Famine - biggest of problems facing humanity, beyond limits of time and space. Famine destroys communities, devastates societies, destroys entire countries, and is as old as history.
Young Kosavar children in refugee camps - over 5,000,000 children die every year from starvation. Every night, hundreds go to bed hungry. Source - UNICEF
The 20th century, and more likely than not, the 21st century show no immunity against famine. In fact, according to recent statistics, 23 children die every minute from hunger across the globe. Every year almost 9,000,000 people die from starvation. Over 800 million suffer from malnutrition, adversely affecting height, weight, vision, muscle build-up, congnitive development, and immunity to common illnesses.
Perhaps we are more than familiar with these numbers, having watched those relief organizations' "infomercials" soliciting what many of us would consider pocket change a day to feed a hungry child in a remote village in Latin America. In a poll conducted by KRC Research and Consulting in 2000, American adults considered world hunger to be a more urgent problem than disease, pollution, and global warming.
Although this sentiment may have changed after the events of 9/11, the reality of world hunger has not abated. By many accounts, the problem of world hunger is more extensive, and the question of food security more exigent post 9/11. Although the sentiment may have changed in regards to priority, the posited solution to world hunger remains the same. What all these proposed solutions have in common--in one degree or another--is their insistence upon production. Also, implicit in these opinions is the premise that world hunger can never truly be solved but measures can be taken to "contribute," "help," and "benefit."
Undoubtedly, production is an important and basic factor in addressing the case of hunger. After all, if humanity in general is unable to produce, crops will simply not be cultivated, nor would there be distribution of food in the first place. The question, therefore, is not one of production, per se, rather one of increased production and optimization. Can producing more food and using agricultural technology to preserve and increase food supply eradicate famine?
Before answering this question, a more fundamental moral-ideological presupposition needs to be addressed. Many policy makers have publicly stated that world hunger can never be completely eliminated since nature has not equipped us with sufficient resources endemically, nor allows us to cope with the process of human development. Hence the question can be asked, did nature, or Allah (swt), who has created the rules and laws of nature--as a Muslim would believe--place insufficient resources so that some of mankind is destined death by hunger? Or in other words, will there always be a shortage of food due to the scarcity of resources and population growth?
World's Resources: An Islamic Perspective
As a matter of aqeedah (firm conviction in God as opposed to mere belief), there are many verses in the Qur'an that indicate the abundance of resources placed at our disposal. Allah (swt) says, "See you not that Allah has subjected for you whatsoever is in the earth, and has completed and perfected His Graces upon you, both apparent and hidden? Yet of mankind is he who disputes about Allah without knowledge or guidance or a Book giving light!" (31:20). In other verses Allah (swt) describes the land as vast and containing innumerable bounties, and orders mankind to search for their provision.
In fact, one of the names of Allah (swt) is ar-Razzaq, the All-Provider, and in another verse describes Himself as kheir ar-Raziqeen, the Best of the Providers. Undoubtedly, according to scripture, Allah (swt) created all things including an abundance of resource sustaining life.
An Empirical Perspective
However, the question of scarcity versus abundance must also be answered empirically. According to Food First, an institute for food and development policy, the world produces enough grain alone to provide every human with 3,500 calories a day. This estimate does not include other foods such as vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. If all foods are considered together, enough is available to provide over four pounds of food per person per day. Also some of the world's most desolate hunger ravaged countries and regions produce food in abundance.
Did Malthus Get It Wrong?
While at least 200 million Indians go hungry, India exports over 625 million dollars worth of wheat and flour, and $1.3 billion worth of rice, ranking India among the top Third World agricultural exporters. Bangladesh, which experienced famine in the 1970s, could provide each person with about a pound of grain per day, or 2,000 calories on its official yearly rice output alone. Adding small amounts of vegetables, fruits, and legumes could prevent hunger for everyone.
Although 70 million Brazilians cannot afford enough to eat, Brazil exports more than $13 billion worth of food. In the case of Africa, a continent notorious for famine, the Sahelian countries of West Africa continued to export food even during the most severe droughts. Africa has tremendous potential to grow food, with theoretical gains yielding 25 to 35 percent higher than maximum potential yields in Europe or North America. Also, in many countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Mali, the area of unused arable land is many times greater than the area actually farmed.
Moreover, population growth has not been the operative variable, as many suggest, contributing towards famine. In fact, increases in food production have outstripped the world's unprecedented population growth by about 16 percent. Hence, contrary to the Malthusian idea that population increases faster than the means of sustenance and continues to do so until the living standard has fallen to its lowest level, many have argued increased population actually has a positive effect on a nation's economy, and may lead to less chance of famine. Thus, it can hardly be said that famine exists due to the natural lack of food and population growth; rather, an abundance of resources characterizes the world's food supply.
Why World Hunger Exists
If the scarcity of resources and population growth are not the ingredients for famine, what then accounts for world hunger? Ironically, perhaps, Hans J. Morgenthau, a champion of the realist school of thought in politics provides some direction. In his enormously influential work, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, he states,
"The elimination of inequalities in food supply is, then, not only--and not even primarily--a matter of agricultural technology and collective generosity but of political interest and will. In many societies the perpetuation of poverty, of which the scarcity of food is a striking manifestation, is not just another unfortunate accident to be remedied by technological reform, but the result of deliberate social, economic, and political choices. If one wants to rid the world of hunger, one has to rid these societies of the arrangements that have caused it. More likely than not, that means radical reform--if not revolution" (Ed. 6, 110).
The cause of famine is not based on production; rather it is in the uneven distribution of wealth and resources that lies in the ambit of political decision. Hence, the question of famine is necessarily a question of politics. Although the estimated cost to end world hunger for the Earth's poorest citizens comes to $13 billion ($18 billion is spent of pet food in the U.S. and Europe), and although charity and relief organizations working in capacity of NGOs could conceivably raise that amount, famine cannot and will not be eradicated unless both the ideological orientation of the state and key policy makers and executors find it in their interest to rid the world of this epidemic that has claimed the lives of many of the world's citizens.
It is beyond the scope of the article and above the ability of the writer to formulate and present a coherent political solution, that is, the only solution to the problem of famine. Asserting the generic apothegm, "Islam is the solution!" does little to provide a real answer to a real problem. No doubt Muslims must always look to their deen (way of life) for guidance in all affairs; however, rarely do we make an attempt to transcend rhetoric and research and debate issues on their merit in search for practical answers grounded in reality and guided by Qur'an and Sunnah. This endeavor cannot be completed by an individual; rather it must be initiated as a communal enterprise. The entire ummah (Muslim community) need not be involved, but a portion must create an atmosphere conducive to the brainstorming, discussion, and debate of issues such as famine and others. With this mentioned, we can move to briefly discuss an example where political decisions have effected famine in Africa, and elucidate some features in an Islamic society that would address the issue of famine.
The IMF and World Bank: Philanthropy or Political Interest?
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were established by Britain and the United States of America in July 1944. The aim of the two institutions was to rebuild the world economy for the next 50 years. Recently the policies of the two have come under considerable scrutiny for perpetuating famine in Africa. The infamous Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) require African countries to switch to cash crops such as tobacco and coffee resulting in the decline of food production (obviously no country can feed its citizens on tobacco and coffee). Under the IMF's SAP the state is no longer "food security guarantor." Many have accused the IMF's policy of ending subsidies, breaking up state marketing boards and opening up African agriculture to the "free market" of greatly contributing to the present famine. Also many countries suffering from famine are heavily in debt, largely due to previous IMF and World Bank policies that encouraged poor countries to take out loans on high interest rates. As a result of their debt repayments, many of them are incapable of buying food on the world market and are reliant on donor assistance. Malawi alone pays an additional 39 cents of every dollar that it receives in aid to its international creditors.
Islamic Law and Food Distribution
Conversely, a few mechanisms in Islam that concern production, wealth, and resource distribution shall be presently mentioned. Zakah, one of the five pillars of Islam, requires Muslims above poverty level to give 2.5% of their annual wealth to charity. Of the eight categories of recipients, two fall within those afflicted by hunger (masakin and fuqara). In fact, under the rule of Umar ibn Abdul Aziz from the years 717-720, there existed no poverty and no one qualified for the zakah in the expansive territory. The funds were sent to Europe to free slaves. Also, under Islamic law, cultivable land that is privately owned can be confiscated by the government if it ceases production or is neglected for more than three years. There are many historic legal manuals detailing issues of economic production and distribution according to Islamic law. Also, under Islam, property rights can be categorized into private, public, and state. One category of public property is mentioned in the Prophet's (saw) hadith: "The people share in three things: water, pastures, and fire" (Abu Dawud). This hadith generally articulates the utilities of the community without which everyday life cannot properly function. It is forbidden to privatize this sector. Another feature of the Islamic economic system includes a ban on hoarding. There are many verses in the Qur'an that severely condemn the act of accumulating any type of wealth while preventing it to flow in the streams of commerce.
Appreciating the full import of these injunctions might be difficult at this point. Nonetheless, the few rules relating to economy mentioned above demonstrate a system that promotes economic, and more specifically, agricultural growth, a system whose purpose is to attend to the welfare of all people and satisfy the requisites of life for each individual. Islam not only accommodates but engenders in its adherents the political will and interest of eradicating the heinous sight of a hungry person. Far from explaining the structure of the Islamic economic system and how it confronts famine, the reader should be aware that, ultimately, as Morgenthau argues, it is a political decision that needs to be made by politicians and statesmen. These politicians and statesmen must abandon the current failed "arrangements" that have perpetuated food shortage and starvation such as the IMF, World Bank, and WTO and must be willing to consider alternative "arrangements" Islam offers. Likewise, Muslims must exert maximum effort in studying crucial issues as this, and provide creative yet practical answers. No doubt, both fronts in this endeavor are severely lacking. The political establishment and elite are not genuinely concerned, and Muslims suffer from a political malaise that is yet to be a subject of insightful thinking amongst themselves, let alone be remedied. The near future offers little hope and prospect of a history devoid of famine, and perhaps the ummah will take the opportunity to reflect on these crucial issues and their role in the month of Ramadan, where we subject ourselves to fasting not to feel as the hungry, but to show submission and obedience to Allah's command.