Saturday, April 7, 2012

How Famine Works...

Heard this while listening to Fresh Air's Terry Gross interview Jeffrey Gettleman, who was set to receive a George Polk Award for foreign reporting.

Odd, after all these years I never understood how famine actually works.  This is a cautionary tale on why a society must take care of its people and how a total "everyone for themselves" model will lead to those who have and those who will die.

From the show:
GETTLEMAN: Famines are about distribution. They're not about total capacity to feed people. In Mogadishu there was plenty of food when I was there, so I was eating chicken, beef, vegetables. I was eating fine. We'd go to the hospital, we witnessed these people who had run out of food and were marooned in the city without any resources, and then we would go back to the place we were staying and we would eat fine.
And other people were eating fine on the streets of Mogadishu. That was what was so striking to me of watching this man emerge from the hospital with the body of his child in his arms and he's walking past pyramids of oranges and stacks of bread and sacks of flour. And that's what happens in all these famines. It's the same thing.
GROSS: So is it money? Like, you had the money to buy food; this man with the dead child in his arms did not?
GETTLEMAN: It's mostly money. And it's also a distribution problem. If you have money you can get food just about anywhere, except for areas that are really cut off and have blockages in them, like what the Shabab are doing. But once you get to the city, yeah, if you had money you could buy food.
But these people have lost everything they own. They've lost their animals, they've lost their homes, they've used what little money they had just to get to Mogadishu. So yeah, they don't have any money to get any food. And at that point, you know, you need specialized food. These kids need, you know, they need medicine. They need IVs. They need to be hospitalized.
You can't just hand them a banana when they're in that state. You know, their systems have been so compromised. So you know, it's a multi-layered problem that starts where they came from - that they were living on the edge, probably very poor, malnourished to begin with. And then they were driven out of their area, put on the run without anything to sustain them.
And then they show up completely broke in a place where there's no social safety net, there's no government to help them, and they're cut off from their families, their support network. So who's going to help them? And on that scale. I mean when we were in Mogadishu last year during the famine, there were hundreds of thousands of people like this
So who's going to help them?

The free market?  The same free market that is selling the "pyramids of oranges and stacks of bread and sacks of flour?"  This is where a bit of understanding the dynamics comes in and the simple solutions that people think will work fall apart.

The guy selling the oranges and bread cannot feed them, he could - but he would need to cut some off or else face the same prospect.  So even if he takes one or two under charity, many more are still in need.

Those who cannot buy food cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  They are there for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with past decisions they made.  Right now they need food, and without charity or money they will starve.

Should starvation be the only thing our government focuses on to "promote the general Welfare?"

How we, one of the richest societies ever, and we - the people - take care of each other is a reflection of our overall values and is what the Founders meant by "promote the general Welfare" as a necessary parameter of the constitution they set forth.

Does welfare - as we know it now - promote sloth?  Yeah, but dumping more and more responsibility to care for oneself on those with little money and support networks is just cruel.

I think there is a middle ground - not too much to hurt and not too much to hinder - that will help all.  Maybe that's what that Jesus dude meant when he said:
Verily I say unto you, Since you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.  Matthew 25:40
A few should not carry the whole burden for those who lack empathy or compassion, or for reasons known to them only, see some "brethren" as undeserving or not one in the same as them.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post, I recently went back and listened to ti episode. It was nice to hear a good story, especially after the Foxconn story that other guy published. Would the problem of distribution be the sole issue? or maybe in a more broad sense, would multiple particulars be included in the idea of the problem of distribution since major conflicts, greed, negligence etc. would also contribute?