Friday, January 23, 2009

Treating the Symptoms, Not the Causes

It seems as though when dealing with issues like access to food, people tend to focus on treating the symptoms rather than the causes. The first few chapters of World Hunger: Twelve Myths mention foreign aid repeatedly, noting that these resources tend to be allocated toward production of crops for export rather than for supplying the nation in question with food. In a related manner, farmers need to make a profit on their crops in order to survive, but the poor cannot afford to purchase these crops, and so the most viable option in the current system is to export despite the local prevalence of hunger.

Currently, in the case of foreign aid, it seems almost as though the support is contingent on continued exports to/economic dependencies on the countries which supplied the aid in the first place, especially when one considers that we seem to cling to this mode of aid in spite of the evidence that there must be better ways of aiding nations in developing more equitable, efficient food production/ distribution systems in hopes of reducing hunger (the ostensible goal). This brings up the question of whether the current system of aid is really primarily intended to benefit the people in need at all, or rather the nations giving out the aid and the middlemen in the transaction? We’ve already seen that the US food aid program supplying cheap food began as a way to get rid of surplus produce. Is the system the way it is more because of chance and incompetence in dealing with the causes of hunger, or more by design? These programs certainly don't adequately address the underlying social issues which create world hunger despite the abundance of food being produced.

The third chapter of World Hunger, which while demonstrating that hunger and population growth do not show a causal relationship but rather are rooted in the same underlying social issues also discusses the issue of overpopulation, brings up efforts to promote sterilization (and less extreme forms of contraception), and how these methods of reducing birth rates are pursued despite numerous examples demonstrating that growth rates can be reduced simply by improving social stability and living conditions (thereby reducing the economic incentives to have many children in the first place). At one point, the authors even mention that some researchers have advocated getting rid of programs to introduce basic medical care for infants in favor of instituting more aggressive contraceptive and family planning programs, despite the proven inefficiency and lack of effectiveness of these latter programs in reducing population growth.

I'm left with the following question: Why do we so aggressively pursue temporary solutions to the symptoms (which in many cases take up an extended amount of time and resources anyway) rather than attack the underlying social causes of these problems? Treating the symptoms often isn't even a short-term solution; haven't we encountered enough examples which demonstrate this?

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