Mark Steel: If the poor of Africa are hungry, send them arms
Published 18/06/2008 | 10:57
It's so difficult, apparently, to work out how to solve the food shortages in Africa. Because the price of food has just gone up, the way prices do sometimes, caught by a freak gust of wind or flare from the sun or something and whoosh, up they go, whether it's oil or an Olympic Games or rice and it's just bad luck.
Combined with the growing population, it means there's no simple way of stopping millions of people starving. But fortunately the same laws don't apply to other essential items, such as arms. That's why you never get reports saying: "What with the booming population and rising prices, there just aren't enough weapons to go round.
"The crisis is so deep there are now allies of America without access to a single cluster bomb, and in one region of the Congo warlords have to share one flamethrower between two. Charities have sent out truckloads of Tomahawk missiles to Uzbekistan but the queues of government officials go back across the hills, and the fear is that for some this shipment may have come too late."
And aid programmes require summits lasting several days, followed by statements about tying aid to trade deals, that begin: "You don't solve the problem of hunger simply by giving people food."
So while getting food to the hungry seems impossible, there has been a 37 per cent increase in global arms spending in the past 10 years, which raised last year's tally to $1,204bn. Those of you who don't understand economics might wonder why there can't be an agreement to only spend $1,203bn instead, then wander round Sainsbury's buying a billion dollars' worth of food and take it to people who are starving, especially as Sainsbury's currently have a special offer of a free box of Shredded Wheat if you spend a billion dollars or more.
It's arguable there isn't a food shortage at all. According to the World Hunger Education Service, there are now 17 per cent more calories produced per person each day than there were 30 years ago. The problem is that, for example, in India, while 48 per cent of children under five are malnourished, in 2004 they exported one-and-a-half-billion dollars' worth of rice to meet trade agreements.
But instead the most common solution offered is that Africa has to attract the free market, and then trade itself out of hunger. Kofi Annan, on Monday's Newsnight agreed with this, in his amiable helpless way. There was no alternative, he said, to attracting Chinese trade, regardless of their human rights records or whether that trade will encourage the dictators they trade with. Because that's what the starving need – people who are prepared to make a few quid out of them.
The only flaw is that these people are already the ones who've wrecked the place. In Nigeria entire villages were uprooted to make room for Shell Oil. In Tanzania the water supply was sold off to a consortium, which spent a huge chunk of Tanzanian public money and was so disastrous even the World Bank kicked them out. In South Africa tens of thousands were left without electricity after privatisation.
But the more chaos these companies cause, the more we're told they're the only answer. Maybe that's how these companies advertise, with little boxes in the Yellow Pages that say "Balfour Beatty – making disaster come faster". Or they send out leaflets that say: "Not long ago no one had heard of the Shanto region of Ethiopia. But since Unimax Ltd. forced the farmers to make cheap coffee for export, many inhabitants now feature regularly on Christmas charity videos! Unimax – we put the star into starvation."
What a depressing argument it is, that help can only be attracted if it promises to make multinationals a fortune. No one else is expected to think like this, to see dying children and think: "Hmm, I would help out, but what's in it for me?"
Maybe there should be a special edition of Comic Relief for businessmen, that goes: "Well you all saw that harrowing film presented by Lenny Henry, and since that was made, eight of those children have died of Aids. Which is why it's vital that you ring right now and secure the rights to provide water to the place. Because the World Bank have forced the country to sell off its supply and you'll make a PACKET, but if they're all dead they won't be able to pay so it will be too late. Now here's Gaby with a man dressed as a giraffe who'll tell you how to make 3 million quid buying mangoes from Uganda and selling them straight back to them again."