Article — From the June 2009 issue

Let Them Eat Cash

Can Bill Gates turn hunger into profit?

( 4 of 7 )

In good times and in bad, it’s hard to say no to money—which can foster dependency like nothing else. Of course, the purpose of transforming the international food-aid business into an international-business business is to foster entrepreneurial independence, not subservience. So in order to be truly transformative, the money gift cannot simply be a gift and nothing but a gift. If that money is not to create a perpetual state of subordination, the money gift must create business. As in P4P, the cash might impel small farmers to purchase more loans, more pesticides, more seeds, more land; to buy low and sell high.

Of course, when money has been deployed as a spur to action, the deployment becomes entangled in ideology. The money may eventually spark the widest variety of political and economic reactions. For example, Maori warriors believe that all gifts ultimately accrue to the giver, so that if you give a hungry man a fish he may rightfully gut and cook and eat the fish, but the spirit of the fish, its hau, will eventually become restless and return to the giver of the fish. And if the gift happens to be the guaranteed-grain-purchase formulae of the World Food Program, the hau will journey through the spirit land of giftdom until it returns to its nativity, the warm, rich, capitalist womb of Bill Gates.

Along the same lines, Claude Lévi-Strauss noted that the Nambikwara chieftains of the Brazilian Amazon proved their chieftainship through generosity. By distributing food and other goods, the big man retained and increased his power. Thomas Hobbes made ” his fourth Law of Nature: “No man giveth, but with intention of good to himself.” And the Eskimo have a proverb: “Gifts make slaves as whips make dogs.”

In Niger, following a spate of local purchases like those promised through P4P, millet prices rose by 13 percent in local markets, followed by a 7 percent uptick in the national average. Guaranteed sales had increased consumer prices, which would eventually send more people into poverty and starvation. The money gift triggered all manner of unforeseen consequences.

It may be best not to know the ultimate effect of your gift. Such knowledge might compromise the ideological romance that made the gift possible in the first place. Thus did a frenzy of cash pledges mark the end of the hunger summit in Rome, although no one at the conference really understood what would be done with their money. Ed Schafer, the United States secretary of agriculture, led the flurry with an announcement that the United States Department of Agriculture would donate $5 billion over the next two years. French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that his country would donate one billion euros. “Dying people are not happy people,” noted Sarkozy.

After Sarkozy, the International Fund for Agricultural Development announced a gift of $200 million. The World Food Program mobilized $750 million, and Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, pledged $1.2 billion. The African Development bank pledged $1 billion; Spain pledged $773 million; the United Kingdom, $590 million; Japan, $150 million; Kuwait, $100 million; Venezuela, $100 million; the Netherlands, $75 million; and New Zealand, $7.5 million. On the last day of the hunger summit, the Islamic Development Bank chipped in $1.5 billion.

“For what?” asked one hungercrat I met in the hallway. “It is unclear.”

is the author of A Short History of the American Stomach. His last article for Harper’s Magazine “Wasteland,” appeared in the February 2008 issue.

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