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The profits of famine: Southern Africa's long decade of hunger

Raj Patel with Alexa Delwiche
Food First Backgrounder, Fall 2002
Volume 8, no. 4

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At the end of September, Colin Powell requested an altogether earthly intercession from Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister. The Secretary of State wanted the Vatican to persuade the Zambian government to accept U.S.-supplied genetically modified (GM) food aid. With a population under 10 million and with the vast majority of people earning under $1,000 a year (1), Zambia is a mouse that has roared. In refusing to accept U.S. GM corn, and by dealing with its famine by sourcing grain from within the region, the Zambian government has sent a clear signal that it understands both why famines happen and that U.S. aid is part of the problem, not the solution.

By the end of 2002, a little under 15 million people will have faced starvation in Southern Africa (2). Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are among the most severely affected. Thus, while the U.S. State Department blames the Zimbabwean government for the famine there, that explanation is clearly inadequate to account for a famine that has affected the entire region.

For a meaningful explanation, we need to understand what a famine means, and put it into the context of a phenomenon that has affected the entire region--structural adjustment. How to Define a Famine Definitions of famine run a gamut? The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, declares a famine when "the severity of critical malnutrition levels exceed 15 percent of children aged 6 to 59.9 months" (3). The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines famine as "an extreme collapse in local availability [of] and access to food that causes [a] widespread rise in mortality from outright starvation or hunger-related illnesses" (4). These definitions focus on the threshold a situation crosses in order for chronic hunger to be officially declared acute. But this threshold is essentially arbitrary. For example, because rates of acute malnutrition have remained stable in most Southern African countries, the WHO has not yet declared a state of famine in every country. Mike Davis, who has written on famine in recent history, points us away from this sort of threshold thinking: "We must acknowledge that famine is part of a continuum with the silent violence of malnutrition that precedes and conditions it, and with the mortality of the shadow of debilitation and disease that follows it" (5). Famine does not arise spontaneously with the failure of a harvest season; rather it is the outcome of a system that places greater importance upon the market than upon those going hungry.

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