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The Struggling Masses, Part 2: Further Analysis

This is a response to comments on The Struggling Masses: World Hunger and What I Should Do About It.
“Around the world many cultures eat more healthy than do Americans.” — Michael
Definitely. The obesity epidemic and associated conditions (Heart failure, diabetes, cancer) is virtually unknown to the third world due to the lack of processed foods in their diet and active lifestyle. When my father was practicing in rural Nigeria, he never treated a single back problem — the farmers were far too well exercised for such ailments. The problems that did arise were from malnutrition, hygiene, malaria, accidents, lack of vaccination, etc. Think along the lines of kwashiorkor and tuberculosis.
Ironically, in America it’s the poor classes that suffer the most ill health effects from overconsumption. A quick anecdote is the fact that Jefferson County, Mississippi, one of the poorest areas in the nation, was also the most obese as of 2004. The same statements apply more generally to Mississippi as a whole. This seems to be due not to eating less healthy or more processed food than other Americans, but just from eating more of it (source).
“About mutual funds in Africa and developing countries, you’ll have to explain this further since I really don’t know how it may work in changing the equation to equalize opportunities and alleviate world hunger.” — Joselito Coo
It ties back to what Bevin was saying:
“American’s tend to claim it is either God blessing us, hard work, or both. It is neither – it is a combination of luck, natural resources, history, and culture.” — Bevin
Everything we have in the West is produced by a robust capitalist system which has been refined over the last few hundred years.
“The important point is WE PRODUCE and consume.” — Bevin
What the developing world needs is “development,” not just food. Less than 2% of the population in America produces all our food. By comparison, 60% of Nigerians (I will continue using Nigeria as my anecdote for the third world) work in agriculture. The American system is much, much, much more efficient: we use tractors and combines and pesticides, they use garmas (short shovels), arm-length hoes, and their toes to poke holes for seeds.
If industry were able to somehow flourish, if technology could be introduced, and a more complete infrastructure could develop, we could see an industrial revolution turn these hard-working farmers into middle class professionals. Along with that security we would see a decrease in corruption and birth rate, thus further increasing stability and sustainability.
Mutual funds are my proposed alternative to donating foreign aid, because the money goes to businesses. Investing puts money in the hands of people that want to use the money wisely, to produce goods more efficiently. i.e. the stimulation of industry. There is still risk, but it seems like a worth-while effort to me, as a philanthropist.
“The West (including the USA) does not just ‘consume more of the world’s resources needlessly’ – it has also makes most of those resources.” — Bevin
You’re right, and perhaps “needless” was too strong a word, especially since I claimed in my original post that “I’m not one to cry foul at Westerners for their lifestyle.” I cannot glorify the capitalist system as what gives us the wealth we have in once sentence and then demonize Americans’ appetites in the next.
Using wheat as an initial anecdote, I still want to establish the interconnected-nature of the world market: Sub-Saharan Africa (source), and more specifically Nigeria (source) is the #1 recipient of U.S. wheat exports. Nigerian oil exports (Now in crisis) account for 40% of the country’s GDP, which is used to import large quantities of food that it once exported.
Looking at corn, Nigeria (Where corn is a staple in the north) is suffering a shortage, as consumption is nearly equal to production. Meanwhile the United States, the world’s #1 corn producer, uses up 51.5% of its crop for so-called “value added” processes such as corn syrup (5.5%), starch and fermented beverages (4.4%) and more recently biofuels (34.0% as of 2006) (source).
These ratios are perfectly appropriate for an affluent, first-world nation using its resources to create and satisfy demand for high-end products. In a global economy, it’s in line with a self-contained agent seeking its own benefit, and enjoying the fruits of its own production.
From the perspective of global philanthropy, however, these numbers are discomforting. I mentioned Jefferson county, Mississippi, the poorest locality in the nation, where the per capita income is an order of magnitude separated from Nigeria, and the residents are suffering health problems that occur from systemic over-consumption in affluent societies.
What is it that these “value added” products are doing for us? They are technological treats, sweeteners for our lifestyles — uses that are totally secondary to the basic concepts of survival and nutrition, and which, quite the opposite, contribute enormously to affluence-related health problems. The third world is suffering a food shortage while we’re exporting (Read: have excess of) 3/4 billion kg of corn syrup every year, and half our crop goes to feeding animals (Also a very expensive form of food).
Do we have the right to use our wealth to our own benefit? Well, yes, I suppose that’s capitalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s “right” to do it. It would seem that we shouldn’t, ideally, if we were to treat every human being — near or far — as our brethren. Thus my appeal to deontological ethics: if it would be best for all Americans to reduce our consumption, thereby alleviating the demand for grain and allowing the supply to reach the rest of the world, then I should reduce my consumption, even if they don’t.
Now that I’ve had my vociferous defense, Bevin, let me look more specifically at some of your arguments.
“The West sends in cheap subsidised food, demolishing the local farming industry.”
This is an important point. Subsidized or no, most people in countries like Nigeria and Malawi make their living in agriculture. If you suddenly make food dirt cheap, they’re out of a job and can’t afford it anyway. Because of this Nigeria has implemented a 100 percent tariff on imported rice, for example, to protect local farmers. The demand is still higher than local production, however, and a good deal of rice is imported anyway.
So fast change, as well as reliance on foreign imports, is bad. I’m not entirely convinced that this nullifies my point — but it is a very good counter-argument. Is it more important for the world food prices to be low, so food is readily available to developing nations? Or to be normal/medium-high so that said nations, as they develop, can start profitably exporting food to more well-off countries?
“The critical resource in Africa is not food. It is not even money. It is the ability to organize to get things done. Just like here.” — Bevin
Exactly. And that’s where the mutual funds and Peace Corps come into my thought processes as the truly significant operations. It’s one thing to be able to provide nutritious food and health care to children in Africa (To solve such problems as kwashiorkor and tuberculosis) — it’s quite another thing to offer those saved lives the education and social mobility to build and contribute to an advanced and well-organized society.
So, all this thought and debate has at least neutralized (Though not quite reversed) my philanthropic vision of avoiding consumption. Still, it’s not a bad idea on the personal level: eating foods-as-grown is much healthier, and it does save me money (Money which, if we’re careful, might be useful in other philanthropic ventures).
One minor nitpick:
“For instance a society which…
(b) insists they teach in a language neither the teachers nor the students are fluent in”
— Bevin
As far as this being negative: yes and no. Like American students learning Spanish, or Canadians learning French, many of them will not have use for the language. English was hardly requisite for life or market transactions in the village we lived in in northern Nigeria. Hausa, the wide-spread trade language of the region, is sufficient as a second-language (Presuming it’s not your first already).
However, Nigeria has literally hundreds of distinct language groups (cool map), and having a lingua franca (In this case English) for the country is vital to the larger scheme of things. So, in Nigeria we see the same principle that applies to the global market these days: learning English is vital to social mobility and a unified economic system. So, I would argue, it is one of the components of the “organization” that is desired.

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