The End of Hunger

Cut the development NGOs some slack.


The impetus behind Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s arguments seems to be that there is a false consensus among development experts that the poor will always choose improved nutrition over anything else (“More Than 1 Billion People Are Hungry in the World,” May/June 2011). They argue that the failure to understand that people have other needs (whether for community or for entertainment) and other priorities (whether involving the demands of their religion or the authority of cultural custom) explains why there has been so little progress in improving nutritional outcomes among the so-called bottom billion.

If they are right, then God help us! But though it is true that the history of development theory is replete with follies of every sort, from the intellectual fraud and moral affront that is Malthusianism to the rational-choice assumptions that Banerjee and Duflo appear to have been targeting, development thinking is not that benighted, and to a very considerable degree they are arguing against a straw man, which, satisfying as it may be personally, is not very helpful in advancing the debate.

It is true that those who argue against further help for the poor, whether they are foreign donors and NGOs and international agencies, or the elites in and out of government in countries where there are many chronically malnourished people, often indignantly ask, as Banerjee and Duflo put it, why the poor “don’t invest in what would really make their lives better.” But such an attitude is nowhere near as dominant as they suggest in their article. Development agencies are nowhere near as good at listening as they should be, but they are not the “Lady Bountiful” caricature Banerjee and Duflo present.

To put it bluntly, in the words of the old Oxbridge wisecrack, what’s true about their argument is obvious and what isn’t obvious isn’t true. Banerjee and Duflo vastly oversimplify. To cite only the most egregious example, they make heavy weather of the fact that, as they put it, in Indian households that have grown richer, “[adults] and their children are certainly not well nourished by any objective standard.” One would never know from this the terrible extent to which the reality of such households is that men and boys are actually quite well nourished and women, and especially girls, quite malnourished. Talking about the poor in the way Banerjee and Duflo do — that is, without disaggregating the two genders as a point of departure — is not a help but a prophylactic to better understanding.

A quick point on Lester Brown’s essay: There is a great deal of evidence that he has either unwisely dismissed, or at the very least written as if he is unaware, that the real heart of the global food crisis is not the spike in food prices but rather the past decade’s dramatic rise in price volatility. Price rises exacerbate the problem of food security for the very poor, but they do not preclude it; in contrast, price volatility almost invariably does just that.

David Rieff
New York, N.Y.

The paradoxes and dilemmas highlighted by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo will resonate strongly with historically minded famine experts. Indeed, for economic historians, today’s world is remarkable for its near absence of catastrophic famine. Banerjee and Duflo mention “famines that kill and weaken millions,” but in reality recent famines have been small and short-lived by historical standards. Twentieth-century famines killed at least 70 million people, more than either world war, but since the late 1980s, the total number of deaths from famine has paled by comparison with deaths from natural disasters. Even in particularly stricken countries like Malawi and Niger, HIV/AIDS has proved a bigger scourge. Clearly, humankind is making some headway with hunger.

Still, some aspects of Banerjee and Duflo’s historical framework could use greater scrutiny. They are a little too ready to contrast hunger-based poverty traps of the past with the plight of contemporary victims of hunger. Banerjee and Duflo invoke, for example, Robert Fogel’s long-standing claim that a significant proportion of people in the past were too hungry to function effectively as workers. But that’s a line of analysis cast into doubt by the most recent research, for England at least: Craig Muldrew has found that before the Industrial Revolution, English laborers consumed food in quantities that rule out the possibility of a malnutrition trap. Banerjee and Duflo make an important point that today’s poor don’t lack for adequate food, but they oversell their findings as an entirely new phenomenon. In the past, too, many people surely resembled Javanese laborer Pak Solhin and his family in opting for mild malnutrition over a physiologically sustainable diet. The question is whether education can now make a difference. Can we help convince Pak Solhin and millions of others like him — in both the developing and the industrialized world — that televisions and Big Macs are not more important than healthy food?

Cormac O Grada
Professor of Economics
University College Dublin
Dublin, Ireland

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo reply:

We thank Cormac O Grada, whose work on famine we greatly admire, for shedding historical light on our argument. We absolutely agree with the point that famines have been rare in recent years. In fact, our main argument is that low availability of food is not really the driving factor for undernutrition in today’s world. It is worth noting that even in the earlier part of the 20th century, where there were catastrophic famines (Bengal, China, Ukraine), political and institutional factors seemed to have played a fundamental role in causing and sustaining the disaster. The fact that famines are largely “history” is something that we could have highlighted even more forcefully — though that’s not to say that they might not return (one never knows).

The main point of our essay is that in today’s world, the main problem is one of nutrition, rather than hunger, let alone starvation. Not being historians, we don’t have strong opinions about whether this is an “entirely new phenomenon” or not, so we certainly would not want to oversell the point. After concluding that we don’t see Pak Solhin trapped in a conventional nutrition-based poverty trap, we write, “None of this is to say that the logic of the hunger-based poverty trap is flawed. The idea that better nutrition would propel someone on the path to prosperity was almost surely very important at some point in history, and it may still be today.” In light of the evidence O Grada brings up, we should have been more skeptical of the examples drawn from Fogel and others that we mention.

If it is indeed the case that there have not been any nutrition-based poverty traps (which seems like a strong claim to us), it only serves to reinforce our argument: The problem with nutrition is not one of availability of food. It is a problem of balancing people’s legitimate desire for things other than mere physical fitness with the importance of eating healthily. Education may be part of the solution, though we suspect not all of it — making good nutrition easier to obtain may be even more important. This requires a radical rethinking of the way countries conceive of their policy on food subsidies today.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

TOWNLEY89: Man cannot live on bread alone. So maybe the fact that they have a TV doesn’t mean they’re not hungry. They value a TV more because it makes staying alive bearable, as opposed to simply “possible.”

THE GLOBALIZER: Too often, the people who say that groups of people are acting against their self-interest are simply misunderstanding what that group’s interest actually is. I’d say that more than thriving, poor people want to live with dignity.

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