Keynote: “The perfect storm of world starvation”

Join us Tuesday 22nd January at 8 for 8.15pm

at St Faith’s Community Centre, Red Post Hill, London SE249JQ

“The perfect storm of world starvation”

Whilst grand international conferences are being held at various exotic places, the price of food is rising everywhere. For the richer, food represents a relatively small part of their budget – but the poorer you are and the higher that percentage is. For the poorest of the world, it means death by starvation. It is estimated that around 10 million people a year are currently dying of starvation (about 30,000 per day); 1.4 billion are below the official poverty line; and another billion are permanently malnourished. It will only get worse. The rich world cannot pretend it will not be affected.

Benny Dembitzer will make a presentation of his book – SLEEPWALKING INTO GLOBAL FAMINE.  He is an international development economist; he was a member of the team awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

The meeting is open to all. You will be able to purchase a glass of wine or a fruit juice and there will be time for questions and answers.


We will also discuss whether there is enough interest in creating a forum where local residents will regularly meet with others to hear presentations on a range of issues of general interest.

 For further information, please use e-mail;

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The way of life of so many millions

In his magisterial biography of President Johnson, Robert Caro talks at some length about the profound disdain that Johnson had towards the Kennedy clan. Johnson’s early life has been spent in rural Texas, surviving by occasionally teaching English to extremely poor migrant workers from Mexico who found seasonal work in agriculture in the USA. He had contempt for the Harvard-educated crowd that had learnt about poverty just through various seminars, and possible from looking out of the windows of their chauffeur-driven Cadillacs. This vital point – knowing poverty from the inside and reading about poverty from the outside – seem to me to be the kernel, the pivotal point on the discussions of how to tackle poverty in the South and its solution.

Many of us who have worked at the grassroots in the South will have lived in closed proximity to extremely poor people and can understand what it means. Most people, the vast majority of people across the UK, cannot. There are two fundamental reasons for this. The first is very simply that the extent of the poverty that exists in remote areas of Ethiopia, in the mines of Eastern Congo, or in the slums of Lagos are well beyond anything that we ever possibly seen or imagined. But there is another dimension to poverty, and it is this. Most of us in Britain are living a middle class style of life, most of us with reasonable creature comforts. Therefore, we see poverty as almost a fall from grace, a temporary aberration; when the economy gets better, we all opine, there will be so much less poverty. Even the less well-off have often some savings and can borrow. Few – probably none – of those who are involved in policy decisions about aid or development have to borrow from the rapacious money-lenders. In fact we have so little understanding of that extreme degree of poverty that forces people having to borrow at uxorious rates that we are not revolted when one of them manages to buy respectability by sponsoring a football club in the Premier League or advertising constantly on television.

For what it is worth, I will try to concentrate on this issue – the lack of understanding of the extent of poverty that is the way of life of so many millions of people across the global South. I do want to try to make my readers, both of them, understand that poverty is not only extreme, but all-consuming, multidimensional. It is not just a matter of not having enough to eat; it is a question of not there being enough water, no medicine for the child who is sick, no way to warm the poor quality food that is available, not being able to read or write, not having any privacy, not being able to escape from the clutches of the older members of the community (almost invariably men) who might wish you to perform services for them, including often sexual services. It is poverty in all its guises – of resources, of abilities, of physical, of hope and mental limitations.

Firstly, how many people are there?

We know that there are roughly one and a quarter billion people who are more or less constantly on the edge of starvation; they really will never be able to have a decent meal in their lives. They are undernourished. But, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO), there are another billion people who live in hidden hunger – who do not have the right combination of foods, with enough minerals, vitamins, and proteins to development their bodies and minds. If the mother does not have the right food when the baby is conceived and in the few months after birth, the child will never develop to its full potential. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, just over half of the children of Ethiopia grow stunted.

It is as simple and complicated as that; 2.4 billion people out of a world population of just over 7 billion are either undernourished or malnourished.

Our policies, our actions, all our work should aim to enable these people to develop and create their own lives, not to design policies that might deliver services that we, in the developed world, think will deliver and yet do not.


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No problem can be solved from the same level that created it

As we are entering an era in which a set of new Millennium Development Goals are being explored and discussed, it might be worth looking not at what is being examined, but what is being left out of the discussion. It seems to me that the whole debate that revolves round the Goals – just as it was around the first set of Goals back before 2000 – consists of thing that the poor world, the global South, should be working towards solving, without very much being demanded of the rich world.

For example, we know that the main reason for the global warming is the amount of fossil fuels emitted by the richer nations and the richer people in the world, but what are we doing about it? According to the International Energy Agency, the subsidy amounted to $409 billion in 2010, the last year for which figures are available. Small arms, all of them manufactured in the richer parts of the world, are fuelling war and poverty in the poorer parts; should rich nations not do something about cutting off supply at the point of origin?  What about the enormous amount of money that is moved round the world, in and out of tax havens, an enormous part of which is recycled through extremely proper channels in the City of London and on Wall Street in New York? Are any of these real big picture issues on anyone’s agenda or are they too political sensitive to governments to be excised from debates?


To solve fundamental problems, according to Einstein, one needs to move to a higher level than the level which caused them in the first instance. In the case of world poverty and world development, I would argue that we need to try to get out of the box in which we have been locked in and look at what we mean by development, growth, poverty reduction not through the prism of international organisations and academic research, but their meanings to the individual, the poorest member of society, someone who is, by definition, marginalised, unrepresented, outside the structures of the corporate world through which most decisions are taken. Then we would reduce development to its human dimensions, not to abstract theories.

I fully accept that we need to tackle the big issues; if you don’t, you scratch the surface. You might try to improve agriculture for a community, but if they are going to be washed away in the next flood, what good have you achieved? However, is the answer to be found in trying to have a global agreement on climate change reduction, which means the rich and poor worlds are forever confronting one another, with no solution in sight, or to try to deal with the situation in place? Surely both have to be dealt with and this what I propose to tackle in my series of blogs; that governments should be induced to govern better, but that organisations that are not formed of or by governments should adopt a different agenda. The first should aim to improve governments, the latter to empower individuals. Please let us not confuse the issues; we are not doing the poorest any service by so doing.

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More of the same?

On Thursday 1st November the British Prime Minister met with the Presidents of Liberia and Indonesia to take steps to work on the next set of priorities for the post-Millennium Development Goals. They were appointed as co-chairs by the Secretary General of the UN to carry out this task. Mr Cameron will be the Chair of the G8 when it meets in London next year. On Friday 2nd November there was a meeting of representatives of the High Level Panel appointed by the Secretary General with representatives of Civil Society Organisations to explore the same agenda.


Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have signed a string of agreements on trade, defence and education.

It is not difficult to visualise the scene. A group of grand international figure try to distil a large number of disparate issues into a narrative that makes some sense when they present it to the General Assembly of the United Nations next year. They start by talking to a number of representatives of different voluntary organisations (civil society). They hope to distil from their collective wisdom a series of points for action.  Yet, each of these organisations pushes for its own individual cause. If you represent an organisation that campaigns for the eradication of malaria, that becomes the focus of your life and you will fight for that to top the agenda. If you are after the education of women, that will be your primary objective.  And so on, down an incredible long agenda of issues, each of them important to one specific group of people. Everyone is working on a small part of the whole spectrum of human needs and activities. In fact, one feels that every new organisation that comes into being is appropriating an ever more miniscule part of the spectrum.      

This is where one comes to the sad conclusion that the whole discussion is a bit like the debate that the great theologians of the 15th century were holding in Constantinople on how many angels could dance on the head of a pin (the debate it is a myth!), all the while when the Moslems were attacking the walls of the city.  I do not wish to dismiss the earnestness and commitment of the people in the aid and development community; the wide range of views and causes argued for is an important part of the freedoms we enjoy and we wish to share. But it is a bit like the right to free speech; is there a point at which one needs to moderate one’s own language in order not to cause offence to someone else?

Whilst civil society is endlessly debating the order of priorities, it remains oblivious to the real challenges. The reality is that more people are starving and more will be starving. The extremely urgent task is to look at hunger and how to assuage it. That means, for governments, to improve governance ability and for civil society to drop some of its fetishes. 

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An obvious answer?

I am an inveterate attender of meetings. I go always in the hope that I might learn something new, something that will really be the key to any of my many obsessions. And I never manage to get away with any new answer, with any silver bullet that will kill the beast. So, I swear that I shall never attend another meeting. I shall abide by that decision probably until the next invitation to some obscure meeting turns along.

This morning I went to listen to a very interesting meeting on the links between food and nutrition. Is there a link? Intuitively one might think there is, but it is far from obvious that there is, given the lack of clear evidence. Yes, it is clear that better off farmers- namely farmers in the poorest parts of the world who have been able to produce more food than their family might eat – have fewer health problems and more people live longer than in poorer families who are net consumer of food. But is the link through education or through greater food availability? There is no obvious answer and I will explain why.

If you eat always the same thing, one lunch and night, and you eat always the same thing, as toddler, as a child, as an adult and as an older person, your body and your mind will not develop. It is as simple and complicated as that.  You need nutrients, minerals, vitamins throughout your life and, without the right combination of foods, you are condemned to a lesser quality of life. But that requires some education and some knowledge.  Growing more food and eating more of the same is not the answer.

So, what is the answer? To me it is obvious; the key agent of change is the woman, because she is the cook, the teacher, the nurse, and, this is the key, she is also the farmer.  She is the least mobile member of the family. The man might move in search of work, and often will stay away, forming new relationships and assuming new responsibilities, but the woman stays behind. Here is one of my key obsessions; surely all the voluntary organisations working in the field of development, all the projects that raise funds for the poorest, all the school initiatives need to be aware of this fundamental challenge. The woman is the key agent of change. Let us educate the farmer and in Africa probably that means educating the woman. Formal education is not enough; there can be and indeed there should be perhaps street theatre, radio education, animation and cartoons. But you cannot do without some formal schooling. We need to give formal education, in a formal setting, with more teachers and better teaching tools the importance it deserves.

But did the very clever and devoted people at the meeting I attend take that line? No.

They all agreed of course, but the problem is that they all have their own vested interested – not their own personal vested interested, but those of their professions. The biologist, the soil scientist, the agricultural economist all live in their own silos and they would like to cooperate, but they cannot. It is part of the human condition in which we live in the West and we are doing no service to the poorest of the world by remaining in those silos.

To be continued….

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