Poverty and hunger in New Orleans and Africa (5/9/2005)

This was written before the evacuation of New Orleans finally took place but it remains relevant.

EXCERPT: "US-style development does not only destroy the livelihoods of African farmers; since 1945 nearly 90% of US farmers have lost their jobs. Now that we can all see the poor and hungry in New Orleans we can see that the problem is not the absence of GM crops - it's the economy, stupid!"

Poverty and Hunger in New Orleans and Africa.
by Robert Vint - 4th September 2005

The world has been shocked by the images from New Orleans. Clearly in part this was because the scenes looked so like the interminable images of Third World disasters. There on our TV screens were the same same refugee camps, the same insanitary conditions, the same hungry and destitute people begging for help.

For many viewing this disaster from other nations, however, the more shocking realisation was that even before the hurricane much of the population of a city in the world's richest and most powerful nation was clearly living in Third World conditions. Here were people whose existence had hardly been registered in the policies of their own government or in the media of their own nation, but who had finally been forced into public view and the attention of the world by a catastrophe. If we were to look, without rose-tinted spectacles, at the life of the underclass of New York or Chicago or many other US cities we would find the same destitution.

The poor of New Orleans, living on the Gulf coast and at the mouth of the Mississippi, are not on the periphery of the nation, far from the centres of wealth production. It did not take five days to get food and fuel to them because they were inaccessible. Both in the hinterland and just off the coast are the main sites of American oil extraction. The harvests of the prairies are shipped down the Mississippi by boat. From there the grain is exported as animal feed and, when there is an unsellable surplus, as food aid. Any suggestion that food and fuel produced a hundred miles upstream could not within hours have been taken by boat along the nation' main shipping route to a flooded city built on its banks is absurd. It was not technological problems that prevented food from the world's main stockpile of food aid from being shipped a hundred miles, it was political and economic obstacles.

The threat of flooding in New Orleans had been known about for decades. For decades the mayor and people of the city have been calling for federal assistance to strengthen and enlarge the levees. Instead of tackling the problem, the federal government since 2001 has halved annual funding for levees protecting New Orleans and south-east Louisiana from $69million to $36.5million - even though they knew the city could not survive a major storm. Does President Bush still believe that this economic saving outweighs what he calls the "temporary disruption" that will now cost New Orleans an estimated one hundred thousand million dollars?

The threat of flooding, storms, drought and desertification by global warming from greenhouse gas emission has also been highlighted for decades. There is global scientific consensus about the nature and severity of the problem. Britain's Chief Scientist, David King, has repeatedly warned that global warming is a far greater threat than terrorism. Global warming not only threatens the poor and the environment, it also threatens the national economy and virtually every industry other than the oil industry. Instead of tackling this problem the federal government has allowed itself to be taken over by heads of the oil companies; scientists have been harassed, pseudo-scientists have been promoted, emission laws have been abolished and the global Kyoto treaty has been sabotaged. Military resources have been massively diverted from protecting the homeland to protecting Middle Eastern sources of oil for the US oil industry. Half of Lousiana's own troops, recruited mainly from the poor and black underclass, were in Iraq when disaster struck.

New Orleans may be the first western city to be lost to global warming. Even President Bush has belatedly acknowledged that Hurricane Katrina has been far more catastrophic than September 11. Even the most blinkered monetarist economist can see that in purely economic terms the cost will be immense. But, as oil prices skyrocket in the aftermath of the hurricane, will the oil industry and their puppets in Washington ignore the needs of both people and planet and calculate that the profits from a gas-guzzling economy still exceed the cost of the storm damage to their oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico?

Over the last forty years America's public services and welfare system have been dismantled. To facilitate tax cuts for the rich, public transport provision has collapsed, public hospitals have had their funding slashed, social services have disappeared. The income gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically. Hunger is increasing; about 33 million Americans go hungry - for now still less than the number suffering from obesity. Over 9 million US children receive food aid from non-Governmental sources. America's Second Harvest - the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the United States - has launched a food aid fund for the victims of Hurricane Katrina**. Sri Lanka has sent aid; even Venezuela is offering food to the victims. In contrast, the increasingly poor underclass have ceased to be seen by their own Government as worthy of assistance of any kind and are instead viewed as potential criminals to be treated with 'zero tolerance'.

When this entirely predictable and avoidable disaster hit, and the call was made for New Orleans to be evacuated, no public assistance was provided to help people leave. At the epicentre of America's oil industry quarter of the population of this city could not afford cars. The oil barons left in their private jets, the middle classes left in their cars, but there was not even a functional public transport system remaining to enable the carless underclass to leave, or ambulances for the crippled, or helpers to bring out the elderly. The superdome, allocated for those who could not afford to leave, was equipped with no communication system or medical facilities and six toilets for 25,000 people. Plans to equip the Superdome for disaster relief were abandoned last year due to shortage of funds. Whilst the US media could spend millions on live coverage from the disaster scene and instantaneous global transmission of the news, the US Government appeared not to have the money or the will to reach its own citizens. 'Natural disasters' always disproportionately affect the poor - prompting the Red Cross and IIED to issue a report, entitled 'Natural Disasters: Acts of God or acts of man?'*, which concludes that most deaths from 'natural disasters' and many of the disasters themselves can be blamed on environmental mismanagement and the consequences of poverty.

People rescuing food from flooded supermarkets to feed their children and elderly relatives were labelled 'looters' because they were black and poor; the Governor called for zero tolerance and instructed troops to shoot to kill. Day after day, volunteers bringing food to the city were turned back by troops. Refugees abandoned without food for five days had guns pointed at them whenever they asked for help.

The US is keen to export its own model of economic development to other nations. Third World nations are repeatedly told - by USAID, the IMF, World Bank and WTO - to dismantle their welfare systems, their schools, hospitals and public transport systems. If they do this, and if they agree to tolerate policies that exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor, then, they are told, their economies will grow and wealth will eventually trickle down to the poor. In response, many nations have abandoned their land reform projects and thrown poor farmers off the land to make way for corporate hi-tech agribusiness. They have replaced targets for maximising food sovereignty with policies for maximising exports. When the poor inevitably become hungry, the US, instead of helping local farmers by buying their food for aid, dump their own surplus grain from stockpiles at the mouth of the Mississippi. The farmers, unable to sell anything because of the free dumped food flooding the market, give up growing. Their Governments are then told that agriculture is failing because of technological inadequacies such as the absence of GM crops. US-style development does not only destroy the livelihoods of African farmers; since 1945 nearly 90% of US farmers have lost their jobs. Now that we can all see the poor and hungry in New Orleans we can see that the problem is not the absence of GM crops - it's the economy, stupid!

All the leading development charities in the UK agree that hunger is a problem caused by inequality, lack of food sovereignty and the maldistribution of food and that GM crops are therefore not relevant to preventing hunger. They wrote jointly to Tony Blair to tell him not to use this fraudulent argument to promote GM crops. Food experts around the world share this view as do the food and farming organisations representing small and family farmers in the Third World. America likes to believe that it is the breadbasket of the world; in fact since the introduction of GM crops it has become a net importer of food. As it is becoming increasingly clear that it is unable to feed its own poor adequately it is time the rest of the world started rejecting its misguided strategy for feeding the world and the dishonest economic ideology upon which it is based.

Anyone seriously involved in promoting food sovereignty, resisting GM crops and the corporate take-over of agriculture, fighting iniquitous IMF and World Bank policies or trying to ensure that energy policies are based upon sound climate science - all potentially life and death matters for millions - will find, eventually, that they are fighting the same enemy. Virtually all the interlinked US lobby organisations advising their Government are pushing the same package of ideas for the same corporations.

As refugees at the convention center in New Orleans died day after day, survivors started referring to the unfolding events as genocide. The avoidable disaster killed thousands, the catastrophic handling of the situation killed thousands more. If the people of New Orleans are wondering who is responsible for pushing the policies causing their poverty and hunger, for the absence of public services, for the rising sea level and increasing number of severe storms, for the failure to reinforce their levees and for the painfully slow response to their plight, then they need to look no further than corporate lobby groups such as the Hudson Institute, the Center for Global Food Issues, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the National Center for Public Policy Research and Consumer Alert***. Isn't it time these organisations were indited for complicity in genocide?

Copyright Robert Vint ([email protected])
Available in Word or PDF format.
May be circulated for non-profit purposes.

* Natural Disasters: Acts of God or acts of man? Earthscan paperbacks (1984). ISBN 0905347544

**To donate to the Katrina food aid relief fund run by America's Second Harvest visit

***For more on these organisations see 'Why do the key GM Food advocates oppose the Kyoto Treaty?' (2001) by Robert Vint.

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