Against Totems

I’ve just come across a piece by Frederick Kaufman in the British Medical Journal . He interviewed Amartya Sen as part of an investigation into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s approach to fighting hunger through something called “Purchase for Progress”. You can read more about it at the BMJ or at Fred’s site, but the paragraphs that caught my eye are here:

programmes like Purchase for Progress take for granted the idea that free market dynamics can transform the indigent peasant into a bona fide agribusinessman, and that assured future sales of grain will increase output, help alleviate local conditions, and thus mitigate world hunger.

But as the titans of global food aid seek solutions to mankind’s greatest health threat—a hunger related death every four seconds—they may do well to remember Amartya Sen’s warning and retain a healthy scepticism regarding the worship of a totem market economy. Free markets may have worked well for oligopolists like Bill Gates, but the World Food Programme cannot simply will them into existence. In fact, the imposition of commodity markets within the world’s least developed countries has a history of failure.