The Geopolitics of Hunger

Former UN envoy Jean Ziegler on Third World hunger: "We Let Them Starve."

Jean Zeigler. Image via WikiCommons.

Jean Ziegler was until recently (2000-2008) the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.  Subsequently, Ziegler served in a similar function on the Advisory Committee to the UN Human Rights Council. He is also a vocal critic of global capitalism’s effects on the developing world, especially Africa. The last few days he has been doing the media circuit promoting his new book, “Mass Destruction: The Geopolitics of Hunger” (the French title) or “We Let Them Starve: The Mass Destruction in The Third World” (the German title). There’s no English title available yet.

Ziegler is a well-known Swiss author and politician — his writing is prolific and ever since his first publication (Sociology of the New Africa, 1964), he has taken on the cause of the developing world, against imperialism, capitalism, and injustice. In 1964, as a young academic, he chauffeured Che Guevara around Geneva when the Cuban revolutionary visited the UN. His combative and at times polemical style has earned him much admiration, but also vilification, and legal persecution. As a socialist member of the Swiss parliament, he particularly attracted the ire of Switzerland’s liberal-conservatives, closely related to big business, and of course the major Swiss banks, for denouncing their hiding away of stolen funds, such as those of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, of those of Jewish people who perished in the holocaust, and of all kinds of dubious origin that ended up in Swiss banks.

While his fighting spirit, his relentless engagement for justice across the world, and his international standing have earned him respect, he has remained a thorn in the side of Switzerland-based businesses (such as Nestlé*) who have been highly irritated by his denunciation of their profiteering and their active participation in practices that kept developing countries poor and dependent.

With this in mind, it is then quite understandable that business journalist Philip Löpfe’s interview with Ziegler for newsnet, the online presence of the Swiss newspapers Basler Zeitung and the Zürich-based Tagesanzeiger, would be a loaded affair. And yet, the combative and perhaps provocative personality of Ziegler and his engagement with poor countries alone do not fully explain the tendentious nature of the questions he faced. Rather, what shines through in Löpfe’s tone and in the content of his questions is the strained arrogance of those whose profiteering from global misery was usually explained away as natural and which has now, as global neoliberalism struggles and inequalities become more glaring, been opened up to closer scrutiny and contestation.

Some excerpts from the interview, which I translated from the German:

Ziegler: According to the UN World Food Programme, there is enough food in the world for 12 billion people. If today people are still starving, then this is organized crime, mass murder. Every five seconds, one child under the age of ten dies, one billion people are permanently and heavily undernourished.

Löpfe: [Your] book’s title is “We let them starve”. I am not aware that I let anyone starve.

Ziegler: That is true, but we are all accomplices. We allow multinational food corporations and speculators to decide everyday who is eating and living, and who is starving and dying.

What should the individual do? Donate money? Eat less meat?

… It is mainly about becoming politically active in order to put an end to the murderous activities of food speculators and multinationals. We can do so, we live in a democracy.

Food speculation has existed for thousands of years. What is wrong when a farmer seeks insurance against bad harvests or when a baker ensures that his supply of flour is stable? 

Nothing. But that is not the point … The commodities market was ‘financialised’. Speculators are making billions, while millions of people starve to death.


How could we avoid such speculation?

We could exclude all non-producers and non-consumers from the commodities exchange — in this sense only the farmer and the baker, through the commodities exchange engage in trade with each other.

However, the experts have agreed that during emergencies, such as droughts and floods, and so on, commodities exchange and trade should remain open. It was disastrous that during the famine of 2008 some countries blocked the export of rice.

Famines, such as in 2008 and 2011, are additional disasters; they add to the daily massacre of hunger, the so-called ‘silent hunger’. It is true that at the time rice exporting countries such as Thailand and Vietnam closed their borders. Governments were afraid of riots in their own countries. That is understandable. But for a country like Senegal, importing 75% of its rice, it was a disaster.

Why is a country like Senegal forced to import rice? The majority of its population are still subsistence farmers.

It remains a fact that in terms of percentage of the population, there are nowhere more starving people than in Africa. About a third of the population’s men, women and children are permanently undernourished.

Could one not argue in a provocative way that Africa is not starving because of the speculators but because it is too poor for the speculators: there is nothing to be earned there.

No, no. African countries have incredible civilisations, based on agriculture, with much knowledge and very fertile soils.

Why is it that Africa is the continent where most people starve and which imports more than a quarter of its food supply?

Because the colonial pact is still enforced.

Isn’t this a bit too simple? Colonialism is over for more than half a century.

But there still is a small upper class, dependent on rich countries, and extremely corrupt. Again Senegal: The country exports peanuts and at the same time imports three quarters of its food requirements.


Because the colonial pact was never broken. The Senegalese farmers are forced to grow and exports peanuts because the revenue serves to pay for foreign debt. At the same time, Europe sells its food surplus at dumping prices on the African markets. How can a small farmer survive under these conditions?

African farmers are not very productive. Their productivity is less than 10 percent of Europe’s agriculture. Are they not just lazy?

On the contrary. Nobody works harder than farmers in Africa. They just cannot thrive because they are not supported: no irrigation, no seed, no draft animals, no tractors, no fertilizer, nothing.

So there you have it. Like the now jobless Greeks, if only those poor people weren’t so lazy…

But there is more to this story. Löpfe’s ‘provocative’ questions — especially his last one — are, if not racist, then surely a thinly disguised nod to the neoliberal, corporate raiders who have recently acquired one of the papers in which the interview was published. Thus, both papers are now owned by holding companies that collaborate, involving Tito Tettamanti and Georges Bindschedler.

Georges Bindschedler, co-investor in the rather cynically called  ‘Medienvielfalt Holding’ (Media Diversity Holding) makes it clear why it was necessary to acquire the newspaper.

In an interview last year, he elaborated on their ‘mission’. He suggests that the ‘liberal music’ is not heard loud enough in the Swiss media landscape, and hence Swiss voters fail to understand important political issues, and vote the wrong way, one might add. In particular, he was referring to the rejection by Swiss voters of the rationalisation of a national health care system earlier this year, which according to some analysts would have led further down the slippery slope to a two-tier system — one for the rich, and one for the poor.

As everywhere in the world, corporate control of the media is not about safeguarding the diversity of opinions, as he claims, but about propagating more neoliberal, pro-business values and ideas.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that even in Switzerland, the sheltered island of wealth and prosperity, neoliberal capital feels the need to step up its propaganda efforts.

* Nestlé, the multinational food company who would package air and sell it if they had the technology, has its global headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland. Xstrata and Glencore, after their impending merger the world’s biggest trader, or rather speculator, in commodities, including food, is domiciled in Baar, Switzerland. Glencore’s founder, Marc Rich, built the company partly from profits accumulated by breaking the US oil embargo of Iran in the late 1970s.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.