Trócaire: Exploring the Causes of Famine


Hunger today is a major scandal – 840 million people are undernourished. It’s a scandal because the world has enough food to feed all. What it lacks is the political will to achieve this. Hunger today does not just happen – it is created by human action and inaction!


Between 1965 and 1990, the number of developing countries that were able to meet the daily calorie needs of their people doubled – from about 25 to 50. Yet, 500 million remain chronically undernourished and in 1990 alone, over 100 million were affected by famine.


One reason why the world cannot feed itself is because of the burden of debt repayments facing many of the poorest developing nations. Developing world debt stands at the astronomical level of over $2 trillion. The problem isn’t only the amount owed but the ability to make the payments as they fall due. Developing countries are paying northern banks, financial institutions and governments $542 million per day in debt repayments. This represents a huge outflow of desperately needed resources from developing countries. They are paying their debts with the health, welfare and lives of the people.
A major cause of food insecurity for developing countries is the multilateral debt owed mainly to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Debt to multilateral creditors increased from $98 billion to $304 billion between 1982 and 1992. In many countries 50% of debt payments goes to the IMF and the World Bank. These bodies are adamant that their debts must be repaid at whatever the cost, even if it sacrifices the lives and welfare of the poorest people.

The Arms Trade– Dealing in Death

A further cause of poverty, hunger and misery is the arms trade. Fact:

* Each year $180 for every man, woman and child is spent on arms.
* After oil, the world’s number two industry is arms.
* Developed countries devote $500 billion annually to the military but only $50 billion to development aid.
* Despite having 800 million people living in poverty, South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa continue to spend heavily on arms ($9 billion and $8 billion respectively).
* Today, developing countries have 8 times as many soldiers as doctors.

In 1995 the world suffered a record 71 conflicts ( most were in the developing world and many were internal to states rather than between states). In its 1994 Human Development Report the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) notes that world military expenditure in 1992 equalled the combined income of 49% of the world’s population. The UNDP estimated that world military expenditure in 1995 would total $744 billion.

Cash Crops

Fertile cropland continues to be degraded and misused worldwide. This situation threatens the food security of millions. Oil exploration, large scale cattle ranching for the burger industry and other activities by trans-national companies threaten the right to food security of many communities. A growing share of the best farmland is planted in non-food crops such as cotton and coffee at the expense of food crops. Six trans-national companies control 75% of the grain trade.
Many developing countries rely on cash crops to earn foreign exchange so as to repay their debts, which threatens the food security of the people. During the small famine of 1985 eastern Sudan produced 800,000 tonnes of grain for export. Somalia’s best land is devoted to producing fruit, vegetables and cotton for export. Much of the best land in Ethiopia is devoted to growing coffee (80% of exports) and 78% of Kenyan agricultural labour is engaged in producing crops for exports.
It hasn’t always been like this, it needn’t always be like this. Forty years ago Africa was self-sufficient in food production. Today, it imports 40% of its food. Also, prices of coffee, cotton, etc., have fallen on the world market and countries’ export earnings have been reduced. This means there is less money to buy food.


Stark images of famine which we see in the media are the exception. However, the daily reality of malnourishment and food insecurity is a slent, invisible reality which affects millions of people. 35,000 children die each day due to the affects of hunger. Africa is the region of the world where the numbers of malnourished children is expected to increase in the period up to 2020. This rise is calculated at 50%. This is not caused by insufficient food but by peoples’ lack of access to and ownership of land and the resources to buy food.

The above is a statement by the Irish charity, Trócaire (‘Mercy’ ), in Famine Times, published in January, 1997 by the Dublin Heritage Group, c/o Cormac Behan, Walkinstown Library, Percy French Road, Walkinstown, Dublin 12. Tel: 00 353 1 4562528. Trócaire may be contacted at 169 Booterstown Avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin. Tel: 00 353 1 2885385.

Reprinted in The Green Dragon No 3, Summer, 1997.