Let them Eat Cash

Previously at Stuffed and Starved, we’ve had posts with names like Let them Eat Rats and Let them Eat Mud. Today, it’s Let them Eat Cash – the title of Fred Kaufman’s fine new Harpers article on the Gates Foundation’s answer to the problems of hunger in Africa.

The article is only available to subscribers, but highly recommended, not least for this splendid exchange where Fred – in a first I think for any journalist – actually manages to call Bill Gates on his shit.

Here’s a quote from the article:

Now Bettina Lüescher returned to her microphone and asked if anyone had any questions. I raised my hand but she called on someone else. Second question, she looked right past me. Ditto for the third.

“We are running out of time,” said Lüescher. “One last question.” She gazed at the multitude of hands from front to back and all around the arc of the majestic semicircle. Then she smiled and said, “Fred.”

I clicked on my microphone and said I had a question for Mr. Gates: Despite all he was doing to end world hunger, might not programs like Purchase for Progress in the end perpetuate market conditions that actually promote world hunger?

An uncomfortable silence settled on the room, and for the first time that morning Bill Gates stopped smiling. Instead of answering my question he asked one in return, the only indication of his annoyance the fact that he had forgotten to turn on his microphone. “What do you mean by ‘market conditions’?” he asked.

I had planned my question in advance, but never suspected I would be required to speak at any length. Now I found myself in front of a microphone, in full possession of my own famine narrative, a story that had been accruing for months. An irresistible urge took hold, and I launched into the tale of Dionysodorus the Athenian grain merchant, Roman mobs rushing the Palatine, and medieval markets for human flesh and living children. I cited Xenokles and Archestratos, the Bemba and the Bushmen and the Tikopeans of the South Pacific. The history of the world was the history of hungry people, I explained. Money, politics, war—none had ever been enough to stop starvation. And so on and so forth. Josette Sheeran sat frozen behind the dais and Bill Gates scowled.

“You should track what the food output has been,” he said, and this time he remembered to turn on his microphone. “The amount of food being produced in the world today is much greater than millennia ago.” His face had grown florid as he gazed down from his perch beside the African presidents. “Incredible progress has been made,” he recited. “You get operating markets, they can feed the world very well. This money is being spent because it improves the human condition.”

And now his smile returned. “If you look at historical figures and do not see a positive trend, you might not choose to be involved,” he said, “but I do see a positive trend.” Gates shook his head and turned off his microphone, and Bettina Lüescher announced that the news conference had come to an end. At which point, Jakaya Kikwete switched on his microphone.

“To assume that what the assistance that Bill Gates and Howard Buffet are extending to African farmers is doing is perpetuating hunger,” said Kikweke, “that is a big misconception.” The idea that Bill Gates and the World Food Program might actually be increasing famine had interrogated the very essence of the gift heading Kikwete’s way: his fertilizer market, his seed market, his loans, his commodity-options technology, his slice of progress pie.

And so the president of Tanzania recommenced his well-rehearsed paean to the new era of hunger management. “I am seeing a lot of sense in what they are doing,” Kikwete continued, but no one was listening anymore, not even Bettina Lüescher, who repeated that the news conference was over. The press continued their quest to extract something more from Bill Gates, who ignored the noise. And still Tanzania’s chief executive would not stop. Jakaya Kikwete wanted his money and his markets, and he would keep reciting until he got them.

Eventually, the African president tired of his speech. The aides and secretaries cleared the room, along with the World Food Program crowd and the Bill Gates Delegation. And for a moment, Conference Room 4 stood empty. Then Indonesia’s minister for foreign affairs took a seat at the dais, alongside the prime minister of Denmark, the president of Poland, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

A new press person announced a new press conference.

Hunger was over. It was time to discuss climate change.