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One billion malnourished because...
Profits come first

May 31, 2002 | Page 5

NEARLY 1 billion people suffer from hunger around the globe, according to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization. This is a catastrophe--one that even George W. Bush can't help but notice.

But for Bush and world leaders like him, the solution is simple. Poor countries have to get with program--embrace the free market and learn to compete internationally. Governments can't keep asking for handouts, Bush effectively said in speech to a UN poverty conference in Mexico earlier this year.

But, as ELIZABETH SCHULTE shows, the not-so-free market has no answers for the world's hungry.

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GEORGE W. BUSH has the solution to world poverty. "Trade is the engine of development," he said in a speech before the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) earlier this year. "And by promoting it, we will help meet the needs of the world's poor."

And if "promoting it" doesn't work, there's the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank--to punish poor countries that refuse to go along with Washington's free-trade agenda.

But what the U.S. demands of other countries and what it does itself are completely different animals. Bush's new farm bill is a prime example of this double standard.

On May 13, the president signed a $190 billion farm bill that raises government subsidies for domestic crop and dairy production by 67 percent. The legislation will give U.S. food producers even more advantages in a world agricultural market that's already tipped their way. But let a poor country try to subsidize its farmers, and the Bush gang hollers about "free trade" and "competition."

"If trade is going to be as important as aid in reducing poverty, it has to be trade giving developing countries access to markets, instead of using them as dumping grounds for surpluses fueled by subsidies," said Lennart Bage, head of the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development.

There are many examples to illustrate Bage's point. Take the "competition" between Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and the U.S., the richest country in the world.

Up until the early 1980s, Haiti produced almost all of its own rice. Then, under pressure from Washington, the country opened up its market to foreign imports. Almost immediately, U.S. rice exports flooded into Haiti--thanks to an intricate system of government subsidies and price supports that made American rice cheaper than domestic rice.

This was a disaster for the one-fifth of Haiti's population that relied on rice production for a living--and saw the price of rice driven down by U.S. imports. The percentage of malnourished children in Haiti shot up to half the population--with the highest rates of all in rice-growing areas.

The misery for poor nations is multiplied when the noose is tightened by the debt policies of world financial institutions--with the U.S. government once again calling the shots.

Poor countries are forced to take out high-interest loans from international lending organizations like the IMF. In exchange, they have to follow prescriptions for liberalizing trade rules--in addition to cuts in government spending, which usually translates into cuts in basic social services like education. The result is a cycle of debt, poverty and hunger.

Even if poorer countries "succeed" in producing goods for export on the free market, they might as well be playing a roulette wheel. If there's glut on world market of the product that they specialize in, they're stuck.

Karl Marx called this a "crisis of overproduction"--where capitalism, because of its unplanned and anarchic nature, sees the production of more goods than can be sold at a profit. This is the reason behind the obscene secret of food production in the modern world--that farmers often find it cheaper to destroy food rather than try to sell it in a glutted market.

This food could be used to feed the 1 billion people who don't get enough to eat around the globe. But because the system is organized around profit, food that's desperately needed around the world is destroyed to keep prices high for agricultural goods.

There is no such thing as "fair" trade policy when rich countries like the U.S. are calling all the shots. World leaders like Bush are under no obligation to play by the rules. If they don't like them, they change them.

Starvation doesn't exist because people can't produce enough food. The cause of hunger is capitalism--a system that puts profits before meeting people's basic needs. Thus it isn't an unfortunate mistake--or the result of a freak of nature.

As the German poet Bertolt Brecht once put it, "Famines don't simply exist. They are organized by the grain trade."

Farm bill benefits corporate "farmers"

"IT WILL promote farmer independence and preserve the farm way of life for generations," said George W. Bush when he signed the farm bill into law earlier this month.

Plenty of Democrats threw out their talk about "fiscal responsibility" to sign on for the farm bill. They were happy to echo Bush's talk about helping out the "little guy" with their votes on the legislation.

But the fact is, some "farmers" will get a lot more help that others. Namely, big agribusiness. Since the subsidies increase as farmers plant more, the rules favor the largest and most profitable operations.

The picture that Bush paints of a small, struggling farmer getting a needed boost from this bill is pure fiction. Today, the U.S. has 2 million farms that are home to just 2 percent of the population--compared to 25 percent of the population on 6 million farms in the 1930s, when federal farm support programs were initiated.

Large commercial agribusiness now calls the shots, with 8 percent of farms accounting for 72 percent of sales, according to the Agriculture Department. Last year, nearly three-quarters of farm subsidy money went to the richest 10 percent of American farmers. Among the individuals and companies that raked in subsidies: John Hancock Life Insurance, Chevron, banker David Rockefeller and former Enron CEO Ken Lay.

Bush's supposed leg up to farmers amounts to a handout for not just the richest food producers in the world, but the richest corporations in the world's richest country.

Trade laws don't save jobs

CITING THE need to protect the ailing U.S. economy, the "free trader" George W. Bush recently signed the most sweeping trade restrictions in a decade.

The farm bill is one example. Another is legislation that restricts imports of foreign steel. Bush got the blessing of union leaders, who argued that blocking foreign steel would "save American jobs." This couldn't be further from the truth.

U.S. bosses and politicians support restrictions on imports when it's beneficial for them--not for workers. Therefore, Bush is perfectly happy for U.S. corporations to ship work to the maquiladora factories on the U.S.-Mexico border, where workers labor for low wages under miserable conditions. But the steel bosses got a helping hand.

If the politicians in Washington were really concerned about U.S. workers losing their jobs, their post-September 11 bailout package would have devoted more money to helping laid-off airline workers, rather than serving up $15 million in corporate welfare to the bosses.

Workers shouldn't see trade barriers as a solution. If there's one thing that's consistent about Bush's economic policies, it's that he watches out for the profits of the job cutters.

Organizing resistance to the bosses' attacks on workers--here and abroad--is the only way to save jobs.

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