaps the most important of all the changes to their economy has been the success of the government in inspiring the people to work for the common goal of economic and social betterment.
The Chinese have discovered that raising the consciousness of the people is far more effective than adopting modern equipment or other inputs. In Mao’s words. “We pay chief attention to the revolution of man’s thinking and, through this command, guide and promote the work of mechanization and modernization.” As a result, the Chinese have been able to dissipate much of the mutual suspicion and distrust which plagued the traditional village.
The Chinese system is also paying unexpected environmental dividends. Although Marx had analyzed ecological mismanagement as a symptom of capitalistic social relations, most socialists forgot this aspect of Marxism until after the Chinese revolution. In China, the people are told that pollutants are nothing more than useful products for which no purpose has been discovered. They are asked to use their ingenuity to turn waste products into useful by-products. Also the Chinese are making great strides in recycling human wastes. The government estimates that human feces and urine together are capable of replacing an annual production of 10 million tons of ammonium sulfate fertilizer. This fertilizer is also superior to a corresponding amount of inorganic materials because of the additional elements that it contains. In traditional farming systems, manure is not a waste but a valuable asset. In China every possible scrap of organic material is run through the pig. What is not converted into pork becomes valuable fertilizer. They have also learned to extract silver and mercury from sewage, converting potentially harmful contaminants into economically useful materials. Pollutants from industrial smokestacks have also been turned into fertilizers. This emphasis on reusing “waste” products has transformed the country into a national recycling center. As a result, the Chinese have succeeded in building up stocks of resources, especially topsoil.
The phenomenal success of the Chinese is built on an environmental consciousness which contrasts sharply with that typical of profit-oriented societies. While other nations appoint commissions and hold conferences about the environment, the Chinese are actually building their natural resource base, and at the same time, they are recognizing the dignity of the workers who toil on the land. Here is the potential for Third World agriculture!
Myth: ‘Improved’ machinery and automation increases yields by reducing the work of production.
In a capitalist society, machinery is not introduced to save work, but to save labor. Labor is a commodity sold by workers, while work is a measure of the effort expended. As John Stuart Mills commented, ” Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.” In other words, machinery is not used to reduce the work of the individual, but to increase their production. The tractor can turn more soil than a person with a hoe, but the tractor is not used to make the job easier for the worker. Instead it is used to replace several other workers.
Worldwide, rising unemployment (and underemployment) is proof of a divorce between economic behavior and fundamental social and biological rationality. If machines were specifically adapted to help a society meet increasing workloads we would not witness million of unemployed each year as the result of mechanization (in industry as well as agriculture).
In reality, technology responds to what is termed “the law of supply and demand”. Nevertheless, “the law of diminishing returns” continues to be evoked to explain unemployment, poverty, and hunger, especially as it exists in the Third World. As the economy multiplies the number of unemployed, visions of “overpopulation” are conjured up to account for the malfunctioning of the economic system. We are returned to the disconcerting and dismal vision of Garrett Hardin and the lifeboats.
The Case of Africa: Preview to Global Realities
The crisis in food production and environmental disruption is at the most extreme and critical stage on the continent of Africa, yet the situation there, though more advanced there, is not unique. What is happening in Africa now has been the result of long-term cultural, economic and environmental exploitation. These disruptions are by no means confined to Africa. The level of success or failure that the world community has over the next few years in taming the consequences (effects) of Africa’s enviro-cultural disruption will perhaps determine whether or not man has the ability and/or will to reverse his negative global impact.
Unfortunately, while focusing needed attention on hunger in Africa, the news media has reinforced various myths about why such hunger exists. These myths keep us from addressing the real cause(s) of hunger. The remainder of this report will focus on these myths relative to Africa but the reader is asked to consider that similar, if not identical forces are at work in Asia, South America, the Indian sub-continent. Additionally, the foundations for similar ecological-based socio-economic catastrophe have been laid (and ingrained in the cultures of) Europe, Eurasia and North America. Unless we reverse the trends in motion, these cultures will face mounting cumulative effects not dissimilar from what is occurring in Africa today.
As a preliminary introduction, these myths are:
1. Drought is the main cause of famine in Africa.
2. African hunger is caused by overpopulation.
3. African governments bear the principal responsibility for declining food production.
4. The “free market” (capitalism) holds the solution to Africa’s food problems.
5. U.S. foreign aid is helping to feed Africa’s hungry.
6. Donating surplus American food is the best way to help alleviate hunger in Africa.
Myth : Drought is the primary cause of famine in Africa.
Although drought in Africa historically is of a cyclical nature, the recent frequency and severity of drought and its persistence has been caused by man’s meddling in the sensitive and complex mechanisms which determine local and world climate patterns. With self-perpetuating consequences to soils, health, and economics, drought (meteorological disruption/anomalies) in Africa has certainly helped to intensify the hunger, but poverty (denial/removal of opportunity) is the real and true cause of famine. It is only the chronically impoverished who suffer and die from effects of drought. Impoverishment in Africa has been several hundred years in the making.
As European countries colonized Africa, they disrupted African farming and herding systems which for millennia African’s had adapted to fluctuating (short- and long-term) environmental conditions. Ecologically balanced food systems were undermined; the best agricultural lands were seized for growing coffee, sugar cane, cocoa, and other export crops that benefited the tastes and coffers of Europe while mining the soils of their nutrients and taxonomies. Private and government investments were institutionalized for the develop of these cash crops, while food production for the poor majority was neglected entirely.
Colonial crops ravaged the soil, reducing large areas to desert and semidesert; a condition which has now developed into a self-driving engine of continental-scale desiccation. Millions of acres of brush and trees were, and continue to be, cleared thereby robbing the thin soils of organic replenishment. Export crops such as cotton, peanuts and tobacco absorbed large amounts of vital nutrients from the soil and after each harvest the soil was left bare and unprotected from the effects of mechanical and sheet erosion. Seizure of the best land for cash export crops not only degraded the environment and robbed these peoples of their ability to feed themselves, but it also forced many indigenous peoples to either work on the plantations or crowd into the cities seeking some potential for employment. This gave (gives) the plantation owners and other commercial interests a large labor force that could be paid low (some would say “slave”) wages, thus ensuring high profits.
Poor rainfall is troublesome for farmers throughout the world and can push people to the brink of famine. Where farmers and pastorialists have been made vulnerable by economic and political structures and large-scale ecological disruption, the majority are forced into chronic poverty while the few are “enriched”.
Myth Two: African hunger is caused by overpopulation.
Compared to other continents, Africa is not densely populated. In fact, ever since the slave traders ripped millions of African’s from their homeland, many areas have suffered from not having enough people to develop Africa’s abundant natural resources.
Only about one-fourth of Africa’s potentially arable land is now under cultivation (Overseas Development Council, 1984), and two-thirds of the remaining arable land in the world is in sub-Saharan Africa. (Eicher, C. K. and Baker D. C., 1982) A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that even with the current low levels of farm technology, Africa could support a population 2.7 times greater than the population of 1975. (World Development Report, 1984)
It is true that Africa’s population growth rate is higher than any other continent, but having large families is a logical response to the conditions under which most African’s live. On the small family farms, which produce most of Africa’s food, the most important factor of production is family labor. The high birth rate is, in part, the response by parents to fill this need for labor.
Although most Western economists are aware of the fact that population grow is essential to a capitalistic economy, few have the courage to admit it in light of the prevailing maldistribution of world food, resources, education, and resultant opportunities.
If capitalism requires, and therefore, fosters population growth, then why are much higher rates of population growth now found in the underdeveloped nations where elements of precapitalistic social relations continue to survive? The reasons are complex and varied, but mainly stem from the destruction of traditional systems of social and environmental relationships-thereby disrupting or even fully destroying the cultural methods and ecological systems of survival- including population control.
Common to cultures whom we, of the West, attach labels such as the “Third World”, “underdeveloped”, and “overpopulated”; is the absence of hope and fear alike, of ambition. They are conditioned to be contented to live on what will just support them. Many, if not most, of these cultures/societies have suffered from oppression and exploitation in one form and /or another and gradually their traditional customs and relationships have been lost, as has hope and ambition. As a consequence of this interruption or oppression, the majority of the people, have- by degrees- sunk deeper and deeper, both in relative and actual measure, into a degraded condition/environment. (A.M. Carr-Saunders, 1922)
The destruction of traditional social relationships has significant consequences to population growth, because the ensuing poverty is a sharp stimulus to the need for children. Families will continue to have children until they have a reasonable certainty that at least one male child will survive to maturity. Additionally, children make good economic sense to rural / peasant families. As well as ensuring pure survival (of the genes), children are also necessary to the continued survival of the parent(s) after they become too old to fend for themselves. In a sense they are, at once, the survival of the species, a labor supply, and the social security system. They are societies investment in the future. The more uncertain the future, the more the need for children.
Data from all over the world proves that the surest way to lower birth rates is to raise the standard of living. (World Development Report, 1984). If African parents were assured that their children would survive, they would not need to have so many. If parents could earn enough from their own labor, and were assured of support in their old age, they would see it in their own interest to limit their family size. The key problem is not too many people, it is too much inequality.
Myth Three: African governments bear the main responsibility for declining food production.
The forces that have institutionalized poverty and hunger in Africa are made up of African elites, multinational corporations, western governments, and international agencies. Together they form an ” anti-farmer coalition” who have, over the years, implemented policies that undermine food crop production. Prices paid to the farmers were and are kept artificially low, thereby providing cheap food for the new urban masses. This reduces the likelihood of urban unrest and allows urban employers to pay low wages.3 The peasants are too dispersed, poor, and unorganized to wield significant political clout. The fact that policymaking is dominated by men, while most of the food is produced by the women, also helps explain the low priority given to food crops. Additionally, the anti-farmer coalition directs most agricultural training and research, aiming most “development assistance” at the men.
Africa is a diverse continent with over fifty governments ranging from blatantly antifarmer to those genuinely trying to help the poor majority. But in every nation, it can be said that only when the majority gain control of their countries resources will we see an end to policies that systematically impoverish people by leaving them vulnerable to natural “disasters”.
Myth Four: The “free market” holds the solution to Africa’s food problems.
Most people fail to recognize that the world market economy is Africa’s worst enemy. Presently, most African economies are dependent on exporting minerals and agricultural products, but the world market prices for these raw materials have tended to stagnate or decline over time while the costs for manufactured imports has tended to ratchet ever upward. Prices fall, and a few giant transnational corporations such as Nestle and General Foods- together controlling over 50 percent of the Western market- reap the benefits. The world financial system is a greater cause of hunger in Africa than is the drought.
This deterioration in the terms of trade means that most African governments are forced to spend more in the world market than they earn. They have filled the gap by borrowing; cumulative debts having now reached the point where interest payments in the Sub-Saharan counties alone amounts to over $10 billion a year. This figure represents a payment of over thirty dollars per year for each man, woman, and child. The average per capita GNP for Sub-Saharan Africa is only about $376, which means on average that everyone in Africa directly or indirectly pays almost 8% of what little they gain in their struggle for existence to the major international banks in New York. If African governments were not so deeply in debt, they could buy more food on the world market. They would not be forced to wait for unreliable shipments of donated food while millions die and millions upon millions more suffer the disastrous effects of malnutrition.
Markets allocate food according to monetary wealth, not nutritional need. The six large corporations that control nearly 85 percent of world grain distribution (Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1985) are concerned only with profits and not with malnutrition. The small farmer is victimized by private and corporate speculators. These traders, both internal and external, buy up the food crops at harvest time when plentiful supplies push down prices. Later in the year, during what is termed “the hungry season”, small farmers run out of “savings” and are forced to borrow at astronomical interest rates from local financiers just to survive until the next harvest.
Even when the overall supplies are adequate, markets dominated by the wealthy speculators work against the majority of food producers. “The 1982 rains were poor in many parts of the Sahel, but private traders had large stocks of millet available throughout the year. But by June and July, Oxfam field staff were reporting that the poorer villagers were all telling the same story: they did not have the money to buy grain at the traders high prices. (Oxfam, 1984)
The Reagan administration claims that economic progress will be achieved if African governments refrain from intervening in markets. But the problem is not that African governments intervene in the marketplace, rather it is the way that they intervene: against the interests of the poor majority, in favor of the rich and powerful. Markets can be tamed to serve the interests of the majority, but this can only be achieved by governmental policies which are genuinely implemented in committed action for the benefit of the majority.
Myth Five: U.S. foreign aid is helping Africa’s hungry.
Either for purely humanitarian reasons or perhaps from a sense of quilt resulting from the disparate life conditions between the North and South, many in the rich North feel it is essential to “help” people in need. We must remember that food aid, at best, only treats the symptoms of poverty, not its causes.
Most importantly, food aid can and has undermine(d) local incentive for the production of food by artificially flooding local markets and depressing food prices. In the areas where food aid is distributed to the people free the farmers have no possibility to derive an income for the difficult struggle to nurture a crop from the earth. One cannot compete with food that is provided free and local initiative is severely repressed where more self-reliance is needed the most. Food aid can and has, therefore, create(d) a dependency on the donated food and has become an obstacle to real development.
Some recipient governments of food aid have even used it to manipulate the poor. A better known example of this is found in the Ethiopian government’s case, where food is used as a weapon, withheld from the people for political purposes. Much of the official food aid from the U.S. government is not even intended for the hungry. It is purchased by foreign governments, using money loaned by the United States and/or the World Bank and then is sold on the open market, which means that the poor do not benefit.
The concentration of U. S. aid on only a few countries shows that its objectives are strategic rather than humanitarian. Of all U. S. aid to Africa, two-thirds goes to Egypt; of the aid to the 48 Sub-Saharan countries, nearly half goes to just four (Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, and Liberia). These counties have about 12 percent of the Sub-Saharan population, and their governments do not follow policies favoring the majority, but they do have naval bases, CIA listening posts, or other strategic assets. (AID, 1985)
The U. S. government also uses aid as a political tool. In 1981, when the government of Mozambique expelled several U. S. officials for spying, the Reagan administration cut off all food aid, even though thousands were facing starvation. Reagan also slashed aid to Zimbabwe when the government differed with the U. S. on two U. N. votes dealing with the Soviet downing of a Korean airliner and the U. S. invasion of Grenada. While punishing these governments who have demonstrated a commitment to helping the poor, Washington lavishes aid on corrupt regimes such as that of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. Mobutu is perhaps one of the richest men in the world, yet most Zaireans live in desperate poverty, suffering from malnutrition, lack of health care and extremely high infant mortality. Despite his mismanagement of Zaire, Mobutu has received billions of dollars from U. S. banks and the U. S. government because this country has important (strategic) mineral reserves.
Nearly all U. S. foreign aid is directed to repressive elites who have enriched the few while further impoverishing the majority. U. S. aid money is used to strengthen their hold on power and therefore, U. S. aid is more likely to perpetuate (even promote) widespread chronic poverty rather than to eliminate it.
Myth Six: Donating surplus American food is the best way to help alleviate hunger in Africa.
The U. S. government, the media, the many church affiliated groups, and the “successful” musicians of the West have successfully directed our people’s attention to the giving of food
aid to Ethiopia 4. Unwittingly perhaps but nevertheless, this has diverted attention for the real problems and needs of Africa. It does nothing to solve the underlying problem of inequality and poverty.
Oh yes, aren’t we wonderful for giving our surplus to the poor- while we, through our economic and political institutions, continue to exploit and repress the peoples of the Third World. Isn’t it marvelous that “we” raised $70 million for famine relief during the rock music multi-media event of “Food First”- while the New York banks extract many billions and our government assures itself of continued sources of materials with which they build weapons for our ‘protection’. “The Need Continues,” as CARE’s Campaign for Africa promotions say- and “Famine is not a media event. It’s long-term suffering that doesn’t end when the camera’s stop rolling.”
Given the widespread misunderstanding about what is wrong in Africa, we need to educate ourselves about the real causes of poverty and famine. Only by taking active responsibility for what U. S. corporations and the U. S. government are doing to perpetuate inequality can we confront the causes of hunger in Africa. Working to end U. S. corporate and governmental support for South Africa’s white minority regime is one way we can directly put ourselves on the side of the hungry and establish in the minds of Africans (nay, the world) that democratic ideals are worthy of being upheld and of maintaining.
Myth: Myths are a characteristic of ‘primitive’ societies and are not institutionalized in contemporary western society.
We (the developed West) do have our own rituals and myths which govern social and economic behavior. For example, our money, banks, and account books are maintained at a (high) social cost by our myths of value, worth, and quality. The wars which we periodically wage are the rituals which serve the needs of our high priests in finance and industry. They are far more devastating than the spears and rocks hurled by “primitive” men and no-less penetrating to society than the sacrificial knife.
In “primitive” societies, the production of food (the maintenance of human life) although perhaps based in ‘myth’, can be said to be efficient, from the perspective of its members, because it teaches and requires the people about the harmony between human beings and nature at the same time as it reinforces the social relationships necessary to survival. In the so-called more ‘advanced’ societies, agriculture has been viewed as efficient because it produced good soldiers or good citizens. In the contemporary “advanced” nations efficiency is viewed as synonymous with profitability.
No matter how disruptive capitalistic productions methods may be to either society or to the biosphere, “farmers”(which includes the investors, processors, and marketers) in the U.S. are highly efficient in maximizing of profits. This system has developed because of our socially preserved myth that the quality in/of life can be determined
(measured) in quantitative terms. This myth provides the stimulus for careful apportionment of fertilizers, pesticides, labor, and other inputs to agriculture, according to relative market prices and economic rewards.
Like a tribal chieftain or highpriest, the marketplace “dictates” from myth and with ritual. If the market “dictates” the spraying of toxic chemicals, even through the effects be unknown, the toxins are perpetrated. The market “demands” the adoption of technologies which squander resources and hurl people into unemployment and abject poverty. When social benefits do occur, they are incidental to the mad rush for profit.
Additionally, there is widespread agreement that in any country where many of the people are starving, it is extremely difficult for democracy to grow (or exist) in a healthy fashion. In order to acquire and/or preserve ones individual sense of human dignity, liberty, and the right to pursue happiness, people must be satisfactorily supplied with food, clothing, and shelter. Therefore a communal approach to these common needs would, it seem, appear to be attractive on a rational level.
Myth that “democratic” capitalism equates to Freedom
We, in the U.S., are careful to preserve, as well, a Myth ( or illusion) of Freedom- that personal”freedom” is possible only from within a democratic society based in capitalism. We are all conditioned to believe that what is good for capital is good for society as a whole. This is the antithesis of the Chinese view of- what is ‘good’ for the society at large is ‘good’ for the individual. As in all existing and previous societies, the effectiveness of any or all social conditioning to a particular set of beliefs will disintegrate as people come to recognize that the present system of social goals and organization can no longer meet their individual or collective needs.
As the pending worldwide crisis in agriculture deepens, an ever expanding percentage of people will become prepared to search for an social system of improved social relationships and ecological sustainability. This reconstruction will not come about without struggle, sacrifice, or widespread turmoil, but because the stakes (the survival of man) are sufficiently high, come they will. As Karl Marx was fond of writing, “De te fabula narratur” [It is of you the story is told ]. (Karl Marx. Capital, 1906)
Myth: Rural peasants are conservative fatalists.
Quite the contrary, African peoples have repeatedly proven over the past several hundred years (not to mention pre-history) have demonstrated a willingness to accommodate change, an eagerness to improve their living standards, and the ability to adapt to changing environmental and economic conditions. Witness Africa’s many nomadic cultures which were developed because of and built upon changing environmental conditions. Witness the continued diversification cultural diversity and integrity despite slave traders, plantation owners, and other colonial inputs. How well have they held up? Better
than the tribal cultures on most other continents. How well will they maintain their integrity in face of multi-national corporate influences? Only time will reveal this impact, but indicators suggest that this influence they are willing to accept (adapt to) as well.
Because of the diversity of African cultures, it is difficult to make broad yet accurate generalizations. The historical use of generalization has generated a “graveyard of stereotypes” in common usage throughout Western societies. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify traits that may be distinctly African, although they may neither be limited to Africa nor be universal throughout the continent. African cultures do not fit the stereotype of the conservative, fatalistic peasant clinging to a traditional way of life and without hope of achieving improvement for himself or for his children. Rather,
as noted Africanist R. A. Le Vine notes:
“In nearly all traditional African societies with which we are acquainted, the pecuniary motive was well developed, and competition for wealth, prestige, and political power was frequent and intense. Individuals did (and do) strive to better their lot and that of their children, and in many parts of the continent they came quickly to see the possibilities for advancement in the trade patterns, schools, and bureaucratic institutions introduced by Europeans. Compared with the folk and peasant peoples in other parts of the world, Africans have been unusually responsive to economic incentives. Rather than thinking of Africans as tradition-directed people perpetuating an ancient and stagnant culture, we might more accurately regard them as pragmatic frontiersmen with a persistent history of migration, settlement, and resettlement of new lands.”
There are striking differences between ethnic groups in the nature of status and achievement that they consider worth striving for. Ethnic groups that are occupationally orientated measure achievement by individual economic performance. Others, that are politically oriented achieve status through playing a role in an authoritarian political system. Whatever the basis of achievement, there is in most African societies a cultural pressure to convert tangible wealth, however perceived, into intangible status symbols. This conversion may take the form of an elaborate funeral for deceased family members, of the taking of costly titles, or the acquisition of numerous wives. Although this conversion of wealth into prestige symbols is certainly not unique to Africa, the proportion of an individual’s wealth with which this is done may seriously limit capital accumulation and therefore inhibit economic development.