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Dan Silverstein

Dan Silverstein

Posted: September 29, 2009 12:30 PM

Two award-winning Wall Street Journal reporters, Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, have collaborated on a new book entitled Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. It is a page turner. Unless you simply don't give a damn, this is a must read, and it is a must read now.

It's reality literature at its most compelling; the printed word's descendant of CBS TV's "You Are There" series which transported its viewers to seminal moments in history. Thurow and Kilman's narrative seamlessly covers time and place from the first stirrings of humanitarian concern by nations of plenty for people impoverished by natural disasters and man-made frailties. It reveals how lives of abject poverty intersect those with a deep dedication to their well-being to render both quite extraordinary.

The "What's In it for me?" Syndrome
But, it also reveals something sinister. They explore how rich countries cynically enable the downward economic cascade that traps the developing world in an unbroken cycle of despair as food aid and developmental aid are offered and withheld to suit the needs of the wealthy. The list is long; and it is disturbing.

Ethiopians die of thirst literally on the banks of the Blue Nile River whose headwaters are in their country. But, they can't touch it because Egypt, where the Nile River ends, won't allow anyone to interfere with its water flow. The American government, needing every friend it can find in the Middle East, supports Egypt's refusal to allow a life saving dam on Ethiopian land, and is willing to sacrifice millions of Ethiopians if necessary.

Ugly Americans
And then there is Ghost of Christmas Past, former Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers, whose 1986 legislative gift keeps on giving. Bumpers authored an amendment making it illegal to provide agricultural assistance if there is even a remote possibility of another country competing against American agribusiness. It ignores the benefits that could accrue to both sides if the US was more expansive in its generosity with technical information.

It doesn't stop there. Thurow and Kilman track with astounding clarity how a malevolent "Iron Triangle" impoverishes populations by demanding that food aid be provided only as food and not as cash that can support local economies. American farmers who depend on government purchases of crops at subsidized prices make it impossible for small stakeholder farmers to compete; so they starve. American shippers benefit from a mandate that 75% of all food aid be transported on American ships (adding an estimated $200 a ton to the cost of grain, so less food is delivered).

Even more despicable are the complicit food aid agencies whose existence is leveraged into the legislative protections that prevent cash aid. Reducing the amount of aid delivered as food would take their best player out of the game, so they take a crooked path to saving lives even as it becomes clearer that more food will not solve the problem alone.

But, worse than the Triangulates are religious hypocrites who posture self-righteously about moral values while coldly supporting the perpetuation - and even expansion - of provisions in the Farm Bill that distort world commodity markets to the advantage of bloated American agribusiness while trapping a billion people in desperation at the bottom of the pyramid.

Walking The Walk
Is there any hope? Sure. Bono, the rock star, tours churches, truck stops and meeting halls throughout the Mid-western states preaching Matthew 25:35 and discovering that Americans are often as good hearted as advertised. Jim and Linda Rufenacht of Archbold, OH rally their neighbors in support of a tiny organization called the Foods Resource Bank. Their whole town pitches in and saves people in Kenya in the name of Christian charity. Conservative Republican Alabama Congressman Spencer Bauchus "gets it" that debt forgiveness plays a critical role in rescuing struggling economies and courageously provides moral leadership in urging Congress to agree.

Eleni Gabre-Madhin, a dynamo, passionately forges the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange which gives farmers the opportunity to trade at world prices, store grain, hedge against price volatility, insure their harvests, buy better seeds and, finally, enjoy food security.

Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme innovates the "Purchase for Progress" initiative in which donor nations combine food with cash. Cash underwrites robust markets, discovers realistic pricing, builds economies, creating an upward cascade that leads to civil stability, better health and education, and eventually the ability to consume goods and services from the outside.

TNT Group's CEO recognizes its value in advising WFP on the logistics of emergency food deliveries and saves lives while stimulating other multi-nationals to join the fight against world hunger.

Outrageous Behavior
Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Laureate, accepted the peace prize in 1970 with the admonition that failure to alleviate famine would amount to criminal negligence. Despite progress, too many of us stand guilty as charged forty years later.

Thurow and Kilman hope to inspire and outrage their readers. Evidence indicates they have. The book's editor called Thurow at one point and started the conversation saying "I'm infuriated." "What's the problem?" he asked as gently as he could. "Nothing's wrong with the manuscript," she said, "But I'm outraged at what we are doing to the people in Africa. How could we let this happen?"

This is a professional reader concerned about commas and periods and whether any phrase has been repeated too often. Yet, somehow through the fog of punctuation, her nostrils were filled with the stench of duplicity and hypocrisy, making it clear to her that expressions of concern for those who teeter every day on the line between life and death don't pass the smell test.

 

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