Fall is here, and we’re shifting focus back to general topics on globalization and political risk. Let’s start with a hypothesis about risk and hunger, the most basic of human needs.
Ending hunger is the first priority of the Millennium Development Goals. Conceptually, ending hunger should be the easiest to achieve: it is as easy as having/providing access to food. It should be easier than achieving, for example, an increase in life expectancy, which requires a host of variables to come together. It should be easier than increasing literacy or achieving gender parity or eradicating HIV/AIDS.
But ending hunger is where progress has been particularly elusive. Since 2000-2002 there has been no percentage gain in fighting hunger: 15-16% of the world’s population has remained undernourished. The actual number of undernourished people grew from 805 to 830 million by 2007. How could this have happened during a period of increasing global affluence?
No matter how you analyze it, the fundamental reason that access to food is complicated–beyond natural phenomena like drought or floods–is due to two things: (1) market dynamics (profit motive + private distribution + wage economy + loss of land) and (2) decisions about political risk.
Now I’m not a Marxist, but that doesn’t mean I exonerate capitalism from all sins. When it comes to feeding people, globalized capitalism has proven indefensible (at worst) and inequitable (at best). Case in point: lack of progress on the hunger front around the same time that global agriculture expanded rapidly into developing countries.
Since 2007, things have taken a sharp downward turn.
A spike in world food prices in 2007-8 wreaked havoc on poor populations. Globalized commercial food markets (which do have other benefits) transmitted the spike fairly rapidly. After all, if you are a commercial land user in Brazil, wouldn’t you rather be producing corn for biofuels and meat for the US, in which profit margins are higher, instead of corn for food?
Many developing countries, including the ones in South Asia that I’m most familiar with, experienced violent protests from food shortages. Demand for government subsidies and outlays increased.
Just when governments began to divert resources to feed people, the world plunged into a finance-led recession in 2008. Both aid and tax receipts declined, severely compromising the ability to fight hunger. In other words, capricious financial schemes of the very wealthy ended up pushing the very poor over the brink. The World Bank estimates that by the end of 2010, 64 million additional people will suffer extreme poverty (income<$1.25/day) as a result of the financial crisis.
Hunger, of course, is the most basic manifestation of the overall poverty situation. But government response, especially in times of crisis, is shaped foremost by the demands of groups that pose the greatest political risk. The top priority is the newly unemployed, especially in organized or unionized sectors in urban areas. The chronically malnourished in the rural areas are politically less urgent to most governments, even in signficantly rural democracies, such as India.
Now, here’s the good thing: urban populations are growing rapidly. Between now and 2050, world population will increase by 28% (from 7 to 9 billion), but urban population will increase by roughly 100%. That means greater political risk for governments, not just in times of economic crisis, but also from a general shift in the locale of hunger from rural to urban settings. Urban folk can do more damage more quickly and more visibly. Government ministers are urban creatures; government offices are predominantly urban. My consequent prediction: urbanization will force governments to deal with hunger more earnestly than they have done so far.
Of course, some have dreams of hunger being eradicated through production boosts and technological innovation (food replicator, anyone?). The Economist recently marvelled at Brazil’s record of increasing agricultural output (see here and here). If the past is any guide, technology + global markets will continue to direct agriculture in developing countries to prioritize people with pocketbooks; and local hunger will persist. In this situation, political risk from a rapidly growing urban poor will be a greater spur to do something about hunger than leaving matters in the invisible hands of the market.