Hunger, Politics and Ideology: How To Create Famine

Mankind has just endured another cataclysm. In the last two years, an estimated one-half million humans have perished in quiet misery on the tortured grasslands of Africa. And, tragically, despite an avalanche of attention and concern, most of the world has failed to recognize the simplest truth about the event: The deaths were needless, entirely avoidable, indeed — the famine was in large measure man-made.

And here’s an even sadder fact: Because we have failed to understand the political roots of contemporary world hunger, because we are blind to the brutal patterns of recur­rence, because we refuse to read aloud the signature on modern-day famine’s calling card, it will return again. Soon.

By one estimate there have been 750 significant famines since 4000 B.C. For most of his history, agricultural man has been at the mercy of blights, descending insects, immoderate weather, and soil exhaustion. At an average of every eight years, considerable numbers of men have lost their lives to these vagaries.

But those kinds of conditions no longer need threaten life. Humans have developed a whole range of hybrid seeds, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and planting and tilling techniques to avoid catastrophic crop failure. They have learned to irrigate and rechannel water. They have discovered how to conserve soil and rotate crops. (These things can be done in a technology- or a labor-intensive way. They need not be expensive.) And, of course, for the worst cases, man has developed a whole series of storage, com­munication, and transport mechanisms so that when disaster does strike, outside relief can prevent starvation.

By these various means, most of the peoples of the world keep nutritional want well at bay. But in some regions obstructions have prevented efficient and dependable methods for producing and distributing food from taking hold. In almost all cases today, these obstructions can be traced to one root: politics. The heavy hand of the state is prominent in nearly every famine that has occurred for most of this century.

When food production is subjugated to political and ideological ends, the result is inevitably depression of the nation’s agricultural output. In the most extreme cases, the results can be viciously destructive. The Ethiopian famine was the most recent example of this, but there are many others.

In 1929 the Russian Revolution was little more than a decade old. Josef Stalin had just solidified his position as head of the Soviet Union and was consolidating control of the world’s first — at that time, only — Communist state. Most of the simple peasant farmers who made up the bulk of the Soviet populace had been able to resist major changes in the rhythm of their daily lives. Many of the traditional pat­terns of tillage and husbandry, worship in the village church, and communal and social life continued as they had for generations.

But late in 1929, Bolshevism finally settled on the Soviet countryside for good. During the winter of that year Stalin ordered the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, and tens of millions of small landholders were dispossessed and forced back into communal servitude for the first time since the great Serf Emancipation of 1861. But this time they were indentured to the Communist Party rather than to a landlord, and they were organized for political, not economic, purposes.

The collectivization of agriculture was combined with a murderous program of liquidation aimed at “enemies of the revolution.” These were defined to include the more prosperous peasants (labeled kulaks) as well as members of certain national groups that Stalin found threatening — par­ticularly Ukrainians, but also others. The result was a violent disruption of rural life throughout the Soviet Union, the destruction of agriculture in what had been Europe’s breadbasket, and the death — absent natural disaster — of perhaps 10 million people, mostly by famine and forced labor.

The famine was thus one part a failure to understand economic incentives, one part state pogrom, and one part simply a product of central-planning idiocy. (The entire staff of the state meteorological office was arrested and charged with false weather forecasts at one point.) In all cases, however, the direct responsibility of the Communist govern­ment for these deaths is clear. Authorities carried out a vigorous campaign of grain confiscation even at the height of the famine. “Bread Procurement Commissions” probed barnyards and thatched roofs with thin sticks, searching for and seizing any private grain stores. The starving were bodi­ly prevented from leaving the famine zones, and were transported back when discovered in cities. News of the famine was suppressed, and when it trickled out nonetheless, offers of food aid from foreign nations were refused by Soviet leaders.

In his memoirs, Winston Churchill tells us Stalin admit­ted to him that instituting collectivization took “7 or 8 million Kulak lives.” Stalin used induced famine as a political tool later in the 1940s as well. Some believe these acts carried out by the Soviet political leadership against the “socially obstinate” among their own people — along with other Soviet incidents like the machine-gun slaughter of 10,000-15,000 Polish prisoners at the Katyn forest in Western Russia in 1940 — helped inspire Adolph Hitler’s subsequent experimentation with genocide. In any case, the 1929-1933 famine death total of 9-10 million must be viewed in light of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s chilling estimate that, since Lenin, 66 million Soviet citizens have been put to death by their own rulers for political reasons.

If there was a lesson in the Soviet collectivization famine, it was lost on their socialist brothers in China. Soon after gaining power, China’s Communist rulers divided the peasantry into four major categories. The first were landlords, who owned more than 8 acres of land and did not work it themselves. Next were “rich” peasants, who owned 5 or 8 acres and farmed it themselves. The third category were the middle peasants, who owned 1.7 to 5 acres. Last were the poor peasants, who owned less than 1.7 acres and were mostly tenant farmers. A June, 1950, reform law con­fiscated land from the landlords and rich peasants and distributed it among the smallest holders. Estimates put the number of landlords and rich peasants slaughtered in the process at between 16 million and 28 million.

The confiscations were barely completed when a new program was unveiled. Lands continued to be privately owned, but they were grouped into agricultural cooperatives. Ten million existed by 1954. At the end of 1956 these were further centralized into 700,000 collective farms, containing virtually all agricultural families. Over the next two years, the remaining private ownership of land was ended, and when the Great Leap Forward came in 1958, the 700,000 collective farms were grouped into 25,000 com­munes. Farmers became simple wage earners. Not only all work but also eating, child raising, and other private func­tions were communalized. Social control by the central government was virtually complete. Incentives for agricultural production disappeared.

At the end of the 1950s, China’s annual grain produc­tion totaled 270 million metric tons. In 1960, one year after the Great Leap, the figure was kept secret, but it is estimated to have fallen to 150 million tons. It did not exceed this level for a decade. Some farm decentralization has since taken place, but even today, agricultural yields are below pre-collectivized levels. Current Chinese yields of rice per acre are only about 40 percent of those in Japan. And despite official and academic propaganda to the con­trary, famine remains a common part of life in much of rural China. (See, e.g., Steven W. Mosher, Journey to the Forbidden China.)

As might be expected, there was catastrophic famine in China during 1960-61. It is now calculated that an in­credible 25-30 million people died of hunger in a two-or three-year period. The similarities with Stalin’s collectiviza­tion famine are manifold: part class warfare, part bureaucratic bungling, all driven by a determination to subordinate even life-sustaining production to political goals. The Chinese case demonstrated that revolutionary utopianism could be every bit as deadly when combined with coercive power as the insecure cynicism which animated the Soviets.

But news of the Chinese famine was completely sup­pressed. It was only recently that the world learned China experienced a famine at all 25 years ago. And only in the last few years, when outside observers draw inferences from demographic data, did the catastrophic scale of the loss become clear. Indian scholar Amartya Sen, in The New York Review of Books (Dec. 16, 1982), has drawn the ap­propriate conclusion:

In India even a fraction of that death toll would have immediately caused a storm in the newspapers and a turmoil in the Indian parlia­ment, and the ruling government would almost certainly have had to resign. Any government keen on staying in power would have had to avoid such starvation deaths from taking place at any cost. Thus the question of food and starvation is not unrelated to the issue of liberties, of newspapers, and ultimately, of democracy.

A look at worldwide famines since 1960-61 bears out the accuracy of this observation. In 1968 famine was in­duced in Nigeria as part of the Biafran war. The Nigerian military government (non-Communist) destroyed and

poisoned food supplies, blocked relief, and wielded starva­tion as a weapon. The Biafran rebel government also in­terfered with aid efforts. A political famine was created in which up to a million Nigerians perished.

After its fall in 1975, there was (as predicted) a blood­bath in Cambodia. Doctrinaire Communists under Pol Pot inaugurated a homicidal regime of “re-education” and “mobilization” throughout the country. Residents of Phnom Penh and other cities were forcibly relocated to undeveloped parts of the countryside. The predictable pattern of confisca­tions, collectivizations, and, purges wracked the agricultural economy. Starvation was soon rampant. Two million of Cambodia’s 8 million citizens died in subsequent months, many of starvation.

The more recent events in Ethiopia have followed a standard terrifying pattern. A Communist military government takes over with the usual manifestations of state ag­grandizement and private confiscation, and wages war on its internal opponents by all means available, including especially the withholding of food. Mass undernourishment and death result.

Ed Hullander of the U.S. Agency for International Development has put it clearly:

The famine in Ethiopia is not particularly a matter of a quantum increase in population; it is a quantum decrease in agricultural production. Fif­teen years ago when I was in those high plains, I saw corn that was the envy of Iowa. You don’t see that today. It was the policies that stopped agricultural production, stopped the availability of food per capita, that were the major precipitants of the famine we have today. (Are World Population Trends a Problem?, American Enterprise In­stitute)

When the latest of Africa’s regularly recurring droughts arrived, those destructive agricultural policies bore bitter fruit.

In all three of these major famine cases, the starvation was alleviated only when Western democracies rushed in emergency food donations. In all three cases, state authorities manipulated relief supplies to their own advan­tage, and to the detriment of the hungry. And in all three cases, the national regime’s responsibility for the famine was clear, yet even now fatuous observers insist on ascrib­ing the Ethiopian famine to population pressures or deforestation or desertification or any of a host of other natural phenomena.

It should be noted, however, that the scholarly debate on population, hunger, resource and development issues has shifted dramatically in recent years. An emerging revisionist school has successfully agreed that there is little scientific evidence tying population growth, for instance, with either food shortage or long-run economic hardship. Very often, academics are now acknowledging, population growth and alleged resource limitations are used as scapegoats by na­tional leaders whose own economic and political mismanagement are the more immediate causes of underdevelopment.

So long as the international penalty remains so light, the political creation of famine will undoubtedly continue. In fact, it continues at this very moment, notably in Afghanistan.

According to a recent report by Helsinki Watch, the Soviet Army in Afghanistan is now waging war not only on military opponents but “on every element of the food pro­duction system.” The Soviets are poisoning wells and destroying irrigation systems. They are cutting down fruit trees and strafing cattle and domestic animals. Grain is being burned in fields and granaries with phosphorous bombs. Gardens and terraces are being bomb-cratered and mined. Wheat berries brought in from Pakistan are the only nourishment for many Afghans, and British studies suggest that 20 percent of all children in the northern provinces suf­fer from serious malnutrition. Of course, the International Red Cross is forbidden from distributing aid in the coun­tryside by the Karmal regime. The London-based Afghan Aid group has warned that at least half a million Afghans face death through starvation this year. If they avoid that fate it will very probably be only because they leave the country, surrendering to the process that has made one out of every two refugees in the world today an Afghan.

Having failed to identify these famines as the cruel and avoidable events they are, the world is, not surprisingly, blind to the subtler forms of political hunger. Most of Africa, and some other parts of the Third World as well, are currently in the grip of ideological processes which, while less nefarious than those operating in China, Ethiopia, and the Soviet Union, also have deadly effects. The African malfeasance is not as dramatic, but it is equally unnecessary, and it is creating slow-motion misery across an entire continent.

In many Third World countries, governments have so stultified their rural economies they are unable to produce anything efficiently. This is often a two-fold process. On the other hand, legitimate government functions such as the maintenance of roads and infrastructure and the disburse­ment of technical assistance are neglected. And on the other hand, a whole series of taxes, tariffs, marketing orders, sub­sidies, and regulations often distort the producer price system to the point where markets cease to operate effectively.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the nature of the problem is to contrast the experiences of Kenya — one of Africa’s rare success stories, with those of Tanzania, a quintessential failure. The two nations have a long common border and are climatically and topographically similar. They share several common ethnic populations, and their pre-colonial and colonial histories were closely intertwined. In fact, from 1920 to independence in the early 1960s, the two countries were administered together as part of British East Africa.

But upon independence, Kenya and Tanzania took widely divergent political paths. Under Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya explicitly rejected large scale nationalization and the confiscation of private property. The national slogan became “Harambee” (“self-help”), and private ownership and in­dustry were strongly encouraged. It-was -argued that in­dividual enterprise was the best way to eliminate poverty. Indeed, it was each citizen’s responsibility to be enterpris­ing. Progressive taxation would be used to narrow gross in­come disparities. Kenya blundered into some of the destruc­tive policies common in newly independent Africa — for in­stance, persecution and expulsion of the Asian immigrants who are Africa’s leading agents of modernization. But the overall economic program was liberal and market oriented.

In Tanzania, Julius Nyerere became a leading advocate of full African Socialism. Banks and industry were na­tionalized, compulsory government service was introduced. Nyerere’s politico-economic philosophy was based on what he called Ujamaa (Familyhood) Socialism. This was the idea that Tanzania should be transformed from a nation of in­dividual peasant producers to a society of small-scale com­munalists. Here we have a classic shibboleth of political left­ists and utopian purifiers everywhere. To quote a European proponent: “It [has] not been understood that the reform of farming should begin with the reform of man.”

According to the plan of a 1969 presidential direc­tive, the Tanzanian makeover was to proceed as follows: Government officials were instructed to encourage the growth of cooperative production, marketing and distribu­tion. “Communal rather than private expenditure patterns” were the goal. The “advantage of living together and work­ing for the good of all” was to be emphasized, and measures were to be taken against “the continuance of private in­dividual farming.” Nyerere was no tyrant, and aside from some forcible relocations to remote Ujamaa villages, the program was generally carried out without gross human rights abuses. Just the same, the result was misery, impoverishment, hunger and death.

As mentioned, Kenya’s development has not been flawless. But its performance has been so far superior to Tanzania’s as to allow some clear conclusions on the merits of their respective strategies for feeding and producing for their citizens. Some basic indicators: Over the period 1965 to 1983, GNP per capita rose 2.3 percent a year in Kenya, but only .9 percent in Tanzania. Both Kenyan agriculture and industry greatly outstripped their Tanzanian counterparts. Life expectancy at birth is now six years higher in Kenya than in Tanzania, the infant mortality rate is 17 percent lower, and the secondary schooling rate is nearly 7 times higher. (And when extended drought arrived in the early 1980s, Kenya — with its sensible development base — was much better prepared for its hazard than most African states.)

All this despite the fact that Tanzania was a darling of the international aid community for most of the last decade — receiving $2.7 billion in assistance from 1973 to 1982, nearly all in grants, not loans. (In many cases in the develop­ing world, easy Western aid has merely expanded the role of the central government in the recipient country, and sub­sidized the continuance of uneconomic practices. In some sub-Saharan African states, outside aid donations per person amount to one-third to one-half of personal per capita in­come, giving new meaning to the term dependency. More discriminating aid-giving policies are clearly called for. Above all, aid must not become a substitute for internal reform, and it ought to be viewed as strictly transitional — to be given only for a limited period, during which time a na­tion would be encouraged to take the steps necessary to achieve economic self-responsibility.)

The keys to agricultural production, like all production, are structure and incentives. First structure: In Kenya, the fertilizer, seed, and farm equipment businesses are all private. The supply of chemicals to farmers is provided part­ly privately, partly by the government. In Tanzania, all four of the critical agricultural, puts are under the control of the government. Centralized control of this sort simply is not ef­ficient; certainly not in nations as short on skilled public ad­ministrators as are the countries of Africa.

Then there is the matter of incentives, the biggest problem in African agriculture today. Economists use what they call the “terms of trade” to measure whether producers are getting more or less over time for their productive ef­forts. While partly subject to fluctuations in world com­modity prices, the terms of trade are a pretty good measure of whether an entrepreneur is allowed to make a fair market return. In Kenya, the income terms of trade for export farmers went up 218 percent during the 1970s. Over the same period, the same measure fell 37 percent in Tanzania. Tanzanian farmers got less and less for their labors as time went on. Kenyans got more. You can guess which group of farmers ended up being more productive.

This specific problem is a serious one throughout Africa and much of the Third World. In order to support large public expenditures (three quarters of Tanzania’s salaried labor force is employed by the government) leaders have placed very heavy taxes on farmers (and on other pro­ducers as well). In order to keep consumer prices low for political reasons, they use their monopolistic purchasing and marketing boards to deny the growers a fair market price.

The not very surprising result? Farmers grow only so much grain as they need for their own use. It is not worth the bother to do any more. Or they simply sell their surplus on the black market. Many times, farmers will not use available fertilizers, hybrid seeds or advanced tillage methods, because there is no chance of recouping the higher produc­tion costs. With no incentives to increase agricultural pro­duction, it has not gone up in Africa in recent years, a remarkable failure given the improvements in agricultural technology over the last two decades. Africa was a net food exporter at independence; it now imports 7 million tons of food a year. Its foreign assistance is at record levels, yet vast tracts of fertile land lie idle.

Other parts of the world have done better. Asian developing nations in particular have latched onto Green Revolution techniques with a vengeance, and have multiplied agricultural yields dramatically. Incredibly, India — which not long ago was held to be a hopeless “basket case,” doomed by resource and population factors to rely forever on outside food supply — is now a food exporter. Market-based reforms introduced recently by Rajiv Gandhi may further accelerate the Indian development surge.

So there is hope, where destructive state meddling can be kept to a minimum. Is movement in that direction foreseeable? During his recent Washington visit I had an op­portunity to meet with Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the UNITA guerrilla movement fighting to free Angola from Soviet-Cuban domination. I asked Dr. Savimbi for his analysis of what had gone wrong developmentally in Africa over the last decade, and for his vision of how to avoid repeating those errors in a free Angola. His answer, while basically commonsensical to Western ears, was dramatically iconoclastic coming from an African leader. If Savimbi’s program is eventually put into practice, it may provide a refreshing alternative to the two decades of centralization which have strangled Africa’s once mighty productive capabilities. Here is a verbatim abbreviation of Dr. Savimbi’s wise answer.

One of my friends in Africa said this: People who are dependent on foreign aid, they suffer two things: Those who give, they get tired. And those who receive also get tired.

Better if you produce for yourself. Better to help those who will be able to help themselves.

I think the main problem in Africa is agriculture. . . . In Angola you have 85 percent of the population who are peasants. If you solve the problem of 85 percent of your population, I think you have gone, really, more than halfway toward solving all your problems.

But how to solve that problem?

. . . People are not seeing what I feel are the fundamental principles:

First, to build roads. So that the peasant will know how to send what he has grown to the market.

Second, to create a marketplace. Because this will have beneficial effects on the whole economy in the country. Because you cannot sell oil, get money, put it in a van, and then distribute money through the country — you can’t do that.

But . . . in agriculture, [the people] can produce money for themselves. He sells coffee, he

sells corn, and he puts the money in his own pocket, immediately. [That] can produce wealth for people, for individual people. It will do it. But you need to have roads, and to create the marketplace.

And you have another advantage: You will have the people staying where they are. If not, they will come and come and come to town, where you don’t have employment, you don’t have facilities, you have a lot of problems.

I think the crucial problem is to give good thought to how to solve the needs of agriculture. Doing it you solve the economic-base problem in Africa, and the social problems of population growth in Africa.

In the one-third of Angola we have liberated, we have agriculture, we have food. When you hear that in Angola there are 250,000 people that need outside support, it is on the side of the MPLA [the pro-Soviet Popular Liberation Move­ment of Angola]. On our side, our people are bet­ter off, because they are self-reliant. So long as we don’t solve correctly the problems of agriculture, oil and minerals do not help us.

Also: the collectivization of agriculture is a bad thing. Because then the peasant becomes a civil servant. .. Then they say, “If I work or don’t work, I still get paid.”

When you leave [people] to work their own farms, and help them with investments, and help them with technical know-how, they have an in­centive to produce — “Then I will get something for myself.”

By getting something for himself, he will help his village.

By helping his village, he will help the district.

By helping his district he will help his province.

By helping his province, he helps his country.

It is how we feel about agriculture. It is the base . . . the main problem of Africa.

For the sake of the world’s hungry people, let us hope that Dr. Savimbi’s message, and the economic freedom and political democracy which alone can make it happen, spread beyond the safe sanctuary of American meeting rooms.


  • Karl Zinsmeister

    Karl Zinsmeister (born 1959) is an American journalist and public policy researcher. From 2006 to 2009 he served in the White House as President George W. Bush's chief domestic policy adviser, and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. He is currently vice president for publications at the Philanthropy Roundtable.

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