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[Review] The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century

May 10, 2016

To critique a critic: that is the task before me. In The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century, David Rieff offers an erudite and well-researched analysis of the problem of world hunger and the challenges associated with international development. While occasionally dense, his book both exposes the contradictions of the philanthrocapitalist dogma currently in vogue and challenges readers to reexamine the causes of growing development inequality among countries.

Bookcover-the-reproach-of-hungerIn outlook, Rieff, whose previous books include Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1997), A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2003), and At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (2006), is unapologetically pessimistic. "Hunger and poverty are inseparable," he writes, "and despite the many real successes in poverty reduction in many parts of the Global South, it is highly unlikely that these gains will be sustainable if rises in the price of staple food significantly outstrip the rise in incomes of the poor as a result of sound development policies." Due to the 2007-08 global economic crisis, recent extreme weather events, commodities speculation, and the diversion of corn to ethanol production, he notes, there is a "new normal" for global food production characterized by high prices and surging demand. And "[i]f significant changes to the global food system are not made, a crisis of absolute global food supply could occur sometime between 2030 and 2050…when the world's population will have risen…to nine or perhaps even ten billion."

Central to Rieff's critique is what he sees as philanthrocapitalism's unquestioning adherence to the secular faith of progress first promoted by eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers, subsequently nurtured by Gilded Age capitalists, exalted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and promoted today by their neoliberal acolytes. The intellectual embodiment of this hope, says Rieff, can be found in the thought and work of Bill and Melinda Gates, the development economics of Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, and political scientist Francis Fukuyama's triumphalist "end of history" thesis that capitalism and democracy were inevitable following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

While Rieff seems to delight in putting a few dents in Sachs's worldview, his real aim here is to carve out space for a thoughtful critique of the historical, economic, and social forces underpinning international development as it is presently understood and practiced. To that end, he frequently challenges the "impatient optimism" advocated by the Gateses as well as their foundation's technocratic approach to the problems of global poverty and hunger. Similarly, he has little patience for those who insist that the line between the public and private sectors has been "blurred" — a trope, he says, that disingenuously ignores the ideological underpinnings of the neoliberal system, resulting in impoverished dialogue and the dismissal of intellectual alternatives.

"There is a breathtaking vainglory in Gates's attempt to exclude anyone who questions the basic premises of his philanthropy from the aid debate on the basis of their supposed moral turpitude," Rieff writes, in a passage typical of his critique. He is equally disdainful of World Bank president Jim Yong Kim for saying that "optimism is [one's] moral duty when working with the poor," and of Sachs for equating pessimism with cynicism and saying it is "the biggest obstacle to challenges such as poverty and fighting climate change." Indeed, Sachs make the case for optimism in his 2006 bestseller The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (which Rieff cites throughout) by arguing that
[p]rogress is possible, but not inevitable. Reason can be mobilized to promote social well-being, but can also be overtaken by destructive passions. Human institutions...should be designed in the light of reason precisely to control or harness the irrational side of human behavior. In this sense, the Enlightenment commitment to reason is not a denial of the unreasonable side of human nature, but rather a belief that despite human irrationality and passions, human reason can still be harnessed...to solve basic problems of social organization and to improve human welfare.

The tension between Sachs's view of the possible and Rieff's bleaker perspective is a recurring theme throughout The Reproach of Hunger. But in wrestling with widely diverging views of the perfectibility of humanity, Rieff extends the scope of his book well beyond the issue of hunger and food production and into the domain of economics and philosophy. The common thread is his skeptical view of the belief that technology-driven innovation, like the cavalry, will ride to the rescue in time to save the world from disaster.

"Development specialists tend to emphasize technical problems and technical solutions," he writes, "but like other central elements of the global system, food has always been first and foremost a political question." As for the efficacy of philanthrocapitalism as practiced by the likes of Gates, Rieff is unsparing:

Assuming that one believes, on the one hand, that innovation bears limitless promise, and thus societies that commit to innovation either are or at least at some point will become successful societies, and on the other, that the great ideological battles have been fought and that liberal capitalism — the right and deserving side — has won, then Gates's utilitarianism is going to seem like nothing more than simple common sense....No matter how extraordinary its accomplishments to date and its promises for the future...can a technological order endure for long in the absence of a moral order of equal power and seriousness?

This criticism, along with his in-depth exploration of how nonprofit and corporate social responsibility programs feed into and shape international development efforts, are the linchpins of Rieff's argument that what the global community really needs is less economic status quo and more thoughtful dissent. "To expect the powerful to question the legitimacy of the system in which they gained their power would be a utopian absurdity," he argues. Elsewhere, citing Princeton economics professor and Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, who has written that "the technical, anti-political view of development assistance has survived the inconvenient fact that apparently clear technical solutions [keep] changing," Rieff wagers that the promise of technology to solve all problems, in all places, will prove illusory — in part, due to the technocratic camp's "refusal or inability to think politically, and, worse, to imagine that it doesn't have to."

Rieff is well aware of his privileged position as a third-party observer to the debate — never having had the responsibility of running an international development organization or having held political office — and he is adamant in insisting that this allows him to put the global system under a magnifying glass. While true to an extent, it is a view that is marred by his unbending pessimism; indeed, long before the end of the book, his apparent disdain for hopeful striving grows tiresome. Nonetheless, his ability to traverse myriad topics deftly and with passion is likely to keep most readers engaged. If the closest he comes to providing an alternative to the current development regime is to say it will "be found in the strengthening of the state and in the promise and burden of democratic politics" — about which, as you may have guessed, he is not optimistic — well, proposing a concrete alternative is not really the point of the book.

Throughout The Reproach of Hunger, Rieff warns against clinging to a blind faith in technology and progress as the answer to the problems of international development — not because he doesn't think they might bear fruit, but rather because such a faith is grounded in "a seemingly unshakable conviction that no countervailing perspective need be taken seriously and thus that there is no need for any 'Plan B'." If he doesn't offer a "Plan B" of his own, he at least gives us, his readers, pause to reflect on the core assumptions of current efforts to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable and help them realize better circumstances. Even if we don't agree with his conclusions, given what's at stake, it is hard not to admire his courage and applaud his willingness to present an alternative view.

Michael Weston-Murphy is a Lisa Goldberg Fellow at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

 

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