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Jaqueline Woodman

Presentation - BreadMatters I, Lublin, Poland


Poverty is preventable - Hunger is Political

Every year approximately 12 million children under 5 years old will die from poverty related illnesses. Preventable illnesses. The suffering of everyone of these children is real. The grief of their families is real. Their death is unnecessary. Poverty is preventable.


The agony of global poverty is perpetuated by an economic system designed to create and feed our insatiable hunger for things we don't need, and did'nt even know we wanted until advertisers told us we did. And it is endorsed, by the lack of challenge to the injust and exploitive practices and policies of governments and business. There can be no ethical defence for this injustice.

The growing mania for consumption has turned what used to be basic needs for the majority, into lifestyle choices for the rich minority. The pursuit of profits at the expense of people.

1.5 billion people live today in 'absolute poverty'; a term now used so widely that one could easily forget the terrifying of a mother watching her child die of hunger - preventable hunger. The fields that once fed the people who worked them are now used to grow cash crops for export; to feed the great God of the bottom line; the profit imperative. Bread and other basic needs are now commodities driven by the market laws of supply and demand. Society must now serve the economy, where once the economy served us. It is obscene. It is indefensible.

My goal is not demonise the market or productive enterprise; it is to promote the sane and humane application of these tools for the benefit of society. When society ceases to have an economy and starts to be an economy, this is a society that has lost sight of common sense. When did 'the market economy' become so defied that we must subordinate all social, cultural and human aspirations that do not serve the pursuit of profit?

We have been saturated with the message that market economies bring democracy and prosperity, and yet that hunger and poverty are somehow inevitable. We may have pity, we may feel compassion but we do not think of poverty as an abuse of human rights whose consequences can therefore be prevented. The emphasis placed on lecturing the rest of the world on civil and political rights by western capitalist democracies may have many motivations, but one of it's consequences is to obfuscate our own failure. Failure to address the abuse of the fundamental human rights of the 1.5 billion people who are living in absolute poverty.

The consequences of the rush towards global economic integration are epitomised by the drastic distortion by agricultural priorities. basic food crops, which used to feed those who planted them, are now replaced by higher value export products. Fields of wheat become fields of flowers, cut for export to adorn tables of excess. This is the market logic that economists call the efficiency of specialisation. Those that tend the fields call it hunger.

The consequences are ominous. In just a few years, Asia will be dependent upon rice imports from other regions. The insanity of market logic.

For small farming households in developing countries, food security used to be relatively straight forward; you reap what you sow, eat what you harvest and trade your surplus. in recent years the market has intervened. poor farmers must now sell what they plant and buy what they eat. This may be efficient for "The Market" but it is not efficient, equitable or humane for society as a whole, nor for the individuals whose livelihoods are destroyed by the process. The logic of unregulated capitalism creates rotting food mountains in a world of plenty, while it starves the poor through lack of access to even the most basic food staples such as bread.

The irony of free trade is that it isn't free at all. It is inherently biased. OECD countries subsidise their agricultural industries by $300 billion annually, increasing their share of income from a global trade and primary products by $70 billion annually during the 70's and 80's. During the same period the developing countries share fell by $70 billion annually. The rich got $70 billion more; the poor got $70 billion less. The developing world doesn't need charity - it needs equity.


The alternatives are not, on the one hand, unrestricted trade growth, and on the other centralised government control. Market economics with strong and enforceable regulations can lead to growth and prosperity shaped by society as a whole. Western success after WW2 was not based on 'free' markets; the growth was dependent on strong regulatory frameworks administered by democratically accountable governments. But now that it has served it's purpose for the industrialised countries, the regulatory frame work is being rapidly dismantled in the pursuit of economic liberalisation - free trade.

We need balance. We need accountability from our decision makers, both in business and in government, and we need regulation to ensure benefits accrue to the majority, not only the wealthy minority. Strong, democratically elected governments need to set and enforce rules to ensure the market is socially productive. And we, the members of society, need to provide a strong and politically active civil society, which holds its decision makers accountable

It is true that the problem of poverty is monumental in scale, but it is also true that political action can and does make a difference. Our responsibility to our fellow man should not be lightly discarded. I once received a letter from an aid worker in Africe; he described a woman walking toward him, the last metres of what must have been a long and harrowing journey. When she reached him, she placed a paper bag in his hands and walked away - without word or gesture. Inside the bag was her dead child.

How weary do we need to be not to do whatever we can, so that one less woman need feel that type of pain, that suffering, and eventually, that resignation. We need to fight for a society which holds governments accountable, and regulates trade and financial markets for the benefit of people. The level of needless suffering in today's world is an undeniable outrage. Yet the solution is one of simple common sense - people before profits. Bread and the basic staple foods that it represents are a political issue. Hunger is political. The eradication of poverty is not a question of ability or resources - of these we have ample. It is a question of choice.


©   Jacqueline Woodman - June 2000


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