On Tuesday afternoon, policy analyst David Rieff spoke to a crowd of law school students about global hunger.
At the talk held at the law school, Rieff examined the difference between famine and chronic hunger, as well as issues with the philanthro-capitalist approach to ending hunger — one which involves corporations in humanitarian issues. Rieff also gave the audience of roughly 50 students his theory on how best to address these issues: granting greater power to local governments.
“Humanitarian action — its big brother or sister is development,” Rieff said. “This book is exploring food systems today. It looks at the [food] price spike of 2008, often called the Global Food Crisis.”
Rieff said that one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century has been “the neutering of famine.” There has been a famine recorded in some part of the world every 15 or 20 years since the time of the Babylonians, he said. However, the last major famine in Europe was in 1944-5, just at the end of World War II. He said more parts of the world seem exempt from famine today because there are many international entities, from private corporations to the World Bank, that intervene to prevent famine.
Rieff also addressed the modern world’s approach to solving problems. He said that the cutting edge of capitalism today, what he called “techno-capitalism,” lies in the Silicon Valley. He thinks the influence of techno-capitalism has created an attitude of quickly engineering a solution to a problem without considering what approach would be best in the long-term. These scientific and technological solutions are appropriate in cases of famine, Rieff said, because they are “time-limited events” that will eventually end. But he does not see chronic malnutrition as a single-action event, and therefore must be handled differently.
“I wanted to expose people to [Rieff’s] argument that democratic government is the answer rather than philanthro- capitalism,” Law School professor David Singh Grewal LAW ’02, who moderated the talk, said.
Philanthro-capitalism has encouraged this single-action approach to problem solving, Rieff said. He singled out the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as an example of an organization controlling this kind of philanthropic action. He pointed out that the Foundation’s interest in agriculture has given it control over most agricultural grants, which are the primary source of funding for schools like the University of California, Davis and Cornell University. This is emblematic of the privatization of the food industry, which previously received a significant amount of government funding.
Rieff also addressed another common approach to ending hunger — the anti-globalization movement, which criticizes corporate capitalism and advocates for a more efficient economic system based around human decency. He said that while he understands the idea of the anti-globalization movement, he does not see this as a feasible answer. Instead, he proposes a less extreme solution to this problem.
“I am for the recreation of the power, authority and supremacy — if I dare say it — of the democratic state over corporations,” Rieff said.
Rieff cited the Brazilian government program Fome Zero, or the Zero Hunger Program, which was introduced by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, as an example of a government taking initiative to end its country’s hunger crisis. Since the beginning of this program, Brazil has brought 30 million people out of hunger, he said.
When a student asked about why he promotes the expansion of democracy, Rieff said he thinks the modern representation of democracy is not democracy at its fullest potential. He blamed conservative figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for this downfall.
Rieff also said he does not see poverty and hunger as “left versus right” issues, nor as “good rich versus bad rich” issues, as he believes everyone has the best intentions when dealing with these epidemics.
Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, said he was glad Rieff shared less conventional ideas about how to solve the global food epidemic.
“I think [having Rieff come to speak] is representative of a larger, more ambitious approach to food issues at Yale. It’s refreshing,” Bomford said.
Rieff has written a total of 11 books on humanitarian policy.