The hunger conundrum

Written by Madan Sabnavis | Updated: Jan 12 2014, 09:36am hrs
Philanthropy is a term associated with Warren Buffett, and when one reads a book by his son, Howard G Buffett, one knows what to expect. The title, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World, refers to different stories that have inspired and been dealt with by Howard G Buffett, as he travels across lesser developed countries, primarily in Africa and central America, to understand how hunger treats humans and, more importantly, makes demons of them. Underdevelopment, poverty, political strife, and indifferent and corrupt governments are perfect settings for acts of degradation, which lead to people becoming inhuman. The result is hunger and death.

The author starts from his home ground, agriculture, where he talks of how he, as a farmer, took up the occupation. Quite prophetically, he says, a farmer gets 40 chances to deal with the earth in his lifetime in order to make a difference. This is the entire time period in which a boy takes up farming, becomes a grown-up and then hands over the reins to his children. These 40 chances are analogous to stories he narrates of his own experiences across the world, which could provide lessonsif we are willing to learn.

Getting funds from his father for charity was one part of the story, but more difficult was to make use of the funds effectively to ensure that these reach people who need them, and creating delivery channels for this. The stories bring to the forefront the sharp reality of life: what we call progress is very peripheral in nature and there are countries, if not continents, which suffer from acute starvation.

Meeting such people, taking their photographs and narrating their stories form the core of this book. Some stories may disturb the reader, as these talk about inhuman incidents, which are commonplace. Buffett talks about young girls in African regimes, who are raped continuously by insurgents or the military. Their life is over even before it can begin. Boys are forced to take drugs when they are less than 10 years old, so that they may lose their sense of feeling. So when they grow up, they can kill without batting an eyelid. Countries like Angola, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, etc, have many such examples of innocence being lost at an early age, with, virtually, no solution in sight. The reason behind this is invariably high levels of poverty.

We read a lot about charity and good work being done by NGOs in these countries. However, Buffett raises an interesting point: given the extent of suffering and starvation even today, has this philanthropic work actually meant anything or is it just a drop in the ocean A way to look at it is to say if these drops did not exist, the suffering would be more. A more realistic or pessimistic view could be that at the end of the day, it hardly matters. Buffett actually calculates and shows how something to the tune of $5 million is required to keep just one village running in terms of basic food or supplements. There has to be spending by governments or else these measures will remain more of the emergency variety, which alleviate, but cannot solve the problem. Buffett says such emergency intervention is, at best, a painkiller.

He is full of praises for celebrities who do their bit and talks, in particular, of the work done by popstar Shakira in Columbia, where her Barefoot Foundation has set up schools, following it up in Haiti and South Africa. Although such work goes deep, it has limited effects and cannot be really scalable. He also acknowledges the work of musician Bono, who has done a lot on the health front in Africa.

Buffett also brings to the fore an issue, which is probably even more pertinent in all developing countries and has come in the way of farming: ownership rights to land. This would be of interest in India, because often with unclear rights there is less incentive for farmers to put in more, as they never know when their land will be claimed by someone else. In a number of countries, land is owned by the governments, but with a high level of illiteracy, farmers are deprived of their farming rights by unscrupulous intermediaries, which results in displacement. In fact, we could also juxtapose our own quandary here when we talk of land reforms and the recent bill, which devises a formula to compensate farmers for the takeover of land by corporates or the government. As ours is a democracy, we still have rules. But in autocratic regimes, one does not have a choice. However, the dilemmas are the same. A country like India should think hard on the issue of farming being displaced to placate industry. Quite clearly, governance is the issue that has to be taken head on. This is one of the major reasons why a lot of NGOs have failed, as their work needs the support of better rule of law.

Buffett also talks of water as a scarce commodity, which is, invariably, responsible for disruptions in the lives of farming communities. Africa and countries in Central America are dependent on farming and face constraints when water is not available. Water shortage leads to no crops, which, in turn, lead to starvation. Combine this with the growth of banditry and the fact that aid sent by NGOs tends to get diverted to a large extent. Bandits ensure that people do not starve to death, but plunder a large part for themselves. All this is done with political patronage. The trick is to ensure that aid flows in uninterrupted, which will stop once organisations know it is not working. Therefore, there is some method to this plunder.

But Buffett is optimistic and narrates success stories of cocoa growers in Ghana or Belize and the more innovative P4P programme, which involves using aid to purchase from poor farmers and hence bring in a virtuous circle. Dumping surplus grains is not a good idea, as it depresses prices and farmers suffer. Similarly, monetising aidwhere food is sold and the money is used for other projectsis a bad idea.

The book is all about Buffetts experiences and the work done by NGOs, with both success and failure. One needs to work hard to tackle issues such as farm productivity, food, hunger and starvation. In terms of providing support, the main role has to be played by the government. Norman Borlaug, the father of green revolution, gave us the idea and, quite clearly, we have to take it forward. Buffetts solution is a package: improve productivity, be sensitive to the needs of farmers, have better governance and focus on the poor. This is the only way forward and though the journey is long, one has to persevere and be patient. There are no quick-fixes to this global problem. Solutions need to be customised with the society we are dealing with.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings