To the Editor:

One of Nick Eberstadt’s central contentions in “Hunger and Ideology” [July] is that prevailing estimates of the magnitude of world hunger are inspired by “ideological arguments” and “idées fixes” with which he disagrees. As major contributors to the work he rejects, we strongly deny this accusation for the following reasons:

  1. The ideology or myths which he presumes inspire such international organizations as the FAO, or the World Bank where we work, are as foreign to us as they are to Mr. Eberstadt. The myths of increasing agricultural scarcity, the dangers of dependence on imported grains, and the superiority of “socialist” economics in food production are not perceptions which guide policies of any major international or national development agency. The 1980 U.S. Presidential Hunger Commission’s strong attribution of hunger to poverty is more representative of mainstream thinking.
  2. The Reutlinger-Selowsky methodology he accuses of being “superficial and deceptive” is far from an ideological argumentation. Instead, the methodology described in our book Malnutrition and Poverty is an indirect means of estimating a personal distribution of food consumption in an imperfect world where such data do not exist. The methodology does not assume any single definition of hunger. It can be used equally to estimate the number of “desperately hungry,” or the “hungry,” or “people whose food intake does not permit them to perform at their full capacity.” We have used the methodology to estimate the last category because food-energy deficits of this kind arc of considerable interest to international and national agencies charged with promoting economic development. If an “ideology” guided our endeavor, it was to remind institutions like the World Bank that augmenting people’s food-energy supply is as genuine a development concern as are investments in highways, power plants, factories, and machines.

Several other points deserve to be noted. First, Mr. Eberstadt puts the world’s “desperately hungry” population at something like 100 million. He may be right, but why not 10 million or 200 million? He fails to say what he means by “desperately hungry” and where he gets his numbers. He only claims that his estimate contradicts prevailing estimates, which presumably put the number of “desperately hungry” at a higher figure. During years of work on this subject, we have seen no published estimate of the “desperately hungry.”

Second, we reject Mr. Eberstadt’s assertion that concern about the longer-term development dimensions of the food problem distracts attention from the immediate welfare problem of the desperately hungry. Had Mr. Eberstadt read our book, he would have seen that we ascribe even the larger dimension of the food-deficit problem in developing countries to the prevalence of poverty and not to the Malthusian specter of inadequate global food supplies. We estimate this deficit to be on the order of 4 percent of current world cereal production.

Third, the question of what constitutes a food intake at which the average person should be classified as being desperately hungry, moderately hungry, or functioning at less than his optimum capacity should be resolved by nutrition experts, not by ideologists of any persuasion. (The issues will be addressed at a meeting of experts this fall in Rome.)

All in all, Mr. Eberstadt’s article is a vivid illustration of the misguided judgments which can afflict an author overzealous about differentiating his intellectual product from everyone else’s. If progress on eliminating hunger is unsatisfactorily slow, perhaps the fault lies less with “hallucinatory ideas about the causes of hunger,” as he suggests, than with an inadequate political resolve and an insufficient commitment of resources. Policy-makers may not know enough about the hunger problem to devise thoroughly effective solutions, but Mr. Eberstadt’s implied contention that it persists because they subscribe to ideologies and rhetoric of fringe groups on the far Left and Right is way off the mark.

Shlomo Reutlinger
Marcelo Selowsky

Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

I am heartened and pleased by much of Nick Eberstadt’s article, which illuminates many of the fallacies underlying a lot of the current thinking on development policy. It is especially good to read his critique of the urban bias of so much development theory. Still, Mr. Eberstadt demonstrates a less than complete mastery of the subject. In boosting “rural industrialization,” he writes that Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea “attest to the crucial role that rural industrialization plays in the acceleration of economic growth and the elimination of hunger.” But Mr. Eberstadt fails to point out that these nations secured much of their capital for expansion and the elimination of hunger only after establishing a stable agricultural and rural system based upon far-reaching land reform. In each case a major commitment was made to a program which, to paraphrase Dr. Sun Yat-sen, gave the land to the tillers. Through land reform, income which normally would have gone to a few rich landlords was diverted into the hands of the peasants. Without land reform, peasant incomes would have remained at the subsistence level, little surplus food would have been produced, and internal capital formation would have been all but impossible.

Mr. Eberstadt fails, then, to recognize the fundamental and all-important role of land reform in securing for the local agricultural sector a degree of security, control, and tenure over basic land and water resources. This inadequate understanding of the underpinnings of rural reconstruction is mirrored in current U.S. policy, as witness numerous missed opportunities in Central America. It also shows contemporary ignorance of U.S. policy in the post-World War II era, for it was the U.S. government which instigated and supported land reform in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea after the war.

Without a commitment to land reform and a will to see that capital and investment are not prematurely diverted from rural development to industrialization and urbanization, Mr. Eberstadt’s formula, which otherwise makes good sense, will also prove inadequate. While he may be correct in asserting that the United States has “no ultimate say” over local land-tenure arrangements, that really begs the issue of U.S. commitment to such initiatives where appropriate and necessary. Moreover, in slamming the World Bank, Mr. Eberstadt may not realize that it is this institution, through the work of Daniel Benor and others, which has created the most dynamic and effective extension system for less developed nations—one of the elements in Mr. Eberstadt’s strategy.

Finally, it would be unfortunate if Mr. Eberstadt’s emphasis on the crucial role of the United States (“preeminence over the world’s grain economy”) became a clarion call for a unilateral shift in policy. Other nations, notably Canada, remain just as pivotal to a restructuring of international development policy. American posture on a true “North/South dialogue” has been less than supportive in this regard.

Mark B. Lapping
Director, School of Rural Planning and Development
University of Guelph
Guelph, Ontario

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To the Editor:

I object to Nick Eberstadt’s treatment of Malthusians and Malthusian doctrine in his article, “Hunger and Ideology.” . . . Since the Malthusian position seldom gets a hearing in polemics of this kind, let me clarify it. In his famous Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus set forth two approximate rules of increase—one for population, the other for food production. Although population follows a “geometrical progression” (doubling itself over and over within a constant time period), food production cannot exceed an “arithmetical progression” (i.e., cannot be increased by more than a fixed, constant amount each year). Therefore food production sooner or later lags behind population, making starvation (or other catastrophes, such as war or pestilence) exceedingly likely.

Malthus did not consider this scenario inevitable; indeed, he specified that birth control could prevent catastrophe. His opponents, who might as well be termed anti-Malthusians, take positions somewhat like Mr. Eberstadt’s. Malthus, they claim, “has always been wrong”; when challenged, this statement turns out to refer to his rule about food production. . . . In their opinion human innovation, ingenuity, and enterprise . . . can be counted on to keep food production up to the mark, and since Malthus failed to give proper weight to this factor, they consider his predictions nonsense.

If by Malthusians the author means only such people as support both of Malthus’s rules—the “arithmetical progression” of food production and the “geometrical progression” of population—he is machine-gunning his own straw man. I consider myself a Malthusian, as do also the vast majority of Western biologists; yet I doubt if a half-dozen of us subscribe to Malthus’s “arithmetical” rule on food production. Were Malthus alive now, he would be the first to reject that rule for the same reason the anti-Malthusians give—the factor of “human talent” defined by Julian Simon. . . .

So if Malthus was “always wrong” about food production, why should anyone be a Malthusian? Because though his food-production rule did not hold, the second rule—the one about population—does. All the various methods of birth control combined, including abstinence, abortion, and celibacy as well as contraceptive devices, have never made much of a dent in world population growth. Population follows a rough “geometrical progression” rule of increase; in fact, for most of the time it does even better than that. For most of history for which we have figures, the doubling-time for world population has not been constant—it has been decreasing! It takes less time for world population to double itself than a strict “geometrical progression” would predict. . . .

Behind all the contention—let’s face it—is the question of birth control; without birth control of some kind, humanity must increase geometrically unless checked by rising death rates from catastrophes such as famine, pestilence, and war. Another 150 years of “geometric” growth (at 2 percent per year) leaves the world with a population of 80 billion; can the earth support it? If so, can humanity govern itself with such a population, permitting us to live and work together? Does it matter if, in such a future, there is no room for wildlife? Will the lives of those 80 million be tolerable by present standards, let alone better? . . .

Such questions are controversial, many of them presently unanswerable; debates on them settle nothing between Malthusians and anti-Malthusians. But it is very unlikely that the ultimate answers will all be favorable, and quite likely that some of them will be catastrophic. . . .

Alfred B. Mason
Hydesville, California

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To the Editor:

. . . In his thoughtful treatment of world hunger . . . Nick Eberstadt notes that none of his suggestions for American action promoting world nutrition has been followed, “perhaps for want of the idea.” Without deprecating the originality of Mr. Eberstadt’s recommendations, I would suggest that the reason why action falters in this area is lack of ideological interest. Altruism alone might inspire increased American action to enhance world nutrition, but I doubt that it will. Within the next few years increased dedication of our economic resources to military purposes and private investment will tend to preclude increased outlays on foreign assistance. . . .

Advancement of nutritional rights, however, is justified by national interest as well as altruism and might well become part of an effective American ideology. After all, anti-Soviet speeches at Notre Dame have slight international political appeal compared with programs promoting nutrition. . . .

The right to basic nutrition is an almost essential ingredient of any human-rights ideology that is to appeal successfully to the ordinary people of developing countries. The Soviets now respond to our advocacy of human rights in international forums by arguing that the right to life is the most essential right, so that a social system which subordinates liberties in order to provide the economic conditions for sustaining life is said by them to be the most righteous regime. Nick Eberstadt undermines the essential premise of that argument. I hope he will continue to write and to refine the ideological consequences of his observations.

Bill White
Houston, Texas

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Nick Eberstadt writes:

I do not believe, nor did I imply in my article, that Shlomo Reutlinger and Marcelo Selowsky were ideologically-oriented researchers, though any critics broad-minded enough to suggest that such major international organizations as the ILO and UNCTAD are not moved by ideological concerns are clearly not sensitive to the phenomenon. My criticism of Messrs. Reutlinger and Selowsky’s approach to estimating the incidence of hunger concerned its practicality, not its philosophical underpinnings. The Reutlinger-Selowsky method cannot measure hunger in any meaningful way. What it can do is estimate the fraction of a population which may be expected to consume fewer than some given number of calories. But what does this mean? Human needs vary. Fully half of any population needs less than the average nutritional requirement—this is the definition of average. Applying the Reutlinger-Selowsky method to a perfectly well-fed nation, one could conceivably come to the conclusion that 50 percent of the population was getting too little to eat. Mr. Reutlinger’s own calculations suggest that 46 percent of the people of Hong Kong, and 48 percent of those in Taiwan, live under the shadow of “caloric deficits.” We know this to be nonsense: the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan are among the best-nourished in the world; their life expectancies (72-73 years) are equivalent to those of Finland and Austria. Eminent nutritionists like Philip Payne and P.V. Sukhatme have detailed the shortcomings of the Reutlinger-Selowsky approach in the scholarly literature.

Had Messrs. Reutlinger and Selowsky read my article carefully, they would have seen how I arrived at the figure of 100 million for the world’s “desperately hungry,” and they would have understood that I used this term to describe the pool of unfortunates who are threatened by death from hunger. I would also have expected them to be familiar with the work of Dr. Lincoln Chen and his colleagues in this matter.

Again, if they had read my article carefully, they would have seen that I never suggested that concern for the long-term aspects of the hunger problem is detrimental to current and ongoing efforts to reduce malnutrition. What I argued was that inflated figures on malnutrition do not serve the cause of the poor.

Messrs. Reutlinger and Selowsky suggest that the stinginess of the giving public has been a primary constraint in the fight against world hunger. I wonder if they have considered the effects on public generosity of continued misrepresentation of the world hunger situation. The Reutlinger-Selowsky approach was an original attempt to deal with the very difficult question of quantifying malnutrition, but I do not understand why its creators continue to promote it after it has been discredited by nutritionists.

The thrust of Mark B. Lapping’s letter is that my article gave short shrift to land reform. Land reform can be tremendously important in the struggle against hunger, but I am not sure Mr. Lapping fully appreciates the difficulties inherent in completely overhauling the political and financial arrangements of life in the countryside. The United States sponsored land reform in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea under special circumstances. In Japan, the U.S. was the occupying power, administering affairs for a nation it had defeated in war. In Taiwan, American calls for land reform were heeded because Chiang Kai-shek, a newcomer to the island, had an interest in weakening the local landed elite by redistributing its property. In South Korea, land reform proceeded because the United States, which was partial to the process, was the only force standing between North Korea’s tanks and the gates of Seoul; even so, it took the better part of a decade for land reform to get under way in South Korea. Short of invasion and conquest, it is rather difficult to compel a regime against its will to undertake a land reform worthy of the name.

The relationship between land reform and rural development is more complicated than Mr. Lapping suggests. Rural Japan advanced dramatically between the late 1880’s and the 1930’s—without land reform. In South Korea, the Saemaul Undong has been responsible for the greatest portion of the rise in peasant incomes, but this self-help movement has nothing to do with land reform. Neither Thailand nor Malaysia has experienced anything that might honestly be called land reform, yet in both countries hunger in the rural districts has been subsiding rapidly, and rural industrialization seems to be moving ahead. Conversely, the Shah’s “White Revolution” in the early 1960’s did not solve Iran’s development problems. When President Cardenas gave land to Mexico’s peasants in the 1930’s, he promised them prosperity; the residents of the Ejidos are still waiting. Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa program is sometimes described as a massive effort at land reform; yet in systematically resettling more than half his country’s population, he has succeeded in ruining the nation’s economy, and in making Tanzania critically dependent on foreign charity to forestall recurrent famine.

There is no doubt that land reform is a worthy objective. The potential for land reform, however, depends heavily on the specifics of the situation. Properly pursued, it can be an important part of a strategy to reduce hunger, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient component of such a strategy.

Like other seminal thinkers, T.R. Malthus suffers at the hands of his disciples. By the end of his life, Karl Marx had to insist that he was not a “Marxist”; I suspect that were he alive today, Malthus would question the genealogy of the writers who claim to be his intellectual descendants. Malthus’s own ideas changed and developed over the course of his life; what is so peculiar about today’s Malthusians and neo-Malthusians is that their doctrine still clings to the first edition of Malthus’s famous pamphlet.

In later editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus recognized that population growth was not necessarily inconsistent with the improvement of human welfare. This point seems to have been lost on Alfred B. Mason. Since the end of World War II the population of the world has grown with unprecedented speed. But per-capita output has not stagnated or declined. Rather, it has advanced at the most rapid pace in human memory.

Mr. Mason need not be troubled by today’s rates of natural increase. In general, they reflect a revolution in health. Since the turn of the century, man’s life span has approximately doubled, and death rates have correspondingly fallen. Today’s rapid rates of population growth are a reflection of an enormous improvement in the human condition. I would not be overly concerned by the prospect of 160 billion feet trampling the globe, either. Population projections are problematic when taken five years into the future, let alone 150. The world’s rate of demographic growth peaked in the 1960’s, and has been falling, as far as we can tell, since then. As Western attitudes toward the family spread, and as the value of parents’ time increases, pressures to reduce family size may be expected to intensify in the high-fertility regions of the world. Poor people are not irrational.

Finally, I thank Bill White for his kind comments. His point about the role of ideology in American foreign policy is well taken. National interest, in a traditional sense, is not what American foreign policy has been all about. The main justification for American involvement in world affairs has been the defense and promotion of moral and political ideals. When the moral purpose underlying an American initiative becomes obscure (as happened at some point during the Vietnam escalation and then later during Henry Kissinger’s adventures in Realpolitik), public support falters. Yet without public support, an American administration can pursue its foreign-policy objectives only at great cost to itself and to the nation. In no other country does one observe the same organic connection between public morality and foreign policy.

The American people are strongly committed to improving the plight of the world’s poor. Over the past thirty years they have donated more grain and money to the effort to eradicate hunger than all other nations combined. If funding for “development assistance” has been in trouble in recent years, this is because of a widespread perception that such funds are not being wisely spent. The American public’s deep and continuing concern for the poor comes through, among other places, in opinion surveys. Americans consistently give higher priority to “eliminating world hunger” than to such concerns as “promoting American business interests abroad,” or even “protecting American jobs.” A considered program for reducing desperate hunger and malnutrition could certainly rely on public support, and might reinforce and clarify American purpose in other areas. Let us hope this opportunity is pursued.

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