The Blog


11:00 PM, Nov 24, 1996 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

There is scarcely a nobler quest in the world than the search for solutions to the continuing tragedies of starvation and famine. But perhaps in no other humanitarian venture do people so mistake good intentions for good policy. The subject of world hunger can cause the vision of ordinarily brilliant intellectuals, learned academicians, and clear-headed statesmen suddenly to blur. All around the world, specialists and policymakers continue to entertain beliefs and accept premises about the world food situation that are demonstrably, often glaringly, invalid. And, therefore, life-threatening.

To a strange and disturbing degree, modern international man is, quite literally, starved for ideas. Widely accepted misconceptions, stubborn idees fixes and crude ideological notions about the nature of hunger and famine in the modern world are impeding the quest to achieve food security for all. Guided -- or more exactly, misguided -- by fundamentally flawed assessments of the prevalence and causes of global hunger, we cannot hope to attain satisfactory results. At best, our well-meaning efforts will be merely ineffective; at worst, we risk making bad conditions worse, and injuring our intended beneficiaries.

Modern-day myths about the world food problem are legion. And there are three such myths in the air today that are particularly fashionable, and particularly pernicious. The first concerns the current dimensions of the hunger problem. The second might be described as the "Malthusian specter." The third bears on the relationship between hunger and political morality in the modern world.



According to a large body of major studies by reputable and authoritative organizations, the magnitude of the global malnutrition problem in the modern era is vast -- so vast as to be almost incomprehensible. According to some of these studies, moreover, the problem has been worsening over time.

In 1950, Lord Boyd-Orr, the first director general of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), warned that "a lifetime of malnutrition and actual hunger is the lot of at least two-thirds of mankind." Thirty years later, a United States Presidential Commission on World Hunger concluded that "this world hunger problem is getting worse rather than better. There are more hungry people than ever before." In 1991, the U.N. World Food Council declared that "the number of chronically hungry people in the world continues to grow." And at the World Food Summit held last week in Rome, an official document put the undernourished population of the world at well over 800 million. That figure suggests that one out of five persons from developing countries was suffering from chronic undernutrition in the early 1990s.

By such soundings, we would seem to have made no relative progress whatever against Third World hunger over the past generation. And given the growth of population in the less developed regions, the absolute number of hungry people in the world would appear to have increased tremendously in recent decades.

A distressing and disheartening picture, no doubt. But there is one small thing wrong with this picture: It is empirically false. Astonishing as it may sound to the non-specialist, every major international study that has attempted to quantify global hunger over the past two generations is demonstrably and deeply flawed.

Using the methods employed in any one of these studies, it would be impossible to derive an accurate impression of the global hunger situation. And the conditions under which some of the studies were prepared were far from ideal. For citizens and policymakers committed to charting a course against world hunger, these studies offer a distorted and misleading map.

The flaws are sometimes quite technical, but they are never difficult to describe. In every instance, they are due to questionable and unsupported assumptions about individual nutritional needs in large populations, and equally questionable assumptions about the correspondence between national food supplies and individual food intake.

Malnutrition is an affliction suffered by individuals. Short of clinical or biomedical examination, there is no reliable way to determine a person's health or nutritional status. Because they lack this person-by-person information, these studies draw clumsy inferences about individual well-being. They cannot cope with such exacting, but important, issues as whether individuals with lower caloric intake have lower than average caloric requirements; whether individual metabolic efficiency adjusts in response to changes in the nutritional supply; or whether individuals predicted by their models to be undernourished actually suffer from identifiable nutritional afflictions. To pose these questions is not to presuppose an answer to them; it is simply to discharge a basic duty of careful inquiry.

Sometimes the results of these hunger studies can be dismissed after even the most casual inspection. In 1980, the World Bank published a paper purporting to show that three-fourths of the population of the less developed regions suffered from "caloric deficits." This ominous conclusion was reached by a chain of dubious suppositions, the final and most spectacular of which was that anyone receiving less than the average "recommended dietary allowance" was underfed. In truth, about half of any population will need less than the average allowance; that is the meaning of the word "average." Consequently, this model could only generate nonsense numbers: Its computations suggested, among other things, that nearly half the people in prosperous Hong Kong were getting too little food!

To their credit, the World Bank researchers on this particular project recognized that their work failed the "reality test" and went back to the drawing board to improve their product. Unfortunately, others working on the problem have not always met the same standards of intellectual accountability. Lord Boyd-Orr, for example, did not at the time explain the method underlying his now-famous estimate of the prevalence of world hunger. After reviewing contemporary data, one of the leading agricultural experts of the day, Merrill K. Bennett, surmised that this estimate might actually be an elementary computational mistake -- a misreading of the figures in two particular columns of a particular table. The Food and Agricultural Organization, which prepared the figures Lord Boyd-Orr used, never replied to Bennett's inquiry and has never offered substantiating evidence for Boyd- Orr's assertion.

Other estimates about world hunger from the same organization have remained similarly protected against outside inspection: Most of the data and calculations in the first three FAO World Food Surveys, for example, are still unavailable to the public. In its more recent studies, the organization's determination of the number of calories an individual needs for nourishment has been rising steadily over time. Why? These upward revisions do not seem to reflect any obvious changes in the scientific consensus concerning nutritional norms. But they do produce higher totals for any given estimate of the number of hungry people in the world.

If we could only for a moment extricate ourselves from this numerical house of mirrors, we would see that there are indeed meaningful data that bear upon the actual nutritional status of humanity, and that they tell a rather different story.

Household spending patterns in less developed regions, for example, can reveal how the poor assess their own nutritional status. If a family treats food as a "superior good" -- that is to say, if an increase in income raises the overall share of the household budget going to food it renders a telling judgment that its members have had too little to eat. By this criterion, the incidence of serious hunger in the world would be far lower than the Food and Agricultural Organization currently suggests: about two- thirds lower in some years for India, to take one example.

Mortality rates, for their part, offer a direct and unambiguous measure of the material condition of any population. It is clear that the so-called Third World has experienced a revolution in health conditions over the past generation. According to the U.N. Secretariat, life expectancy at birth there rose by an average of almost a decade and a half between the early 1960s and the early 1990s. And over that same period, infant mortality there is estimated to have dropped nearly by half. Can one really imagine that such dramatic gains were entirely unaccompanied by nutritional progress?

The truth is that a precise and reliable method for estimating the incidence and severity of worldwide malnutrition has yet to be devised. We can be all too sure that scores of millions in our world suffer from heart- rending, life-impairing hunger. But exaggerating the current scope of the problem, and minimizing the strides we have already made against it, will serve no worthy purpose. Hungry populations certainly do not benefit from such misapprehensions. In an age of "compassion fatigue," these misrepresentations of reality tend instead to discourage action by depicting the problem as almost insurmountably large. And to make matters worse, they may direct available humanitarian resources away from the places where they might have made the biggest difference.



Let us turn now to the Malthusian specter. The postwar variant of the worldview first advanced by the 19th-century economist Thomas Malthus holds that the globe cannot support the ongoing and enormous increase in human numbers that we are witnessing. It predicts that we will be faced by rising poverty, mass hunger, or perhaps even worldwide catastrophe unless we somehow check this uncontrolled demographic growth. Overpopulation, increasing scarcity of food and natural resources, and famine, Malthusians argue, are clear and present dangers -- the existence of which, they say, validates their conception of how the world works.

In intellectual and political circles, the influence of Malthusian ideology today ranges wide and deep; not surprisingly, it is especially evident in deliberations about the world food outlook. For its proponents, Malthusianism has some of the trappings of a secular faith. Matters of faith, as we know, do not readily lend themselves to empirical tests, or to disproof. If we try to treat the Malthusian specter as a factual rather than a theological proposition, though, we will find little evidence that its advent is nigh.

Consider the problem of "overpopulation." So much has been said about this problem over the years that it may surprise you to learn there is no strict demographic definition of the word. None.

How would we define it? In terms of population density? If so, Bermuda would be more overpopulated than Bangladesh. In terms of rates of "natural increase"? In that case, pre-Revolutionary America would have been more overpopulated than contemporary Haiti. In terms of the "dependency ratio" of children and the elderly to working-age populations? That would mean Canada was more overpopulated in 1965 than India is today!

If "overpopulation" is a problem, it is a problem that has been misidentified and misdefined. The images evoked by the term -- hungry children; squalid housing; early death -- speak to problems all too real in the modern world. But these are properly described as problems of poverty. The risk of poverty, however, is obviously influenced -- indeed, is principally determined -- by a panoply of non-demographic forces, not the least of these being the impact of a government's policies on its subjects or citizens. As for the particulars of the relationship between population growth and poverty, they are more complex and far less categorical than one is often led to suppose.

At the very least, we know for a fact that rapid and sustained population growth does not preclude rapid and sustained economic and social advance. If it did, the vast material transformation we have already witnessed this century could not have occurred.

In the past 96 years, the world's population has more than tripled. Never before had such an increase taken place in so brief a time, and although the tempo of global population growth appears to have peaked and to be declining, it is still proceeding with extraordinary speed by historical perspective. This unprecedented demographic explosion, however, did not consign humanity to penury and destitution. Just the opposite. It was accompanied by a worldwide explosion of prosperity.

According to the eminent economist Angus Maddison, the world's per capita GDP quadrupled between the turn of the century and the early 1990s. In Latin America and the Caribbean, per capita GDP has more than quadrupled. In Asia and the Pacific, it has more than quintupled. Even in troubled Africa, it may have more than doubled. While such calculations cannot be exact, there should not be the slightest doubt about the consequence of the trends they represent.

Why has the most rapid period of population growth in the history of our species been the occasion for the most extraordinary economic expansion in human experience? Part of the answer may lie in the "population explosion" itself. It was sparked not because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits, but rather because they stopped dying like flies. Fertility rates didn't soar; mortality rates plummeted. Since the start of our century, the average life expectancy at birth for a human being has probably doubled, and may have more than doubled. Every corner of the earth has joined in this health revolution -- and incidentally, this progress has been more dramatic in the less developed regions than in the more affluent ones.

Improvements in health are conducive to improvements in productivity. It is not just that healthier populations are able to work harder: Improvements in health and reductions in mortality enhance the potentialities of what economists call "human capital": education, training, skills, and the like. By so doing, they significantly relieve constraints against attaining higher levels of per capita output.

And why, for that matter, is there such alarm about fertility? Many influential voices today take it as axiomatic that fertility is "excessive" in one or another region of the world. But unlike better health and longer life, which are universally regarded as desirable, there is no universal view on optimal family size. The number of children that parents wish to have, like other big decisions in life, is an inescapably subjective choice. While it may surely be shaped by economic, cultural, or religious factors, in the final analysis it is a personal choice. Before we speak of "excess fertility," we should ponder what we imply by questioning other people's choices about family size. Human beings are not heedless beasts. They do not procreate with utter disregard for their own well-being, much less the welfare of their own children.

With the tremendous growth of human numbers, and of per capita output, the world's GDP has grown phenomenally in our century: Maddison's research suggests a fourteen-fold rise. Despite this awesome surge in demand, however, the prices for foodstuffs and natural resources have not rocketed skywards. In fact, the long-term trend for primary commodity prices has been heading in exactly the opposite direction. According to a careful World Bank study, for example, inflation-adjusted prices for primary commodities dropped by over a third between the turn of the century and the 1980s -- and those prices have continued to fall.

Scarce items are supposed to cost more; plentiful items less. So it would appear that foodstuffs and natural resources have been growing less scarce, not more scarce, despite mankind's steadily increasing demand for them! For convinced Malthusians, this fact constitutes an unsolved mystery -- and indeed an unsolvable one, if they are to maintain faith in their doctrine.

And what of famine? Malthusians expect famines to strike what they call " overpopulated" regions -- what we might call very poor regions. It is surely true that the margin for error for the very poor is perilously thin. But it does not follow that the very poor in the modern world are inexorably consigned to mass starvation, or that they are pushed there by their own fertility trends. In truth, modern famines are a quintessentially political phenomenon. In our time, people starve en masse not because famine is unavoidable. They starve because their own rulers happen to be indifferent to their plight -- or because the state has actively contrived to bring about their death.

Recall the most fearsome famines that have gripped nations in our century. More than 6 million people perished in the Ukraine in 1933. That was Stalin's terror-famine: It was provoked by a deliberately punitive collectivization of agriculture, designed to subjugate an unwilling people. As many as 3 million people died in Bengal, India, in 1943. That was when the British Viceregency, with available stocks of grain at hand, refused to enact the empire's stipulated relief procedures, lest those somehow compromise the overall war effort. Between 1959 and 1961, China lost as many as 30 million people through abnormally high death rates. That was Mao's cruel utopian experiment: After his forcible collectivization of the countryside shattered the nation's agriculture, his government denied there was a hunger problem, refused foreign help, and made a point of exporting food. Perhaps a million Biafrans perished from famine in the late 1960s. That was the Nigerian civil war, when food blockades were consciously employed literally to starve the rebels into submission. In the late 1970s, perhaps a million, maybe more, died from abnormal mortality in Cambodia. That was the Khmer Rouge's methodical and barbaric program of auto-genocide. In the 1980s and 1990s, famine has stricken Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. If the details of these more recent tragedies differ in some specifics from the earlier famines I have mentioned, the patterns are unmistakably the same.

Amartya Sen, perhaps the preeminent student of contemporary famine, has stated it starkly: "Famines are, in fact, extremely easy to prevent. It is amazing that they actually take place, because they require a severe indifference on the part of the government."

Famine is now caused not by an ominous excess of people, but instead by a frightening surfeit of callous rulers and killer states. Malthusian delusions would distract us from this central and gruesome fact, just as they divert us from probing too deeply into the reasons that some countries have experienced persistently poor economic performance, or even economic retrogression, in an age of global economic advance.



Most important is the relationship between hunger and political morality. In the world of international organizations that deal with hunger, it is regarded as declasse to observe that one form of national political or legal arrangements might be preferable to others manifest elsewhere in the world. To the urbane, such a view sometimes sounds embarrassingly provincial. Many still argue that such considerations have no bearing on the pragmatic quest to conquer hunger. They would agree with Bertolt Brecht's admonition: " Food first, morality after."

Brecht's worldly dictum is at once cynical and appallingly naive. How can we reflect upon the history of our century without being struck by the singular role certain political principles have played in abetting mankind's escape from hunger -- and the dark role of other political philosophies in perpetuating the threat of hunger and starvation? At the end of the day, this much is crystal clear: Liberty is the enemy of hunger, and freedom is the nemesis of famine.

"In the gruesome history of famines," Amartya Sen has written, "there is hardly any case in which a famine has occurred in a country that is independent and democratic, regardless of whether it is rich or poor."

We can take this point further. There are practically no instances of famine in any setting where local newspapers were free to criticize their own government, or where citizens enjoyed the substantive right to participate in an opposition party. In open and accountable political systems where governments serve at the sufferance of the voter, there is tremendous pressure and incentive for policies that forestall famine. Impoverished as it is often said to be, India has not suffered famine since its independence in 1947. Far from being a luxury that only the rich can afford, as some would have it, political freedom is thus actually a necessity for the very poor.

Marxist-Leninists have sneered at the liberal conception of political freedom; they still dismiss it as a dangerous illusion. But as the nightmare of totalitarianism at last begins to pass, and its legacy of worldwide wreckage is finally laid bare, there can be no more dispute about just who was entranced by perilous political fantasies.

For all their proclamations about enshrining "people's rights," Marxist- Leninist regimes were never able to divide those vaunted rights into individual portions. And while terrible atrocities were committed in our time by regimes of many political hues, only the totalitarians committed atrocities out of cold-blooded principle.

Just as political liberties place a systemic check on the threat of famine, so economic liberties can dynamically reduce the risk of severe malnutrition. This is so because the institutional framework for securing economic liberties happens also to be broadly conducive to material advance, productivity improvement, and, ultimately, the escape from poverty. Rule of law; protection of individual rights, including property rights; enforceability of contracts; sound money; the sanction of mutually beneficial economic exchange: From the standpoint of protecting liberty, all these things are virtues in their own right. But the underpinnings of economic liberty also have a pragmatic value: They stimulate economic activity and enhance economic welfare.

One may also make the case that economic liberty is especially important to the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized -- those groups least capable of fending for themselves in an economic and political system that is neither regular nor just.

In much of the world, including areas where basic political freedoms are secure, the ordinary workings of domestic and international markets are today regarded with suspicion, even hostility, by many elites. They speak gravely of the perils of "market failure" and claim these perils justify far-reaching interventions into economic life. Truth to tell, markets, like all human inventions, are imperfect. Some specific instances of modern "market failure," moreover, have been conspicuous. But before learning all the fascinating exceptions to the rules, it is best to get the rules themselves straight. For it is the opportunities that lie in market development, and under a regimen of economic liberty, that offer the greatest inherent scope for improving the purchasing power of the world's poor, for stabilizing their access to food supplies, and thus for promoting nutritional security for vulnerable populations.

The phenomenon Deepak Lal has termed "the dirigiste dogma" is still deeply entrenched in many of the world's poorest, and hungriest, spots. Adherents of the dirigiste dogma have an unsettling tendency to discover " market failures" where none in fact exist, and to misdiagnose the adverse consequences of their own preferred therapies as "market failures" that will only be remedied through further dirigiste treatments. To belabor the obvious once more, such a state of affairs does not relieve the plight of the world's poor or expedite progress against global hunger.



As we look toward the coming century, we have more than a presentiment of some of the challenges that will face us. With the enormous increases in world population anticipated in the coming generations, we will need to arrange for commensurately enormous increases in agricultural production capabilities -- or disproportionately enormous increases, if we hope to improve the world's dietary quality. And in the world's hungriest regions, establishing effective, responsive, and limited governance is a task barely begun.

That will be the hard work. Fixing these misconceptions about hunger and nutrition is far easier. But one principle, and only one, should be guiding those, both international officials and well-meaning individuals, who seek to address the problem of world hunger. It is as old as the desire to do good itself: First, do no harm. First, do no harm.

Nicholas Eberstadt is a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute and the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. This essay is adapted from an address delivered last week during the World Food Summit in Rome.