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One child dies of hunger every seven seconds
Poverty in a world of plenty

April 19, 2002 | Page 10

ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks at the disaster of the free market around the world--and the hope for a better world amid the horror.

IN THE few seconds that it takes to read this paragraph, another child somewhere in the world will die from hunger or a disease related to hunger. That's the scale of malnutrition and its devastating consequences in the world today, according to the United Nations (UN) World Food Program.

The dead may be victims of famine and drought, as in countries such as Ethiopia. Or they may be fleeing war, like the Afghan refugees forced to eat grass to survive. But hunger and poverty aren't unique to drought-plagued or war-torn countries.

Even in the U.S.--the richest country in the world--hunger flourishes. According to the food charity Second Harvest, more than 9 million children received emergency food assistance in 2001. That's more than the population of New York City.

The problem, of course, isn't that there isn't enough food to feed every child in the U.S. On the contrary, the U.S. government pays farmers not to produce food--because a glut in the market might force prices to go down, cutting into the profits of the giant agribusinesses.

The same argument applies around the world. Take the country of Argentina in Latin America. Poor and hungry people overturning a cattle truck, slaughtering the cows in the street with sticks and knives--this is a scene from the evening news in the city of Rosario.

Yet Argentina is a country rich in natural resources--especially food. Even today, in the midst of an economic crisis, it remains one of the world's largest exporters of grain and beef. Yet Argentinians are going hungry. Only a sick system could produce this kind of misery.

At the International Conference on Financing for Development last month in Monterrey, Mexico, UN officials sounded the alarm to world leaders. They pointed out that of 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty on less than $1 a day, 75 percent live in rural areas and make their livings primarily through agriculture.

"A hungry person is not able to work at his or her full potential," UN Food and Agricultural Organization Director-General Jacques Diouf explained. "If some 40 percent of a country's population is under-fed, the economy as a whole lacks the energy needed for growth."

But Diouf also had a warning for world leaders: "A hungry person is an angry person easily swayed by charges that the global economic system is not working and should be trashed in favor of something radically different."

The power to change this system

ARGENTINA IS an example of the world economic system gone mad. But Argentina's workers and the poor have also shown their power to shake this unjust system to its roots--and pose a different world altogether.

In December, millions of people took part in mass protests that toppled two presidents in the period of a week--an upheaval called the Argentinazo. The basis of the revolt was the explosion of anger at a decade of free-market austerity measures pushed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its main sponsor, the U.S. government--and implemented by Argentine politicians.

When Argentina first adopted the IMF program of free trade, privatization and government cutbacks, the country was going to be the model for what neoliberal free-market policies could do in Latin America.

But the "dream" turned into a nightmare. The economy tipped into recession in the late 1990s, and all Presidents Carlos Menem and Fernando de la Rúa had to offer was more austerity. Conditions like these led to seven general strikes in two years--and the massive growth of an unemployed movement, the piqueteros.

In some parts of Argentina, unemployment has climbed to 60 percent, so the piqueteros movement includes young people who have never had jobs, but also unemployed factory workers with union experience.

With their tactic of using road and highway blockades to force both local and national government officials to meet their demands, the piqueteros set a fighting example for other sectors of Argentine society that were becoming increasingly bitter with the government's program.

The final straw was de la Rúa's freeze on bank accounts in early December. Massive protests brought every town in Argentina to a standstill, and millions of people came out on the streets of the capital of Buenos Aires. De la Rúa was forced to resign on December 20, and his replacement quit in the face of renewed protests a week later.

But the struggle is far from over. Argentina's new president, Eduardo Duhalde, has vowed that he won't be pushed around by the IMF. But before he met with IMF officials last month, Duhalde forced through another 14 percent cut in the government budget--to impress the bankers with his cost-cutting skills.

That's why Argentinians are continuing to organize. They gave another glimpse of their power again last month when workers occupying the Brukman textile plant in Buenos Aires turned away police trying to retake the plant--with the help of pot-banging supporters from the local neighborhood.

Smaller protests continue to take place daily, demanding food and jobs, and meetings of the asambleas populares (neighborhood assemblies), involving hundreds of activists, convene each week.

On March 17, some 3,000 people representing assemblies across the country met in their first national conference to discuss their demands and the future of the struggle. They called for an end to the policies of the global loan sharks. But they also took aim at the Duhalde government, demanding the renationalization of private industry and a repeal of wage cuts for state workers.

The movement still needs to win over employed workers--many of them held back by union leaders with ties to Duhalde's government. These workers have the power to make a difference in whether the assemblies' demands are met.

But struggle in Argentina is far from over. It shows the potential for revolts by working people that can end the misery of the free-market system.

A free-trade con game

THE WORLD'S most powerful countries use a free-trade con game to rip off poorer nations. That's the conclusion of a report released last week by the antipoverty group Oxfam.

The U.S. and the European Union (EU) insist that developing countries adopt free-trade policies that open up their economies to international competition and investment by eliminating trade barriers and government subsidies to domestic industries.

But the U.S. and EU don't practice what they preach, according to Oxfam's report, titled "Rigged Rules and Double Standards." According to the study, the EU and U.S. are especially hypocritical when it comes to agriculture, spending billions to protect their own farmers from imports from developing countries--while subsidizing exports to poor countries.

"These subsidized exports from rich countries are driving down prices for exports from developing countries and devastating the prospects for smallholder agriculture," the report concludes. "Some of the world's poorest countries are competing against its richest treasuries."

As study author Kevin Watkins told reporters, "Governments of rich countries constantly stress their commitment to poverty reduction. Yet the same governments use their trade policy to conduct what amounts to robbery against the world's poor."

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