Friday, April 29, 2011

Poverty Trap

The conventional wisdom tells us that a billion people in the world are starving, caught in a hunger-based poverty trap. They're too poor to consume enough calories to enable them to work and their inability to muster the energy to work keeps them poor.

The theory is that the world's poor need more food and cannot obtain it, but according to an article by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in Foreign Policy the theory is wrong. Some excerpts:
Contrary to popular belief there's enough food available, and the poor often have enough money to purchase it.

For many in the West, poverty is almost synonymous with hunger. Indeed, the announcement by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2009 that more than 1 billion people are suffering from hunger grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did....But is it really true? Are there really more than a billion people going to bed hungry each night?

[I]t is no surprise that government efforts to help the poor are largely based on the idea that the poor desperately need food and that quantity is what matters....But what if the poor are not, in general, eating too little food? What if, instead, they are eating the wrong kinds of food, depriving them of nutrients needed to be successful, healthy adults? What if the poor aren't starving, but choosing to spend their money on other priorities?
The article is a little lengthy, but should be required reading for everyone concerned about third-world poverty and hunger. It may well change the way you think about them.

Among the more interesting facts in the article were these two:

1) Many of the world's poor would rather spend what little money they have on televisions than on food (I suspect cell phones are another item, judging by their ubiquity in third world nations I've visited, that are more important to people than is food.).

2) Famines are rarely caused by natural forces. They are almost always man-made: As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has shown, most recent famines have been caused not because food wasn't available but because of bad governance -- institutional failures that led to poor distribution of the available food, or even hoarding and storage in the face of starvation elsewhere. As Sen put it, "No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press."