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Theme Song for 21st Century Famines: "We Own the World, We Ignore the Children"

Let the Children Starve

by ZEYNEP TOUFE

“The situation in Zimbabwe hit you guys hard, I suppose” said my neighbor to the young woman who had just sauntered out of the customs area at the airport. She was from Malawi, he was trying to make small talk about the famine ravaging her country. She was resignedly nodding till he mentioned Zimbabwe.

With a puzzled look, she squinted in his direction: “What?”

As usual, we hear a lot about the side issue and almost nothing about the fundamental questions: hence the puzzling remark.

She probably didn’t know that a good chunk of the media coverage in the United States regarding the famine that threatens six Southern African states and 12 million people concentrated on the fact that Zimbabwe’s government is trying to oust couple thousand white farmers from the most of the productive lands, most of which they control as a legacy of the white supremacist colonial rule. The truth is that this is but a side issue; the evictions haven’t helped the harvest; however, the hard reality is that rainfalls are down 75 percent in Zimbabwe. And Zimbabwe is but one country threatened by the famine.

While it is true that this famine, as with most famines, is the result of a combination of bad weather and bad policies, the real tragic story is that both the bad policy and the bad weather were severely exacerbated by the rich world.

That would be us.

It often seems that God perennially deals a bad hand to Africa. Remember Ethiopia in the eighties? The massive famine that came at the end of an almost ten year drought, the images of starving, wide-eyed, swollen-bellied children with the accompanying tune of “We are the World, We Are the Children”?

The song should be remade: “We Own the World, We Ignore the Children.”

It’s turning out that the Africa’s ‘bad luck’ is us.

Some scientists now believe that the Ethiopian drought in the eighties may have been triggered by “tiny particles of sulfur dioxide spewed by factories and power plants thousands of miles away in North America, Europe and Asia.”

In other words, pollution from industrial nations.

The current drought cycle is also quite likely aggravated by global warming and the general change in climate patterns due to human activities. In the report released last year by United Nations Environment Program, “Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” UNEP scientists predicted that, in terms of droughts, southern Africa would be one of the hardest hit areas from global warming and industrial pollution. The report talked of a ‘century of hunger’ and predicted that ‘lack of rain, warmer temperatures and increases in evaporation could reduce yields by a third or more in these areas.’

Africa’s share of the global population is 14 percent but it’s responsible for only 3.2 percent of global CO2 emission.

It gets worse.

Probably unbeknownst to my neighbor in the airport, Malawi, under the ‘advice’ of IMF, World Bank and other international lenders and donors, was forced to cut fertilizer and maize subsidies to its millions of subsistence farmers. The lack of subsidies made it hard for poor farmers to buy fertilizer and seeds — and subsistence farmers constitute almost 70 percent of Malawi’s population. Meanwhile, back at the ranch in the rich world, farmers are heavily subsidized. The 2002 Farm Bill in the United States will provide $190 billion in new subsidy money over the next 10 years to US farmers, which constitute only two percent of the population — and most of that money will go to the wealthy, corporate agribusinesses. European Union too heavily subsidizes its own farmers.

None of that for Malawi.

And, as Challis McDonough of Voice Of America reported, most farmers in Malawi could not borrow the money to buy fertilizer and seed since the interest rate on loans from commercial banks were incredibly high, about 55 percent.

My neighbor in the airport waiting lounge was probably also not aware that just two year ago, Malawi had a bumper crop and wanted to keep a chunk of in its strategic grain reserves to guard against famines.

The insolence.

Countries such as Malawi do not get to make their own policy, with the best interests of their people in mind.. This little country with an annual per capita income less than $200 and a life expectancy of 38 (yes, thirty eight, 3-8 as in two times nineteen) already owes $1.5 billion, about 90 percent of its GDP, to various financiers.

Malawi’s President Muluzi gave an interview he gave to BBC on April 9th, 2002. In the interview, Muluzi explained that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank “insisted that, since Malawi had a surplus [of maize] and the (government’s) National Food Reserve Agency had this huge loan, they had to sell the maize to repay the commercial banks.” The ‘huge loan’ had been taken to establish the reserve. Its repayment meant that the maize in the reserve was sold off. Why was this done at all, you might ask. I didn’t do the research, I don’t know. However, I do know that a familiar pattern is well established with IMF bail-outs and loans and Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiatives and what not — quite likely, some bank in New York, Paris, London Zurich or Tokyo made some money from the transaction itself with commission, interest, consulting fees…

So, onward, they starve.

This is the weekend of IMF / World Bank protests in DC. One of the key demands is ‘to cancel all impoverished country debt to the World Bank and IMF.’ IMF and the World Bank as well as most governments of the rich world are opposed to what they call debt forgiveness, mostly claiming that it breeds irresponsibility. They have come up with various schemes that are supposed to provide some debt relief while providing accountability — most of these schemes have so far required that these countries take on fresh debt.

I, too have a proposal about debt forgiveness: let’s cancel the debt and hope they find it in their hearts to forgive us.

ZEYNEP TOUFE is a doctoral student in Austin, Texas. She can be reached at zeynep@tao.ca