Sunday, April 13, 2008

Why are the IMF and the World Bank worried about hunger?

Let's be clear about this: the IMF and the World Bank are not humanitarian organizations. They are global economic development and financial management organizations.

So why are they worried about surging food prices and global hunger? Global food riots and social unrest destabilize global economic development.

If people with low blood sugar are crabby, starving people can be seriously unruly. Facing a life and death situation, unruly people riot and call for revolutionary change to the status quo. This can impede global economic management and development.

Explanations for the current hunger crisis include: over population, food crops being used for fuel, drought, inflation, more people eating meat leading to higher grain prices etc.

At the risk of being reductionist, let me suggest that greed, fear and cognitive dissonance are the real culprits. Greed drives speculation in commodities and currencies. Greed makes people hoard. Greed keeps those who have more than they can possibly use from sharing with those who have nothing. Greed makes multinationals seek the cheapest possible labor in the remotest corners of the earth. Most people on earth subsist on what we consider pocket change -- maybe $2 bucks a day. They make our clothes, consumer electronics, and children's toys.

Fear keeps people who have something from identifying with those who live on nothing. It is too frightening to think you could be that person eating clay, salt and vegetable shortening in Haiti. It is terrifying to think you might not be able to feed your kids as they plead doubled over with hunger pains.

Cognitive dissonance and denial are the other culprits. Do you really deserve to eat while others starve? Does anyone deserve to starve? Chubby, overfed Americans love to hear that we are the greatest nation on earth. Indeed, manifest destiny still rings true for many. We are uniquely blessed and chosen by God. Our grocery stores are jammed with food from around the world because God loves us more. We eat up the gospel of guilt-free abundance preached by new agers and fundamentalist Christians alike. Don't be ashamed of God's blessing, they say. God wants you to prosper. God wants you to have more and more.

Might God also want you to share your bounty with those angry mobs suffering low blood sugar, unable to purchase basic food stuffs like corn and rice and beans halfway round the globe?

If we're fat and happy and feel entitled, why question policies that have brought about another world hunger crisis affecting people elsewhere? Why look into global development policies that lock poor people into cycles of debt and greater poverty? If we're too worried about filling our gas tank, we probably won't spend time worrying about people in India, Egypt, and Senegal filling their stomachs (let alone people in our own backyard).

In a global economy, hunger is largely a political problem. We seem to lack the will to eliminate hunger because it would require rethinking everything and making profound structural changes to global economic systems that are byzantine and hidden from our daily experience. Sadly, hunger seems something to be managed not eliminated.