Russell and Duenes

From The Ivory Tower – Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty

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My wife was raving about this book as she read it, so I dropped all my previously planned reading and blazed through it. I was not disappointed. This has to rank both as one of the most informative and  most inspirational books I’ve read this year. And the informative part also leads to infuriation. How so? The authors, Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, are two journalists who have long covered famine and agricultural policy in this country and around the world, and thus, they speak with great insight and authority about the reasons why people in Africa, most notably, Ethiopia, still starve post-Green Revolution. And though there is a complex of factors, the biggest one is U.S. and European farm subsidies. This is the infuriating part. Essentially our American farmers remain rich because our government pays them to produce, produce, produce. But of course, this means the destruction of prices and markets overseas in the developing world. Reading this book, one sees the incredible power of the farm lobby over politicians of every political stripe. Our farmers fight tooth-and-nail to “keep the food in food aid,” which literally means the starvation of Africans. We have not been interested in seeing Ethiopians become self-sustaining farmers; we’ve been interested in selling them our food.

There are other problems as well, such as the fact that the Blue Nile River originates and flows abundantly in Ethiopia, but they can’t access it due to their weak political position relative to Egypt. Egyptians freak out at the thought that Ethiopian just might, I don’t know, actually use some of the water that flows through their own country. It’s enough to make me want to start throwing furniture.

The authors also talk about the fact that what is needed in Africa is not just technological know-how, but the development and sustenance of markets, like the agricultural markets we created here in the 1800’s in order to bring food security to our farmers. They also delve into the AIDS problem in Africa and how malnourishment has stunted progress in bringing health to African AIDS patients.

The inspiration comes as Thurow and Kilman tell story after story about what people are doing, on both large and small scales, to put a dent in the food problem in Africa. It runs the gamut from people like Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono (for whom my respect has grown because of this book) on the one hand, to a lady in Alabama whose conscience gets pricked to make a difference while watching “Designing Women,” on the other hand. You begin to realize that there are a lot of people who are giving of their own private money, expertise and time to help create agricultural sustainability and food security for Africans. And it’s not being done in a paternalistic or neo-colonial fashion.

One of the biggest myths about Sub-Saharan Africa is this notion that its farmers don’t produce any food; that it’s nothing but a barren wasteland. This is not true. Many of the African farmers interviewed in this book have quite prolific farms, but they have no warehouses in which to store their produce, no markets in which to sell them, and no ability to compete with food aid coming in from the U.S. and Europe which undercuts them. This has to be one of the great tragedies and moral failings that we, and I, have been party to in this generation. But it doesn’t have to continue. And Thurow and Kilman point the way forward (though I was a bit disappointed in their last chapter on practical applications. It was too government-centric).

This book certainly shows the mistakes we’ve made in the past, what some people are doing to change it, and how we all can do better in the future. It is also a well-written and engaging work. I have already recommended it to friends and will continue to do so.



Written by Michael Duenes

June 30, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Duenes, Literature

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