Poverty Online Course Module 1: Introduction to Betting on Famine by Prof Jean Ziegler

“The destruction, every year, of tens of millions of men, women, and children from hunger is the greatest scandal of our era. Every five seconds, a child under the age of ten dies of hunger – on a planet abounding in wealth and rich in natural resources. In its current state, the global agricultural system would in face, without any difficulty, be capable of feeding 12 billion people, or twice the world’s current population. Hunger is thus in no way inevitable. Every child who starves to death is murdered.”

Betting on Famine the book

This is the opening passage from the book ‘Betting on Famine’ written by Prof Jean Ziegler who was the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.  I have got special permission from Prof Ziegler to use extended excerpts from his 2011 book which he published to confront the way that millions of people are deliberately being killed in the name of finance.

This is the first of several study articles which lays out the extended excerpts to promote discussion about the state of affairs which leads to artificial scarcity, artificial famine and the death of vast numbers of people each year.


Introduction: The Privilege Myopia

Having lived in the United Kingdom, one of the ‘richest’ countries in the world, my interests have been taken up by studying poverty as it is so evident in my culture.  My background is that as a child I was in a middle class community, sent to middle class schools, in the city of Edinburgh, a city run by middle class decisions.  My personal journey to examine in detail poverty and what that means started when a middle class friend at the time stated with clear and absolute candour – “there is no poverty in Britain, not real poverty anyway”.

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This was a moment which stayed with me and spurred me to make a series investigative documentations looking at a variety of assumptions which coalesced to form this statement.  The stark differences between his experience and perception of the society we both lived in demanded interrogation, and doing that has led me to regard Ziegler’s book as a key text to help us understand the realities of the deliberate creation of artificial scarcity.

How I Came To Study Food Poverty

Through doing this work I have become more and more interested and impressed by work done in the United Nations as having profound meaning and frightening honesty, enough to disturb the cultural fictions which I have been raised on.  There is a need for a brave and truthful critical account of the way that our planet has come to be dominated by an economy which normalises the death and suffering of vast numbers of people; I think that voice is Jean Ziegler because of his credentials for having worked so long in his role in the United Nations and for having done detailed scholarly work.

In this age where media is narcissistically pursuing any attention, good or bad, a sociological phenomenon has emerged around information cultures.  People and companies have found that technologies can be used to reward deception.  In view of this a vital skillset which we need to develop as a corrective is research and corroboration.  Using traditional tools like the creation of bibliographys and citing sources of information along with using investigative tools like those found on the Internet Research Clinic by Paul Myers, are indispensible for engendering a culture of veracity.

The careful selection of sources is important in the age of the internet that seems to be amplifying bizarre ideas of conspiracy particularly through platforms such as Facebook which is acting to corrode democratic values and social bonds.  In a time when deliberate deception is a political strategy and much of media is shaped by entrenched and vested interests we need to develop the skills to investigate sources of information and draw on institutions which use some sort of fact checking methodology.  An example is the reports produced by the United Nations.

When I came across the work of Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights I became increasingly interested in the idea that stockmarkets and financial speculation deliberately created famines in order to profit.  At first my mind struggled to accept the idea that so many people and such large and lauded organisations could be complicit in the suffering and death of so many.

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Further investigation led me to the work of Prof Frederick Kaufman.  His book ‘Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food‘ scrutinises the connection between the global food system and financial speculation revealing the terrible link between pension funds and the artificial inflation of staple foods, for example.

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This trail led me to the work of Professor Jean Ziegler, in particular his stunning inditement of the scarcities which are deliberately being caused by financial markets and monopolies.  As a United Nations special rapporteur we get the chance to read about the issues from someone who has significant qualifications and who has had there work vetted.  These kinds of statements are next to meaningless when they are punted on vacuums of truth like Facebook or the drunken punditry of the public house table.

What is important is that statements like these are backed up with rigorous research and that the reader becomes an active reader; someone who invests time in checking sources, correlating information and corroborating offered facts.  The kind of bun fighting which we see in places like Westminister or click bait media is grossly distorting the apprehension of such issues like food poverty, famine, starvation and illness, resulting in their getting distorted and made worse.

After I got over the shock that famines were human made, and found that there are massive amounts of research and documentation available from places like The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust (not to mention numerous academics, activists and scholars), I felt compelled to deepen my knowledge about what food poverty means in falsifiable, provable terms.  That was several years ago and after getting lots of engagement from various people and communities I thought it would be good to do an indepth series of online articles which could act as a sort of online course for the dedicated self learner.

I wrote to Prof Ziegler and asked if I could take the manuscript of his book and use extended excerpts to develop this course.  With his kind permission I am doing this here.  What follows in the next section is a series of verbatim extracts from chapter one of Betting on Famine, which I would implore you to seek out and buy.  I am annotating the excerpts with resources for the reader – all writing found in quotation marks are direct excerpts from the book and chapter in focus.


Preface of Betting on Famine

“For the inmates of the concentration camps, Hitler conceived, before the implementation of the Final Solution, the Hungerplan (hunger plan or hunger strategy), a program of planned starvation that aimed to liquidate as many detainees as possible through deliberate and prolonged deprivation of food.”

Added Note: Prof Ziegler creates a powerful narrative in the book by looking at the history of the starvation strategies which Hitler used to reduce population.  You will find that Ziegler argues how certain people normalise famine and starvation by adopting the ideology of the English economist Thomas Malthus who suggested famine (disease and war) as natures means of regulating population.

“Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”

— Thomas Robert Malthus, From An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

Practical Task: Use the internet to f ind a copy of Thomas Malthus’ ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’, download it and locate in the text on which page the above excerpt is found.  Locate and copy excerpts where famine is mentioned in Malthus’ text; arrange them into a simple document providing a page number for each excerpt.  Write a short piece on what thoughts the views on famine Malthus produce in you. This practical task is a part of a series which exercise research and learning skills through the production of your own work.

Ziegler introduces the fact that speculative investment is indulging in the moral equivalent of what the Nazi regime did in overt and brutal ways.  He raises very significant moral and ethical issues which query whether the deliberate production of the scarcity of food in pursuit of profit should be regarded as a crime against humanity; a form of genecide which has been normalised through the distancing of the perpetrators from the crime via the system of the stockmarket and financial system.

Discussion Task: If your theoretical pension fund is invested in agricultural stocks, and the management of those stocks produces a bubble in the price of staple foods resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, are you complicit in the murder of those people ?  Have a discussion with someone about the notion of complicity and what makes someone complicit in an action; make an audio recording of the discussion. Write down short accounts of at least three different perspectives relating to complicity adding to that an account of what perspective makes sense to you and offer reasons why; if you do not find a perspective which makes sense to you, write down your reasons for uncertainty and identify areas of confusion

“The one universally recognized figure in this movement was Josué de Castro, a doctor born of mixed ethnic heritage in the impoverished northeastern provinces of Brazil, whose book Geopolitica da fome (The Geopolitics of Hunger), originally published in Portuguese in 1951. became known worldwide. Other writers, emerging in many different influence on the collective consciousness – and the collective conscience – of the West including, Tibor Mende, Rene Dumont, and Abbe Pierre.”

Added Note: Prof Ziegler offers us a history of the drive for the United Nations Human Right to Food citing key figures who were responsible for creating the movement.  As his work in the role of special rapporteur for the United Nations Human Right to Food, the book Betting on Famine summarizes his observations and learnings whilst he held the post over 8 years.

Practical Task: Use the internet to research and find out about the four key figures he cites – Josué de Castro, Tibor Mende, Rene Dumont, and Abbe Pierre.  Create a short essay with potted biographies of each of these people including lists of what publications you find they wrote

“In recent years, new scourges have descended upon the starving peoples of the southern hemisphere: expropriation of land by biofuel corporations and speculation in staple foods on commodities exchanges. The global power of the multinational corporations that dominate the agri-food industry and the hedge funds that speculate on the prices of agricultural commodities is superior to the power of national governments and all intergovernmental organizations. The leaders of agri-food and finance companies decide every day who on this planet will die and who will live.”

Practical Task: Use the internet to research and find out about the debates around biofuel.  Write out a set of notes summarizing chief details in the debates about biofuel production and include in your document details of where you got your information from.  Along with this identify a robust documentary available online which examines how the stockmarket and financial speculation works.  Watch the documentary and write out three to five points which stick out in your mind about what you have learned about financial speculation

“The fifth and sixth parts of this book explain how and why, today, the obsession with profit, the lure of gain, the limitless greed of the predatory oligarchies of the globalized financial services industry prevail—both in public opinion and in governmental circles—over every other consideration, blocking effective action against hunger worldwide.

I was the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Together with my colleagues, men and women of exceptional abilities and commitment, I worked in this capacity for eight years. I would like especially to acknowledge Sally-Anne Way, Claire Mahon, Joana Cismas, and Christophe Golay. Without these young scholars, nothing would have been possible. This book represents eight years of shared experiences and battles fought together.”

Practical Task: Use the internet to research and find out about the four people he cites – Sally-Anne Way, Claire Mahon, Joana Cismas, and Christophe Golay.  Create a short essay with potted biographies of each of these people detailing what you have found out; include in it lists of what publications you find they wrote, links to websites and videos on the internet which they are involved in

“Mary Robinson is the former president of the Republic of Ireland and the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Few of the bureaucrats at the UN could forgive this exceptionally elegant, keenly intelligent woman for her fierce sense of humor. In 2009, there were 9,923 international conferences, meetings of experts, and multilateral negotiation sessions among member states at the Palais des Nations, the European headquarters of many UN agencies in Geneva. There were even more in 2010. Many of these meetings concerned questions of human rights, and especially the right to adequate nutrition. Throughout her term of office, Mary Robinson showed little regard for most of these meetings. They smacked too much, she would say, of ‘choral singing’—referring to the old Irish tradition of village choirs.”

Practical Task: Use the internet to research Mary Robinson and the policy changes she oversaw whilst she was in the role of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Write a potted biography of her identifying what publications she has authored, websites she is involved in, and what other posts she has worked in.  Include links to any media along with a list of the sources of information you have used

“How many times have I heard, during the debate that would follow my speeches in France, Germany, Italy, or Spain, such objections as, ‘But monsieur, if the Africans would only stop having children all over the place, they would be less hungry!’ The ideas of Thomas Malthus die hard.”

Practical Task: Analyse and deconstruct the experience of Prof Ziegler found in this statement. Draw out the inferences which are implicit and what they propose about people of different countries.  Make explicit the assumptions that are foundations to the inferences and comment on the strength of the perspectives.

“And what can one say of the lords of the corporate agri-food industry, the eminent directors of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the “tiger shark” speculators, and the vultures who feed on the “green gold” of the biofuel industry, all of whom pretend that hunger is a natural phenomenon that can only be vanquished by Nature herself that is, by a somehow self-regulating world market? According to them, such a market must, of course, inevitably create riches that would quite naturally benefit the hundreds of millions of starving people.”

Practical Task: Use the internet to research and list the directors of the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. Detail where they are located in the world, where they received their formal education and identify which posts they are currently in.  

“All consciousness is mediated. The world is not self-evident; it does not offer itself to view immediately as it really is, even to those who can see clearly. Ideology obscures reality. And crime, for its part, advances in disguise….subjective consciousness is alienated by the doxa of an ever more aggressive and authoritarian capitalism. They sought to analyze the effects of the dominant capitalist ideology, especially the way in which that ideology leads people, from childhood, to consent to submit their lives to distant ends by depriving them of the possibilities of personal autonomy through which they might assert their freedom.”

Practical Task: Use the internet to decode the potential meanings of this passage.  Attempt to write this in your own words using language which is understandable by as wide a variety of people as possible; the power of language is to explain things, try to use simple language to confer what Prof Ziegler is trying to communicate offering brief summaries at key points

“’It is not only the direct use of violence that has enabled the established order to maintain itself, but the fact that men themselves have learned to approve of it,’ writes Horkheimer. In order to change reality, to liberate the liberty latent within us, we must reawaken that ‘anticipatory consciousness,’ that historical force whose name is utopia, revolution.”

Practical Task:  Use the internet and, if possible, a library to research the life and work of Max Horkheimer.  Make an attempt to exactly locate the quotation which Ziegler uses of Horkheimer; if possible extend the quotation and create a bibliographic reference for it.