Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman

Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.

Takeaway: Africa is not poor and hungry all by itself.  There are many reasons, but Africa (and other areas of poverty) do not need to remain hungry.

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Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty is an important book.  It is not an exciting book, but global poverty and hunger really are not exciting.  The subtitle probably should be something like: Everything has an unintended consequence.

Millions, if not billions of lives have been saved by the green revolution that started in the middle of the last century.  Science and innovation (economic, agriculture, political, etc.) have made huge changes.  The book opens with the story of the green revolution.  The green revolution started in Mexico moved to South American and Asia.  It took almost two decades for the green revolution to start moving to Africa.  Unfortunately, many of the political and social forces that helped move the science and technology of the green revolution changed from the 1960s to the 1980s.

There were significant economic theory changes in the 1980s.  The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund started tying grants and loans to economic reform.  Some of that economic reform was very much needed.  But the countries with the highest levels of poverty were forced to pay the highest price.  The unintended consequence was that government subsidies for agriculture was drastically cut, the World Bank and IMF started supporting urban infrastructure projects that did not line up with the natural economic strengths or growth areas of Africa.

Politically, the west was still playing favorites with the end of the cold war.  This meant supporting pretty bad dictatorships and non-representative governments.  But just as bad, was that poverty reduction was not among the top focuses for International Development Aid.

The 1990s were not much better.  War continued to ravage through Africa, in part because of western support of repressive governments from the previous generation.  Certainly not all blame can be placed on the West.  Africa needs to claim plenty of their own blame as well.  But the global power often made bad decisions, not so much because of bad faith, but because the west was still working out economic and political theory.  Africa became the test bed of nation building.  And again, the poorest paid the highest price.

The biggest reason, that comes up over and over again about why Africa is continually hungry is the agriculture policy of the West, especially the US.  The US spends more on agriculture aid than international development aid.  In fact, the US spends more on agriculture aid than the entire world spends on international aid.  In some years agriculture aid in the US doubles or triples world wide international aid to Africa.  At the same time, the US and the EU often force African countries into harsh economic cuts, with African support of agriculture often being a prime target.  So subsistence African farmers are prevented from receiving agriculture subsidies that have a track record in Asia and South American of encouraging agriculture growth because western governments are concerned about “unfair” trade practices.  At the same time the US, has a requirement that 100 percent of food aid be US products.  So during the 1984 and 2003 Ethiopian famines, there was grain in Ethiopia that could have been purchased and fed to the starving.  But the US flooded the market with grain aid, which destroyed the local grain economy.  Farmers were not able to sell their grain, either to local consumers or to government or non-governmental agencies and those farmers were then not able to continue farming, which made the famine worse.  As recently as this past year, pushes to get the US to purchase local grain in disaster relief settings first (up to 25% of total food aid) were defeated in congress.  The US Congressional Budget Office has estimated that purchasing up to 25% of food aid locally would save 50,000 lives a year because local food is cheaper and can be made available months earlier than US grown food.

Enough is not an entirely negative story.  Told in a very narrative format, organizations like Opportunity International (a charity I have been supporting for years), political advocacy from Bread for the World and student groups like Wheaton College (my alma mater) are portrayed very positively.  I am also encouraged that there is a very positive portrayal of Christian organizations in the book.  It is certainly not a Christian book, but it frequently points to Christian organizations and the ones that are making very good decisions to help the poor.  (But there are several examples where the opposite is true as well.)

I am not going to lie.  This is not a fun book to read.  I listened to it on audiobook (about 12 hours) and it took me about a month to get through.  But I think it is worth the effort.  If we are working in the world, no matter what your political leanings, you will find evidence in Enough that support your political background and challenge your previously held beliefs about why the problems in Africa exist.  I think one of the strengths of the book is that it clearly is trying to show poverty and hunger as reality, but it is not trying to push simplistic solutions.  Simplistic solutions are part of the problem of why Africa is in the mess that it is in now.

5 Comments

I read it too a while back. I thought it was really interesting. I think it was maybe a touch on the positive site in regards to the green revolution. Certainly the green revolution did some significant good but it also had some important downsides like encouraging increased use of potentially dangerous chemicals and reducing biodiversity.

This sounds like an interesting book. It would be interesting to dialogue about this topic with an agricultural expert. He may point to things like govt. help has kept the price of food down in the US and in other countries that do the same, which has kept poor persons in those countries in better shape. Food has been one of the best balance of trade helps in the US which has kept the economy from getting worse here and around the world. Many farmers would like the govt. to get out of the agriculture helping business so real market forces could be allowed to act. This would be good for the economy in many ways here and around the world. It may be the multi national agricultural businesses that are the most to blame, not the farmers, especially the “family farmers”. Reform of the ag. subt. programs to support only small farmers would be a good place to start. Politicians have been buying votes by enabling the US only foreign aid food. Voters have been uneducated on the results, if people knew the results the books speaks of they would maybe advocate for change. Unintended consequences of our personal or govt. decisions have cost many lives and may be another way of saying we are not loving our neighbor as ourselves. This is true in agriculture as in most other areas of life.

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[…] open market, but less protectionist and US focused.   I reviewed the book Enough on global hunger (my review) recently.  And Enough clearly showed that US protectionism and lack of free trade around […]

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