Foreword to "Ill Fares the Land"

01 December 1983

Foreword to Ill Fares the Land: Essays on Food, Hunger, and Power, by Susan George, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, 1984

There is food in plenty, yet millions suffer from starvation and malnutrition. Hunger, the most unnecessary and intractable of human afflictions, continues to plague millions of human beings and to kill some 40,000 of them daily, mocking the efforts of two Development Decades and three World Hunger Years. This somber reality forces all who choose to see to understand the inadequacies of conventional wisdom concerning the causes and cures for hunger. Over the past decade, beginning as one of the organizers of a path-breaking report on world hunger issued at the 1974 World Food Conference, Dr. Susan George has been central to a small group of courageous scholars who have challenged reigning development shibboleths. Today, their ideas find increasing acceptance among all serious students, if not yet adoption by the development establishment.
Their first efforts were devoted to de-constructing the prevailing assumptions on hunger, demonstrating their empirical inadequacy and their hidden political assumptions. For example:

  • Hunger is caused by over-population. But as Susan George and her colleagues established, in country after country, food production can exceed population growth and hunger may still increase. Moreover, the concept of over-population assumes that someone has the right to define the measures of 'adequate population', foreboding prerogative to be held by the distant powerful.
  • Hunger can be alleviated by food trade and assistance. Since the United States spends billions each day to bribe its farmers not to produce grain, many humanitarians believe that the United States and other grain exporters should simply feed the world. Yet, as Susan George demonstrates, humanitarian aid may be both necessary in emergencies and dangerous in duration.
    Dependency on food imports - either by purchase or by grant - is a precarious addiction for any people. Popular tastes in food are changed; indigenous skills are lost; local production undermined. And then when the supply is constricted-because prices rise or generosity lessens-withdrawal can be painful indeed.
  • Hunger is a scientific problem, which can be alleviated by technological innovation. The technical fix is still the dominant school in aid circles. Transferring pieces of the high production US model-high-yield seeds, post-harvest technology (the current fad)-are said to increase production and offer the promise of ending hunger. But decades of technological fixes have had one rather consistent result: even where production has been increased, hunger has been its partner. As Dr. George, details, the US 'model' is wholly unsuited for most underdeveloping countries (and may be increasingly difficult to sustain in the United States itself). The transfer and promotion of technological solutions tends to increase inequality of power and wealth, concentrate land and resources in the hands of the few, displace the many. The result too often is more production by the few of crops which the many cannot afford to buy. Increasingly, the world witnesses countries in which one-third to one-half of the population is needed neither for production nor for consumption. Starvation is oneend which awaits them.

The technological fix has a macroeconomic twin in the global economy. Development aid, international monetary assistance, transnational corporate investment are all geared towards integrating Third World economies into a global market. Country after country is encouraged to develop export industries - often in commodities - to gain the resources necessary for development. With few exceptions the results are -deplorable: the best land is devoted to export crops and exported at prices controlled by others. An increasing portion of the foreign exchange earned must pay for food for consumption, also imported at prices controlled by others. When commodity prices drop, financial credits decline, imports must be reduced. The result is of ten starvation.

The second task of Dr. George and her small group of colleagues has been to outline an agenda for research and action to reconstruct an alternative knowledge about hunger. Hunger, they conclude, is a political problem, a problem of power and will. Scholars should study the poor less and the powerful more, seeking to find ways to lessen their power. Rather than enlist elites into a global modernized growth sector, countries might better find ways to empower the majority to increase their own resources. Hunger is a product of poverty, but if poverty is to be alleviated, systems of power and privilege will have to be challenged.

In this area, of course, Susan George's writings are the most prophetic and the most controversial. Elites do not generally sponsor challenges to their privilege. lt does not pay scholars or development officials to challenge the powerful. Such temerity results in decreased budgets, insecure tenures, a drying up of research funds. Few have accepted the risk.

The result is that the same patterns are repeated over and over again. This year the Reagan Administration seeks $8.4 billion in economic assistance for Central America. its stated purpose is to stimulate export-led economic growth. Central America is to become the Singapore and Philippines of the West. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the region, however, is struck by the parallels with John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress. There, the Cuban revolution raised a national security' concern with revolution in the hemisphere. There too, economic assistance and reform was to be accompanied by counter-insurgency and military aid - a 'shield' behind which growth could occur. There too, economic aid was to foster export-led economic growth. In Central America, the growth of the global economy and the assistance of the United States led to unprecedented economic growth rates in the late 1960s and 1970s. In Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, the result was the elites grew dispossessed of the small plots of land they cultivated; thousands were uprooted to cities where no employment was to be found. Political repression quieted their protests, until revolution once again swept the region. Now the same tragedy seems likely to be replayed.

This ignorance is not accidental. If scholars and development officials do not feel free to challenge the powerful, they will do little to transform the lives of the powerless. It is the extraordinary service of Susan George's insights and passion to expose this inescapable truth.