TCS Daily

Subsidies and Starvation

By Richard D North - June 20, 2002 12:00 AM

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN recently met to discuss world hunger amidst reports that 8 million people may die of starvation in southern Africa this year. What is so interesting is that some of the very biggest players -- black and white, in Africa, in Europe and the US -- are as much to blame as Africa's tricky climate.

A man like Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, says he blames British ex-patriate farmers for the starvation, which undoubtedly afflicts many of his people. It was all so easy to say. Much of the country's best land was owned by a few white people. Mugabe has "repatriated" much of this land. In doing so he has crashed his country's thriving agriculture sector, and its tax and hard currency revenue as well. Several farmers have been killed and getting on for a million workers have been thrown out of work and their homes.

Even if he was as good as his word, and gave the land to Africa's peasant farmers, Mugabe would be doing them no favours. I have met many small-scale farmers in Africa and have been struck by how unlikely it is that they could ever be self-sufficient. I was with a (white, well-paid, committed) UN aid worker for an exciting day trip in his big white Land Cruiser whilst we crossed a small African country to try to persuade a local woman to borrow $3 so as to buy some chickens to improve her production. She refused. Suppose she couldn't repay the money? This teaches one an important truth. Very poor people are often courageous, ingenious and persistent as they bear the nastiness life throws at them. They are chronically averse to risk, an attitude which keeps them poor but keeps them alive. That is a big part of the answer to the question a bright but poor farmer once asked me: "Why is it", he inquired, angrily, "that I am condemned to farm in a manner which would have been recognisable to Jesus Christ?".

So. Very few peasants can really improve their lot, and very few peasants are happy with their lot. Millions have moved to cities in the belief that it is better to half starve where there is a chance of work than to stay on the land and certainly go hungry.

What stops Africa's rural scene moving along the track toward decent livings and decent food production? Part of the problem is that there is too little of any economic development at all: farmers need customers. So while it may seem perverse and bizarre, there really is a logic in seeing exports as important to Africa's rural future. That is why those Zimbabwean farmers growing tobacco -- yes, the cancer-causing stuff of cigarettes -- were doing Africa good as they developed a huge export trade. They did so in the face of rich-world subsidies to tobacco growers in the US and EU.

Africans need the chance to compete with the few things they have: cheap sun and cheap labour. They need access to the world's markets. And yet several of their richest potential markets are ring-fenced by tariffs and other protectionist measures designed to keep Western farmers in business. The EU and the US in particular are engaged in a protection racket designed to keep rural constituencies and their media fan clubs in some sort of acquiescence.

It is hard to assess the damage protectionism does to the farmers of the poor world, but bodies like the OECD routinely put it in the range of billions of dollars, and suggest it far outranks the aid we send.

The farmers of the poor world face further obstacles. There is small but growing movement of consumers in rich countries which has an understandable but useless view of what the Third World should be like. These media-friendly campaigners argue that only small producers are any good, that production should be "organic", that genetic-modification is a curse, and that it is wrong to fly or ship food long distances.

All these prejudices will make it harder for small farmers to become medium-sized farmers, and medium-scale farmers to become large farmers. They are all prejudices designed to help poor people get a living where they are and in a way which might have suited them a hundred years ago. They are all measures which will fail to halt the flight to the city by people seeking a better way of life, and they are all likely to keep land more or less idle or under-productive whilst the farming sector of many poor countries festers. They contribute to hunger because they contribute to poverty.

The author is Media Fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs and publishes continuously at

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