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August 02, 2009


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Patrick S. O'Donnell


I'm delighted to see this post and I hope people respond in all the right ways. But I hope we don't forget that the persistence of hunger in our day is a collective action problem of the sort that won't be fundamentally addressed through private charitable donations (philanthropy) or even government aid, although both should continue if not increase, if only because, as Garrett Cullity has written in The Moral Demands of Affluence (2004): "Not contributing to aid agencies is like failing to avert threats to life directly: it exhibits a failure of beneficence, and that makes it morally wrong." On food aid generally, a nice introduction is found here:

There are two books here that should be read by all those with more than a passing interest in the subject: Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1989), and Jean Drèze, Amartya Sen and Athar Hussain, eds., The Political Economy of Hunger (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1995). Some morsels from the former book:

"Hunger is...intolerable in the modern world in a way it could not have been in the past. This is not so much because it is more intense, but because widespread hunger is so unnecessary and unwarranted in the modern world. The enormous expansion of productive power that has taken place over the last few centuries has made it, perhaps for the first time, possible to guarantee adequate food for all, and it is in this context that the persistence of chronic hunger and the recurrence of virulent famines must be seen as being morally outrageous and politically unacceptable. If politics is the 'art of the possible,' then conquering world hunger has become a political issue in a way it could not have been in the past.

...[F]or a substantial part of humanity, the health problems connected with food consumption have ceased being the result of having too little and stem instead from having too much. While one part of humanity desperately searches for more food to eat, another part counts the calories and looks for new ways of slimming. Inequalities in the distribution of food are not a new phenomenon by any means, but while in the past affluence may been confined to a small section of society, in the modern world the bulk of the population in many countries is now in the affluent category as far as food is concerned. [....]

Second, the persistence of hunger in many countries in the contemporary world is related not merely to a general lack of affluence, but also to substantial--often extreme--inequalities within the society. [....]

Third, the dependence of one group's ability to command food on its relative position and comparative economic power vis-a-vis other groups can be especially important in a market economy. The institution of markets is, of course, an old one, but the reach and role of market transactions has substantially expanded in recent times. On the one hand, this has added new economic opportunities and new ways of achieving prosperity through specialization and exchange, and the development of extensive markets has been a major force behind the enhancement of the wealth of nations, as Adam Smith rightly foresaw. But, on the other hand, the expansion of markets has also added a new source of vulnerability for some groups. For example, pastoral nomads can be reduced to starvation if the relative price of animal products falls in relation to that of staple food, since their subsistence depends on their ability to sell animals and animal products (including meat) to buy enough calories from cheaper food materials such as grain. Similarly, fishemen may go hungry if the price of fish fails to keep with that of, say, rice.

Fourth, the importance of the institution of wage labour is a particular aspect of the general problem. People who possess no means of prodction excepting their own labour power, which they try to sell for a wage in order to earn an adequate income to buy enough food, are particularly vulnerable to changes in labour market conditions. A decline in wages vis-a-vis food prices, or an increase in unemployment, can spell disaster for this class. [....] The class of landless wage labourers has indeed recurrently produced famine victims in modern times. For example, in the Indian subcontinent, the majority of famine victims in this century and the last has come from this group. [....]

Fifth, recent times have witnessed not only a rapid expansion of market exchange, but also significant development in the conditions of 'exchange with nature,' i.e. production. On the one hand, advances in agricultural technology have increased the potential for improving living conditions in rural areas. On the other hand, in many countries environmental degradation (in the form of deforestation, desertification, etc.) poses a grave threat to the livelihood of the rural population. While these processes are, once again, not new, their pace and reach are often greater than ever. So is the scope for public action to influence and reshape them.

Sixth, the state has an important role to play in combating world hunger. [....]

The idea of 'social security' is that of using social means to prevent deprivation and vulnerability. Social means can be of various types. Perhaps the most immediate is to provide direct support of the ability of the vulnerable to acquire the means to basic capabilities. Providing free food or cash to potential famine victims is an obvious example of this. On a more regular basis, providing unemployment insurance, free health services and basic education, etc., are other examples of such direct support. The social means could also be indirect. For example, creating the social conditions of economic growth may make a substantial--and lasting--contribution to eliminating deprivation, if growth involves widespread participation of the population in the process of economic expansion. [....]

[Social security comes in two forms:] and promotion. The former is concerned with the task of preventing decline in living standards as might occur in, say, an economic recession, or--more drastically--in a famine. The latter refers to the enhancement of general living standards and to the expansion of basic capabilities of the population...."

And thus it is states, and the international system of states, that in our world has the twofold task of prevention and promotion in providing the social security necessary for addressing the many-headed monster of hunger. Nevertheless, "public action for social security is neither just a matter of state activity, nor an issue of charity, nor even one of kindly redistribution. The activism of the public, the unity and solidarity of the concerned population, and the participation of all those who are involved are important features of public action for social security."

For further reading, especially in light of the recent world food crisis, please see my post from April of last year on "the ecology and political economy of hunger" at the Ratio Juris blog:

Heidi Kitrosser

Another idea for people looking for ways to help through private donations -- domestic food shelves are really hurting right now. Through a simple google search, one should be able to locate their local or state hunger organizations that fund food shelf programs. You can usually make a one-time donation or set up a recurring monthly donation.

By way of example, here's a link to one such organization in Minnesota (with the easy-to-remember acronym HSM, just like "High School Musical") --


It is very interesting, Thank you.

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