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- Published on Amazon.com
In this challenging book, these two veteran Wall Street Journal reporters ask, as the subtitle states, why the world's poorest starve in an age of plenty. If you have studied the topic of poverty and food production, some of the content here may not be completely new to you, but much of their argument goes beyond what you may typically have heard. Thurow and Kilman's WSJ reporting on famines in 2003 won them some recognition, even a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize.
Here's what I love most about this book: it pays tribute to Norman Borlaug, who passed away last year. You don't know who that is? Only a Nobel Peace Prize winner, one of my heroes, who is personally, almost single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of literally millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of people around the world. He fathered the Green Revolution, back when "green" didn't indicate anti-market, eco-feel-goodism. He developed various strains of wheat that increased yield and resisted disease. I read an interview with him in Reason Magazine a few years ago and became enthralled with his story.
Thurow and Kilman continue the Borlaug story. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1970, he went out of fashion until a Japanese business man and philanthropist drafted him to bring the Green Revolution to Africa. In spite of some early successes, it did not take hold as well as it had in India.
The reasons for the persistence of poverty are varied. The culprit I often hear is corrupt governments. Surely one does not have to look hard to find governments who use foreign aid to buy chalets in Europe, or who give out food aid based on tribal divisions, and who steal from and oppress their people. But the problem of hunger is much greater than that.
Part of the reason agricultural development was stymied in Africa, despite Borlaug's efforts, is a complete lack of infrastructure. When farmers had a bumper crop, the transportation, market structure, and commodities exchanges were not there to help them reap rewards, so they had no incentives to produce, to invest in equipment, fertilizer, or seeds.
The worst part of this story, I think, is the way U.S. agricultural aid disincentivises farmers. Farmers in Africa work hard to produce a crop, and if they can get it to market at all, they are greeted by truckloads of American-grown grain, which is virtually free for the asking. How will they make money off of their efforts? But the United States, by law, cannot send money to these struggling nations for infrastructure, equipment, or other investment in their agricultural development. Why? Because the U.S. government wants to support its own farmers, buying their produce! Now, I'm all for the success of American farmers, but so much of our farming industry is subsidized by the government for the supposedly noble cause of feeding the hungry around the world while making the problem worse that it makes me angry! Well-meaning Christians and government officials may think they're helping the hungry, but by perpetuating the policy of subsidizing American farmers to produce crops to send overseas to hungry nations they are perpetuating the very problem they think they're solving.
Enough does tell some encouraging stories. My favorite is about Dr. Joe Mamlin who, when treating AIDS patients in Kenya, realized that his efforts were futile if the patient has nothing to eat. He began handing out food along with the medicine he dispensed, and eventually started a network of clinics with their own gardens in which they grow crops and raise chickens. This dual emphasis of improved nutrition and medication has vastly improved the effectiveness of the clinics' work. (Another side note pet peeve: I am glad Western Christians are increasingly taking action and showing compassion, helping people with AIDS. I know many of the victims are truly victims, wives and children of wayward husbands who visit prostitutes while traveling or working away from home. But why do these activists never, ever mention the fact that the epidemic can easily be contained if they only have sex with their wives?)
Thurow and Kilman end with some practical steps we, as individuals and as a nation, can take to move toward alleviating poverty. In spite of their examples of heroic individuals and their actions, I mostly finished this book feeling frustrated and helpless in light of the vast power that our government, agricultural lobbies, and cultural forces, both here and abroad, have to maintain systems that perpetuate poverty. I do hope that Thurow and Kilman's voices will be heard by people who can make a difference. Too many people are starving among plenty. Borlaug's intellectual heirs, Dr. Mamlin, and others who share Thurow and Kilman's views can make those numbers shrink, the sooner the better.