Surely you have noticed it in the market; food prices have soared.
Worldwide food costs have increased 60 percent in the past 18 months.
This is a startling change since food prices had been slowly dropping
for a number of years.
In the poorer countries of the world, the rapid rise in grain costs
has led to food riots in more than 30 countries from Haiti to Pakistan.
These countries rely on food imports and, in many, as much as 50
percent of the average family income goes to buying food. Pakistanis
today are less concerned with the Taliban and the assassination of
Benazir Bhutto than they are with the cost of wheat and rice. Poor
African nations are now -- and will be for some time -- the hardest hit
by rising food costs. These nations have suffered high rates of
malnutrition for years and are now being pushed into desperate
Analysts have dissected the factors behind this run-up in food costs
week after week: the rising cost of oil, the rising cost of
fertilizers, speculation on grain futures, moving California farmland
to grapes and almonds, switching corn supplies into ethanol production,
and on and on. There is one factor you are not likely to have heard
about: programs based on an inflexible ideology on the part of the
The U.S. gets to say who will be the head of the World Bank. After
Paul Wolfowitz decided it was time to duck out on the Iraq war, which
he helped start, he became head of the World Bank with the help of
President Bush. He held this position until his imbroglio involving a
girlfriend resulted in his resignation. He was recently succeeded by
Robert B. Zoellick, both men having been members of the self-described
Vulcans, the right-wing group that gathered to advise Bush in 2000.
What does this have to do with food prices? It doesn't have as much
effect as oil prices, but a small example will be enlightening.
The country of Malawi in central Africa has, like all poor nations,
been aided and strongly advised by the World Bank for years. Well
before Wolfowitz went there, the World Bank's policy had become
distinctly ideological. They were to follow free-market policies. This
meant changing the earlier practice of intensifying corn production for
a local market and increasing crops that would be involved in the world
trading system. In 1998 the World Bank Group published "Malawi -- The
World Bank and the Agricultural Sector." The report stressed the view
that intensifying grain agriculture was a mistake and repeatedly
stressed the need for crops sold on the international market. The only
crop advocated for this, tobacco, was repeatedly mentioned.
Another part of the World Bank leadership's free market ideology was
that the Malawi government should eliminate fertilizer subsidies.
Malawi bordered on famine for a few years and, in 2005, one-third of
its population had to have emergency food aid. At this point Malawi's
President Bingu wa Mutharika abandoned the World Bank's policies and
began to subsidize fertilizer for farmers. Childhood malnutrition rates
fell, emergency food aid was no longer needed and last year, when the
food crises in Africa became acute, Malawi sold more corn to the U.N.
World Food Program than any other nation in southern Africa, and became
a corn exporter.
The ideologues of the World Bank were, and are, the ideologues of
Washington. Their "free trade" and "no government subsidies" ideology
has been applied throughout Africa and with disastrous results. The
reader will look long and hard to find a discussion of this factor
affecting food prices in poor African countries. Yet it is the most
avoidable cause of hunger.
We would like to think of the people running organizations such as
the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as practical people
-- pragmatists. Too often they are not; they have been picked for those
positions to satisfy political ideology. In this case it happens to be
an ideology that permits multinational corporations to exploit poor
This is not unknown to citizens here. The U.S. is far from being a
poor nation, but this does not make our citizens immune to the abuses
justified by political ideology. The deregulation mantra became such an
ideology. Deregulation and little government oversight brought
California the artificial electricity crisis that took billions out of
the state; it permitted the Enron debacle among others, and now the
sub-prime mortgage crisis.
All of this again suggests what we have long known to be true;
voters should value pragmatism among candidates for public office and
should be very suspicious of the ideologues, the true believers.
Bob Williams is a Millville rancher and a retired UCLA professor