Hunger: a capitalist plague

Submitted by Anon on 6 December, 2004 - 9:31

Thirteen million people watched the Band Aid video on TV on 18 November. Half a million are expected to buy the CD of the song in the first week after its release on 29 November.

The song is a 20th-anniversary remake of the first version of “Feed the World”, and, like the original, produced by star musicians to raise money to help starving people in Africa.

The first version was made because of a famine in Africa. The money from this version will go towards food aid for the Darfur region of Sudan.

But can bandaids heal the wound of world hunger? Colin Foster argues not.

Between 1985 and 2004 the Band Aid Trust spent $144 million on famine relief in Africa. Better the money was spent that way than in buying extra mansions or luxury cars for the musicians. But the sum is very small in relation to the resources required to end world poverty, and almost vanishingly tiny in relation to total world or even British income.

The UK’s national income is around £1000 billion, or $1900 billion, a year. Worldwide, the 587 individuals identified as billionaires by Forbes magazine own a total of $1900 billion in personal wealth, quite aside from the collective wealth of the corporations, banks, foundations, and so on that they control.

It would take a one-off investment of some tens of billions of dollars to set up access to food, drinking water, education, and health care for everyone in the world. To maintain regular nutrition, clean water supplies, and sewage for the vast numbers of people who do not have them now would cost about $15 billion a year.

Those are huge amounts compared to Band Aid, and tiny amounts in relation to the resources of world capital. The $15 billion a year could be paid for just by reversing the tax cuts given to the rich since the 1980s in Britain alone, without troubling the fat cats in any other country.

But the fat cats keep the cash, and the poor get poorer. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 46 countries have a lower income per head on the latest figures than they did in 1990. In 25 countries, more people go hungry today than a decade ago.

Worldwide, 1.1 billion people live on less than $1 a day. 830 million people do not get enough food, or enough of the right sorts of food, to stay healthy. Almost ten million people die each year because they do not get enough to eat. 1.2 billion do not have clean water. Richer countries do give development aid to poorer countries, at the rate of something over $50 billion a year. Yet that aid does not fix up poverty.

Why? Because the problem is a system of class power, not arithmetic. The aid business is shaped and limited by the priorities of profit.

Both efforts like Band Aid, and official aid, are like efforts to carry dribs and drabs to the poor in small buckets while the vast economic forces of capitalism are siphoning torrents away to the rich. Capitalism is about making the rich richer: that is the basic drive of the whole system.

It also tends (though unevenly) to make rich areas richer, and poor areas poorer. To invest, and even to pay passable wages, in the richer countries, makes capitalist sense: you have large consumer markets at hand; a tremendous advertising industry to sell your products; rich governments to give you contracts; skilled, healthy, well-educated workers ready to sign on; and high-quality supplies, spare parts, repairs, ancillary services, and communications instantly available. But to invest in allowing children in the poorest parts of the world to grow up healthy and educated? There’s no profit in it.

The answer is not complicated, but it is radical. The organised working class — the only force that has the power, interest, and drive to do so — must establish conscious human control of the wealth of the fat cats, of the great multinational corporations, of the international banks and financial institutions, and of landed property everywhere.

There is no need to nationalise every small business, or establish a detailed central plan for the whole world economy. Conscious, collective, human control over the major investment decisions will do, for a start.

Where the rural areas are dominated by huge landholdings, the landless poor should all get a plot of land, and the quipment, the technical training, the credit, and the access to supplies and markets to enable them to cultivate it. Every village and every shanty town should be supplied with clean water, sewage, roads, public transport, phone lines, electricity, a health centre providing free care, a school, an industrial training centre, and small-scale light industries, whose products should be protected from the competition of the big corporations. Local workers should be trained in building skills and supplied with the materials necessary to build decent housing.

In the richer countries, too, like Britain, there will be much to do to restore the principle of the welfare state and to extend it so that everyone is guaranteed (within the limits of what science can do to keep us healthy) a secure and comfortable life.

The economist Amartya Sen has noted that: “One of the most remarkable facts in the terrible history of hunger is that there has never been a serious famine in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press”. That is true, even though all Sen means by “democratic government” is the very limited parliamentary sort of democracy we have in Britain today. A genuinely accountable democracy, a working class democracy, with all representatives and officials on workers’ wages and subject to recall, would ban not only famine but any sort of material poverty.

We only want the Earth

Global capitalism and the environmental crisis

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