Some People Eat for a Week on Less than We Spend on a Single Cup of Coffee

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Apparently links to this photo essay documenting "What the World Eats" have been circulating for a good long while.... A few weeks ago someone sent me an email message about it, with only SOME of the photos--one of the most important photos was missing, one depicting the Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp in Chad. The email message included no information about the photos' provenance, so I finally got around to tracking it down.... Turns out the photos are from a new book called Hungry Planet. Make sure you look at all the photos.... Originally I only saw six of the photos, which were interesting, but you need to see the whole series to realize how horribly unjust the distribution of wealth on this planet is. I mean, I knew this already; I've seen the Care ads and sent them money.... But every so often something helps you confront again those uncomfortable facts in your knowledge you've somehow learned to ignore, and these photos did that for me.

8 Comments

Unjust? By whose standards? We have a tendency in the West to apply our own sense of fairness to others around the world without taking into account what may seem fair to us would be totally alien to another. This is what has gotten us into far too much trouble abroad over the years.

One of the problems in viewing this kind of photo essay, however powerful the impact, is that it does nothing to comment on the fairness or unfairness of each families situation. It merely presents facts. This is what each family spends, and this is what they get for it. You mentioned the family in Chad. Yes, their situation may seem "unfair" to us, but have you stopped to ask yourself why? Is this a result of the unjust distribution of wealth, or the unjust actions of their own country's government? Who is responsible for making that change?

Look at China. A country that prided itself on its equal distribution of wealth for the people during the Communist era has become the fastest growing economy in the world. It has allowed people stuck in the most desperate of situations to rise above it, through entrepreneurship, and hard work. (Yes, they have a long way to go as far as human rights are concerned, but I suspect that will come in time, given the changes over the last 10 years.) Socialism gave way to capitalism. Not the Ayn Rand variety to be sure, (Of which I don't agree with.) but something that has allowed a nation to start to pull itself out of the morass that was the dictatorship of Mao and his successors.

The far more glaring observation I had was the distribution of foodstuffs amongst the various ethnic and social groups. Did you notice that the pictures from the U.S. contained a higher proportion of processed foods than in the other countries, even the western ones? Did you notice the the higher proportion of fresh and dried foods and vegetables in the smaller, less wealthy, and supposedly less well off countries. The people in Chad may not have the wealth we do here and in the west, but they probably do better health-wise with what they are eating than what we are eating here.

The concept of "unequal distribution of wealth" is not something that is going to go away, ever. It is the nature of us humans. I'm sorry if that sounds cold, calculating, and cynical, but it simply a fact. It is not equality or inequality of wealth that is affecting these people, it is despotism, tyrannical governments, and suppression of basic human rights that do that

Apologies for some of the spelling and grammar mistakes. I was a bit rushed for time, and failed to edit myself as closely as I normally do. Also, in case I was not clear, I do not approve of the Ayn Rand version of capitalism.

Unjust? By whose standards? We have a tendency in the West to apply our own sense of fairness to others around the world without taking into account what may seem fair to us would be totally alien to another. This is what has gotten us into far too much trouble abroad over the years.

Hi Mr. Nighttime--

You are right that we in the west tend to apply our own perspective on many situations to other parts of the world, and assume they fit. But I would argue that one of the main ways we've done that to Africa is by colonizing the entire continent, and then insisting that the people there adopt "governments" that are totally alien and externally and artificially imposed on peoples, customs, traditions, places. The governments are inevitably inefficient and inept at best, corrupt and brutal at worst. So even to ask questions like the ones you pose, "Is this a result of the unjust distribution of wealth, or the unjust actions of their own country's government? Who is responsible for making that change?" is to impose our idea about nations and governments on someplace where those ideas are actually very foreign, and then to blame the people on whom we've imposed those ideas for having difficulty with institutions and concepts that have arisen organically within our own culture.

So I would say that the actions of any government in Africa are the legacy and direct results of colonial intervention by the West.

Or look at China, and the wars the US and British fought to ensure that the Chinese would legalize the opium trade, which was incredibly lucrative for the US and the British, but which the Chinese sought to ban. Having walked down the Bund in Shanghai, which was infamous for its sign announcing that it was off-limits to "dogs and chinamen," having seen palatial homes built by British and American opium lords next to the most appalling slums, I have little doubt about whether or not the West bears some of the blame for suffering and tragedy in China. The communist revolution--which started in Shanghai, and when I went there, I saw why--was, after all, a reaction to the incredible suffering and injustice caused by the American and British occupation of China.

Having traveled all over the world and seen, up close, the resentment other people often feel for the wealth, privilege and entitlement Americans possess, I am quite certain that others are acutely aware of the injustice in the current distribution of wealth.

And I doubt very much that subsisting on a few bags of grains, with no fresh fruits or vegetables, is really that healthy of a diet.

I agree with Holly on all fronts. I was actually quite horrified by the unequal distribution of wealth. As someone born in what those in "the West" would say is a "fourth world country" (in Cambodia), and as a scholar whose work is intimately connected to narratives that deal with genocide and famine, I find the cultural relativist approach to issues of power quite distressing. The neoliberal impulse to engage in free market assessments of human suffering has furthered such inequalities. Missing from these assessments is a concrete sense of responsibility. For example, Cambodia is still dealing with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. It is easy to isolate the genocide in terms of "those people," yet the reality is that "we" in the "West" facilitated the genocide through a combination of Cold War foreign policy and neglect. I use this example to highlight the extent to which the question of "by whose standards" should actually be a question of "why." And the answer to that question often forces a more difficult conversation about the function of power in the creation of social, economic, and political inequality.

Thanks for the links, Holly. The book could be a very useful teaching tool.

I have to say that I also agree with Holly here, and with SV, who puts the problem of cultural relativism into sharp focus.

I'd like to add a couple of observations about the politics and the political economy of hunger, as Holly and SV suggest, and about the assertions Mr Nighttime makes. First thing is that Breidjing Camp is not a place where happy Chadian families enjoy simple healthy meals. It's a horribly overcrowded refugee camp, to where people from the Darfur region have fled. It's located a mere 60 km from Sudan, which increases their vulnerability, and the food, you'll note, is that which can be provided through relief agencies upon whom the refugees are entirely dependent.

To make my grand point right away, I think Mr Nighttime misunderstands capitalism. I get why he wants to distance himself from Ayn Rand but the idea that capitalism is about opportunity through entrepreneurship is her version, and not the way even the classical political economists like Adam Smith understood it. Mr Nighttime is right to point to the high amount of processed food in the US (and I would add that the UK diet was also loaded with processed fats and sugars), but this is not simply a matter of dietary preference. It has to do with the whole food production system and the way that the need to make food profitable through value-added shapes what's demanded and what's available through markets. Don't forget that the most powerful consumers in the food markets are corporations.

Adam Smith saw capitalism as a whole system; he wrote that the division of labour is co-extensive with the market. This means that markets are not just spaces of opportunity, but also of obligation and coercion: you "get" to chase your fancies through the market, but you must satisfy your needs through the market -- and if you can't, too bad.

But capitalism isn't just about the market. Holly and SV are totally correct to point to the power and political issues here. Capitalism is also a system of private property, which does not only mean that I get to enjoy what's mine, but also that I get to exclude you from what's mine.

Some inequality is indeed inevitable because we are all different. But Holly didn't suggest that the representation of wealth distribution in the pictures was unequal, she said is was unjust. The photos selected by Time, outside of the photo from the refugee camp, were apparently all of middle-class families. So the argument in the photo essay seems to be that these families have certain resources and use them in certain ways, and we can thus argue about whose lifestyle is healthier or whatever. But property, like markets, is a relationship. What is it about those opulent middle-class diets, full of processed foods of various sorts, that shapes the diets of African peasants? What is it about the middle-class lifestyle's dependence on petroleum that permits the Western governments to avoid bringing pressure to bear on the Sudanese government's genocidal policies?

I've gone on too long -- again! Sorry, Holly...I know, I should use my own damn blog for this sort of thing. But one last thing, while the bile is still up: capitalism in China is savage. It's not just about human rights, though these are the problems most reported on outside of China. Mr Nighttime, please just google "Three Gorges Dam" and ask yourself where those people are supposed to go; please spend a little time looking into who does the work of recovering the usable materials from recycling mobile phones or obsolete computers in China and ask yourself if those "entrepreneurs" are enjoying the fruits of opportunity in capitalist markets.

Spike--thanks so much for your insightful and informative comments. You raise a point I hadn't considered: the issue of class. It hadn't quite struck me that, as you state, "The photos selected by Time, outside of the photo from the refugee camp, were apparently all of middle-class families." I am sure that if the Trump family or the Hilton family or the Cruise family were willing to reveal what they spend on food each week, the contrast between the developed West and Africa would be even starker and more horrifying.

I don't know Chad particularly well but to some extent at least I do know Malawi. I was brought up there many years ago when it was still Nyasaland, and yes, we were in a way British colonists. Nothing can justify children with the distended bellies that result from malnutrition. I can remember even as a child talking about it with my father, and it still happens today. It shouldn't be necessary to have special foods such as Plumpy'Nut to keep them alive. But politics alone is not to blame. Global warming is having a devastating and disproportionate effect on the poorest communities.

But politics alone is not to blame. Global warming is having a devastating and disproportionate effect on the poorest communities.

I know you're right about this, A, and it's really depressing.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 29, 2008 12:30 PM.

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