The Reproach of Hunger by David Rieff

There has been a considerable reduction in extreme poverty over the last 25 years. The number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide has reduced by more than 50 percent. Still, according to most recent estimate of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization,  233 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are hungry or undernourished  and 795 million people are hungry worldwide.

The causes of poverty are varied; rapid population growth, harmful economic systems, local conflicts and deterioration in the environment, have a negative effect on families’ income. Poverty is the principal cause of hunger and undernourishment and malnutrition. Poor people are forced to devote a far higher share of income to buying food. A sudden fall on their income or rising food prices can have devastating effects. Without enough food, people are likely to become ill and unable to work to earn a sufficient income to buy food. They start reducing the quality of the food they eat and spend less on their other needs, such as clothes, shelter, medicines, school for the children.

Following the success of the Millennium Development goals (MDGs), UN have now committed to a bolder set of objectives, one of them is to eradicate poverty by 2030 and to do so in an environmentally sustainable way. It is a worthy and expensive objective. The role of philanthropy and private-public ventures in achieving this goal is crucial.

The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century is a dense, detailed and rather pessimistic analysis of the global food crisis.  David Rieff exposes the challenges and the contradictions of modern philanthropy and addresses some big questions.

There is now a new generation of wealthy technocrat philanthropists who offer a big part of their wealth to solve a few of the world’s problems.  Philanthrocapitalism or venture philanthropy, as it is known, because of its alignment with core business interests, has become a formidable and innovative force for social good. But it also raises some difficult questions, argues David Reiff. He emphasises that he does not doubt philanthrocapitalists’ sincerity to do good, but he is also criticising their un-democratic operations. David Rieff doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He argues that the solution to hunger is political but he falls into the trap of moralism to justify his position.  This is a convincing way to reason if you can get your readers to accept your moral rules. But people do not generally agree on the same moral rules.

This is a thorough and well-researched book, rife with references on poverty, inequality, international development, and the “charitable industry”, but it lacks  perspective and it misses clarity.