The political economy of developing societies
Theme Seven: Population, Urbanization, Poverty and Hunger
Lecture 7.- Is the world overpopulated? Population growth
and economic growth. The barriers to human
development in developing societies. The role
Lecture 7a.- The political economy of food. The political
economy of poverty. Are famines the outcome
of lack of food production or lack of access
Seminar 7: What are the main interconnections between poverty,
urbanization and population growth in developing
R. Rojas, Notes on urbanization in developing societies
R. Rojas, Notes on economics: about obscenities, poverty and inequality
J. Hammond, Famines: myths, media and misunderstanding
K. Watkins, The Oxfam Poverty Report (excerpts)
From Links 22, September 1985
Interpretations of famine are often confused and shrouded in myth. To
start our investigation of the causes of famines, Jenny Hammond isolates
and explains some of the most common myths.
FAMINES: MYTHS, MEDIA AND MISUNDERSTANDING
The scale and complexity of the problems of the Sub-saharan food crisis
are compounded by the partial diagnoses and oversimplified perceptions
of northern media and aid agencies over the past year. The Western
response to the famines will be dealt with later in the magazine in Mary
Wright's analysis of the role of publicity and the media. But it might
be helpful at this point to examine some of the prevalent
misconceptions. Myths are powerful, especially when they operate not
only in the minds of the general public but also in those in a position
to influence future developments.
MYTH ONE: THE ETHIOPIAN FAMINE
It isn't only Ethiopia. The public have been protected from knowing the
full scale of famines and food crises in Africa and in the rest of the
world. The countries of the Sahel, Mozambique, Kenya, Bangladesh, as
well as the Horn of Africa are suffering desperate food shortages,
famine and migration.
MYTH TWO: FAMINE IS A ONE-OFF NATURAL DISASTER
Even the word 'famine', with its Biblical associations, suggests an Act
of God. This is convenient, because it absolves people from
responsibility. Famine cannot be regarded in isolation from the long
chain of economic and political cause/effects of which it is the end
product, and no solutions that do not address these causes will be
effective in the long-term. The dilemma is that relief work, however
necessary, treats famine as a natural disaster and can not only obscure
the real problems, but entrench them.
Neither should famines be isolated from each other. Unfortunately they
are not so exceptional as we are encouraged to think. The long list of
famines in the Sahel mentioned in the article on pastoralists were the
result of French exploitation of land for their own profit; the famines
in Tigray over the last hundred years, cited by Besserat in her
interview, were the consequence of Amhara domination. British
exploitation caused many famines in India, and in Ireland about a
quarter of the total population lost their lives in the Irish potato
famine even as grain was exported to England.
The statistics of famine as Disaster help to make invisible the real
cost in human lives. In contrast, Amartya Sen diagnoses three phases
of the Great Bengal Famine. It is usually thought of as lasting from
March to November 1943, the period of acute starvation. This is only
phase II of Sen's analysis. It is preceded by Phase I when "the economic
distress that paved the way for the famine had already gripped a
substantial part of the population". The death rate only reached its
peak in fact in Phase III, when the most acute period of starvation had
passed, but when epidemics were raging in a famine-devastated country.
This brings us to question whether it is meaningful to distinguish
'famine' from routine starvation. If we look at the average life
expectancy rates of some of the sub-Saharan countries, we find the
Burkina Faso 44
Where disease and death at such a rate is associated with low
nutritional levels and where it is only the poor who die of famine,
isn't it a false distinction? There is an invisible famine going on all
the time, which erupts into Western consciousness only when journalists
happen to witness more people than usual dying at the same time.
MYTH THREE: FAMINE IS CAUSED BY DRAUGHT
No it isn't. Rainfall has always been erratic in sub-Saharan Africa. The
rural poor have only become vulnerable to drought since their
traditional strategies for dealing with it have been disrupted. In any
case, not all famines are associated with drought. Besserat describes
'green' famines in areas of Tigray where military campaigns have been
timed to prevent sowing and harvesting.
MYTH FOUR: FAMINE IS CAUSED BY ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION
Famine is frequently blamed on overcultivation and overgrazing. Loss of
land to soil erosion and desertification is serious. It is the poor,
peasant farmers and nomadic pastoralists, who are most evident in the
destruction of resources as they overtill the soil and strip the trees
for firewood or forage.
From the perspective of the rich nations it is comfortable explanation
to make the poor responsible for the destruction of their environment
and therefore their own poverty and starvation. Environmental
degradation is not the CAUSE of famine, but occurs half-way through the
process. The farmers and herders have managed their environment
successfully for thousands of years. The article 'Peanuts and
Pastoralists' examines this relationship and shows how they have been
forced by commercial interests to undermine their environment.
MYTH FIVE: THESE AFRICAN COUNTRIES ARE OVERPOPULATED
It is self-evident that famine is the result of an imbalance between food
provision and population. To then conclude that population should be
reduced, smacks of a 'final solution'. Much of the discussion of
population growth RATES occurs without reference to population DENSITY
which, in the sub-Saharan countries, is 16 to the square km (of course
much less in rural areas). This can be compared to 100/sq. km. in China,
where there is an average life expectancy of 67, and 225/sq. km. in
India, life expectancy 56.
"Population data in sub-Saharan Africa is based on incomplete censuses.
In some countries census results have been politically manipulated.
Nigeria, which accounts for 25% of the region's total population, has
not had an undisputed census since 1952. Its population is now
variously estimated at 80-100 million. No national registers of births
and deaths exist and age data is unsound. A World Bank report
estimated that 52% of SSA's population was working age, i.e. 15-65, in
1979. The Population Reference Bureau, in a 1982 publication, puts
this group as nearer 45%. Agricultural labour force statistics are
particularly unreliable. They are a residual figure, arrived at by
deducting those known to be in the 'modern', i.e. wage earning,
sectors and those estimated to be engaged 'informally' in trade,
crafts, services, small industries, etc., from the total population
of working age. Those still in education are often forgotten in these
calculations. Figures for production per capita, or for production per
labour unit, are therefore doubly flawed, based on unreliable
production figures divided by unreliable population figures."
(ODI Briefing Paper, May 1984)
All statistics for population, food production and consumption in Africa
are notoriously inaccurate. (See table)
NIGERIA, PRODUCTION IN 000 TONS, 1980
Source Maize Cassava Groundnuts
Nigerian govt., 4th plan, 1981-85, Lagos 1330 6660 180
US Dept. of Agriculture, World Indices
of Agric. & Food Production, 1981 1720 14800 400
FAO, FAO Production Yearbook, 1981 1550 9167 600
(ODI Briefing Paper, May 1984)
But it still serves the turn of racist analysts to base assumptions on
them. In some areas an average density of 6/sq. km. is the OBSTACLE to
any kind of development. Add to this the pressures of poverty which have
driven many of the younger able-bodied men to migrate in search of work
leaving women to do all the work on the land.
The problem is not absence of food in these countries, but no
entitlement to what is there. "The Ethiopian famine (of 1973) took place
with no abnormal reduction in food output, and consumption of food per
head at the height of the famine was fairly normal for Ethiopia as a
whole" (Amartya Sen). Only in Wollo was food output substantially
reduced and they had no ability to command food from elsewhere.
Another way of looking at the 'population problem' is to look at the
balance between populations and CONSUMPTION of resources. We find that
the 'developed' world consumes 80% of the world resources, many of which
are being exported from the Third World, including food from Ethiopia,
and the Sahel.
MYTH SIX: AFRICAN COUNTRIES HAVE 'GONE TO THE BAD' SINCE INDEPENDENCE
This is really two myths. The first presupposes that the colonies were
fairly and efficiently administered; the second suggests that
post-independence African governments are incompetent and to blame for
food shortages. Both are Eurocentric misconceptions.
Colonialism had a negative impact on agricultural production by forcing
peasant farmers into the cash-crop economy for European profit. Third
World countries have become increasingly dependent on a handful of
cashcrops and on the metropolitan buyers of their produce.
In some areas famine became endemic as so much of the best land was
switched from susbsistence to export crops. Today in the era of 'neo-'
or economic colonialism, the pattern of food production is much the
same. Colin Hines' article on agribusiness examines in some detail the
problem of corporate exploitation of Africa. Most Third World people are
largely agricultural but have little or no power over the land or their
Some governments, like that of the recently toppled Numeiri of Sudan,
identify their interests very closely with the West; others, like the
Dergue in Ethiopia, with the USSR. Some have genuinely striven to free
themselves from the worst aspects of economic domination, but mounting
debts for energy and imports constrain them further into the global
economic system and give them little room to manoeuvre for food
self-sufficiency or radical change. Some governments are as repressive
as their colonial predecessors.
MYTH SEVEN: INCREASED FOREIGN AID WILL SOLVE THE PROBLEM
Most British aid is tied to British goods and services, contracts for
British firms and salaries for British personnel. Many multilateral aid
projects (e.g. those financed by the World Bank) are large industrial
ventures which favour the towns at the expense of the 80% or more who
are the rural population.
Agricultural investment goes almost exclusively to the development of
export crops. Food aid has been shown to have more to do with dumping of
grain surpluses than with solving problems of hunger. It has been
damaging in two main ways: first, it tends to undermine indigeneous food
production and destabilize internal markets. Second, it establishes a
taste for imported foods which creates dependency and add to import
MYTH EIGHT: DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS HELP
It depends what you mean by 'development'. There are small-scale
projects worked out in consultation with agricultural communities which
look promising. However the smallness which makes them successful also
means they will have little impact on the scale of the problem.
Many development projects have ignored the cultural context of the
communities they were supposed to help. Perhaps the worst example of
this has been the disruptive effect of not perceiving the important role
women have played in subsistence agriculture in many African countries.
Eurocentric development officials, assuming their own cultural norms to
be general and that all heads of households and decision-makers are men,
have proffered development aid to men only. This has ignored the
traditional role partnership in which men had responsibility for cash-
cropping and women had control and management of their own fields for
subsistence and for sale. Development emphasis has led to land passing
out of the subsistence sector to cash crops. There are many who think
the displacement of women in African agricultural systems has seriously
contributed to famine.
MYTH NINE: THE PROBLEMS ARE INSOLUBLE
The problems in Africa are the results of political and economic
decisions by human beings. They are capable of solution. Africa has the
land and resources to feed its people and more. Its major resource is
its rural farmers, and until they have access to their own land and
control of its management, food production is likely to continue to
decline. In the northern countries, there is a failure to perceive the
wholeness of the problem and to recognise the links in the complicated
chain of causes of food deprivation.
The problem is power, and the mechanisms in northern societies and in
all of us as individuals to obscure the operations of power, in case
that would lead to changes which would affect us all. Why is it, against
all the evidence, that most Western commentators continue to ascribe
famine only to the most expedient causes? It can only be fear of the
restoration of resources without which a future for the African people
is not possible. In Eritrea, Tigray, the Cape Verde islands, in Burkina
Faso and Niger there are hopeful signs, of very different kinds, of an
Africa for Africans.
END OF BOX 1__________________________________________BACK______________
From K. Watkins, THE OXFAM POVERTY REPORT, Oxfam, 1995
Economic growth is imperative if poverty is to be reduced. But the
distribution of wealth is as important as its creation. At an
international level there is a gross maldistribution, with the
structures of world trade and finance supporting and increasing
concentration of wealth in the industrialised world.
In 1960, the richest fifth of the world's population living in the
industrially advanced countries, had average incomes 30 times greater
than the poorest fifth, living in the developing world. By 1990, they
were receiving 60 times more. (3) Calculating real purchasing power
differences, as the International Monetary Fund now does, reduces the
disparity -but it is still greater than 50:1. (4)
While it is true that the Third World is not a homogeneous bloc, in that
some countries, notably in East Asia, have increased their share of
world income, the poorest countries are falling further behind. The
poorest 50 countries, mostly in Africa, have seen their incomes decline
to the point where they now account for less than 2 per cent og global
income.(5) These countries are home to one-fifth of the world's people.
THE PERSISTENCE OF POVERTY
Developments within countries have mirrored the trends in the
international economy, with the poorest sections of society becoming
increasingly marginalised. In most developing countries, the poorest
fifth of the population share between them, on average, little more
than 5 per cent of national income, while the wealthiest fifth claim
Nowhere in the developing world are the contrasts between poverty and
national wealth more striking than in Latin America and the Caribbean.
While average incomes are six times those in Africa, some 200 million
people live in poverty. Inequalities are widening across the region.
Despite its financial crisis, Mexico has achieved one economic
distinction: it has the world's fastest growing number of billionaries,
with 13 in 1994. (6) The combined wealth of these individuals is more
than double the combined wealth of the poorest 17 million Mexicans,
whose share of national income is falling.
More generally, while the middle an upper classes of the region enjoy
living standards comparable to those of the industrial world, millions
of families -from the Altiplano in Bolivia to the slums of Peru and
Brazil- are no better off than sub-Saharan Africans. Almost one million
children in the region die each year from causes which are largely
preventible, and another seven million are malnourished.(7)
Left unchecked, poverty will continue to claim victims on a growing
scale. On present trends, the number of people living in poverty could
rise to 1.5 billion by 2025. In South Asia, home to the world's largest
population of poor people, the proportion of people living below the
poverty line is falling, but the absolute number is rising. Sub-Saharan
Africa is a special source of concern because poverty is increasing not
only in terms of the total numbers affected but also as a proportion of
By the end of the decade, the ranks of the 218 million Africans living
in poverty will have swelled to 300 million, with the downward spiral
in human welfare indicators likely to continue into the next century.
Sub-Saharan Africa is now the only part of the developing world in which
infant mortality rates are rising and literacy levels falling. For
Latin America, growth patterns imposed on the region's grossly unequal
social structures offer a future of increased marginalisation for the
CHANGES IN THE PERCENTAGE OF THE POPULATION LIVING IN POVERTY
1985 1990 2000
Latin America and the Caribbean 25 22 25
Middle east and North Africa 31 33 31
Sub-Saharan Africa 48 48 50
South Asia 52 49 38
East Asia 13 11 4
The tendency towards increased poverty and inequality is not confined
to developing countries. In the United States an additional four million
children fell into poverty during the 1980s, even though the wealth
generated by the country's economy expanded by one-fifth.(8)
By 1992, child poverty affected 22 per cent of all children, and infant
mortality rates for black children were more than double those for white
children.(9) In the European Union, the number of people living in
poverty grew from 38 million to 52 million between 1975 and 1988.
Several countries experienced a dramatic increase in poverty and
inequality. (10) For example, until the mid-1970s, income inequality in
the UK was in steady decline as economic growth increased general
prosperity. However, over the period 1979-1992, the poorest quarter of
the population failed to benefit from economic growth. As a result, the
proportion of the population with less than half the average income has
trebled since 1977. Today, 12 million people live on less than half the
average income, more than double the number of 1979; and the number of
individuals living below the poverty line has increased from 5 million
to almost 14 million. (11)
THE 'CULTURE OF CONTENTMENT'
Of course, poverty in the industrialised world is not in the same
category as poverty in the developing world, being measured in terms
of relative deprivation rather than absolute want. However, the
willingness of governments in the world's richest countries to tolerate
the exclusion of so many people from an acceptable way of life at home,
speaks volumes about a wider indifference to poverty.
Writing about his own society, the American economist JK Galbraith has
described a 'culture of contentment', in which governments representing
a prosperous majority are willing to maintain an economic system which
disenfranchises a large 'underclass'.(12)
The enjoyment of prosperity for the contented majority is disturbed only
by a continuing threat of 'underclass' social disorder, crime, and
conflict. The role of the state, in Galbraith's account, is becoming
similar to that of a security firm, containing social tensions within
urban ghettos at minimal cost.
The alternative of raising taxes to address the underlying causes of
social marginalisation, is ruled out on the grounds that it would
alienate the prosperous majority upon whom re-election depends. Yet it
is in this tension between security and the suppression of the
'underclass' that Galbraith identifies a force for change. He writes:
"The age of contentment will come to an end only when and if the adverse
developments that it fosters challenge the sense of comfortable
Most people in the industrial world will find a resonance between
Galbraith's sobering description of US political life and their own
experience. While the majority of people in most industrial countries
have attained levels of affluence which would have been unthinkable even
20 years ago, insecurity has also reached record levels. Drug dealing,
inner-city crime, family disintegration, mass unemployment, are now all
aspects of everyday experience.
The most immediate costs are borne by the poor, but there is a deep and
pervasive sense of society breaking down in a manner which threatens
everybody. There is also a deepening sense of unease at the social and
moral implications of allowing poverty, homelesness, and widening
inequality to destroy the lives of vast numbers of people, and at the
waste of human potential caused by poverty. The ethos of the 1980s, when
the pursuit of individual advancement was presented as a form of
inadvertent altruism, is now questioned both on grounds of self-interest
and out of moral concern. The new ethos of enlightened self-interest was
reflected in one recent report on inequality in Britain, which
"Failure to reintegrate (the) excluded minority into the mainstream
of society will leave the well-to-do majority with a heavy price to
pay in terms of increased public spending, wasted economic resources
and social dislocation."(14)
The challenge is to extend this enlughtened self-interest and moral
concern to the international stage and to developing countries. There,
too, a culture of contentment is much in evidence. Northern governments,
which control the governance of the world economy, are content to
tolerate and maintain trade and financial structures which concentrate
wealth in the industrialised world, while excluding the poorest
countries and people from a share in global prosperity.
For their part, most Third World governments have their own culture of
contentment. They maintain systems of income and land distribution which
exclude poor people; they concentrate public investment in areas where
it maximises returns to the wealthy and minimises returns to the poor;
and all too often they waste vast sums on armaments, creating military
machines which are as impressive as their country's human welfare
indicators are depressing. One aim of Oxfam's campaign is to build a
bridge between citizens in the North and the South who are working to
challenge the forces which deprive people of their rights at local,
national, and international levels.
(3)United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), "Human Development
(4)International Monetary Fund, "International Financial Statistics",
(5) Oxfam, "Africa: Make or Break", 1993.
(6) 'Latin America Survey', THE ECONOMIST, 13 November 1993.
(7) UNICEF, "Annual Report 1994", UNICEF.
(8) UNICEF, "The State of the World's Children 1994".
(9) Children's Defence Fund, "The State of America's Children's
Yearbook 1994, pp. 2-5.
(10) House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities,
"The Poverty Programme", HMSO, London, 1994.
(11) On poverty and inequality in the UK see Joseph Rowntree Foundation,
"Inquiry into Income and Wealth 1995", Vol. 1; Glyn A and Miliband
D "Paying for Inequality: The Economic Cost of Social Injustice",
Rivers Oram Press, 1994; Oppenheim C "Poverty: the facts",
Child Poverty Action Group, 1993, chapter 2.
(12) Galbraith JK "The Culture of Contentment", Penguin, 1992.
(14) Joseph Rowntree Foundation, "Inquiry into Income and Wealth",
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