One more cup of coffee, one more starving family

We are all connected in a web of inequality, even in some of our most apparently harmless moments
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The Independent Online

When we hear tales from Ethiopia about an eight-year-old child waiting to die, a mother without milk, a father without hope, something seems to rip in the fabric of our comfortable lives. That is a poor image, but you know what I am trying to express: that sickening, tearing feeling and a desperate uncertainty about how to respond.

When we hear tales from Ethiopia about an eight-year-old child waiting to die, a mother without milk, a father without hope, something seems to rip in the fabric of our comfortable lives. That is a poor image, but you know what I am trying to express: that sickening, tearing feeling and a desperate uncertainty about how to respond.

Up to three times as many people are said to be at risk of starvation in Ethiopia as were affected in the 1984 famine, when we were mobilised into attention and energy by Bob Geldof's Live Aid campaign. Indeed, a desperate debate is now flaring up over how many people are hungry, how hungry they are, and whether more of them are hungrier in Ethiopia than they are elsewhere in Africa.

There can be few starker illustrations of just what it needs to get our compassion going than this kind of exercise in comparative despair. Georgia Shaver, of the United Nation's World Food Programme, says: "In southern Africa, there are 10 million to 14 million people needing aid across six countries. In Ethiopia, we could have the same number in just one country." However, Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, says that such talk is "irresponsible" – because it might make people think that Ethiopia has the only famine around – and that "the crisis in southern Africa is the same sort of numbers, but even less well-organised".

A few hungry people, a hundred hungry people, a thousand hungry people, a million hungry people – they have no automatic claim on our attention; we need 10 million hungry people before we are really going to sit up and take notice, and even then we will have to choose which 10 million are the most desperate. As people like Georgia Shaver and Clare Short have learnt, it is no good assuming that we can keep our attention fixed on more than one place at once, or on any place for long.

Such competition in misery is a deeply disturbing phenomenon. And there is also something deeply disturbing about our desire to distance ourselves from any responsibility for this misery.

There are many explanations as to why people in Ethiopia are still hungry. The most commonly offered explanations are those for which we in the West can have no responsibility. The first is the failure of the rains, and the second is the failure of the Ethiopian government.

Indeed, the rains have failed; and the Ethiopian government has failed, by pouring money into long wars and defence procurement rather than land reform and education. We cannot change those realities, but they do not let us free from all involvement in the misery of the South.

We can't pretend, although we might like to, that hunger among Africans is only down to their weather and their rulers. The great achievement of the anti-globalisation movement – or, rather, the movement for global equality – has been to remind us how we are all connected in a web of inequality, even in some of our most apparently harmless moments.

Even in the moment, for instance, of reading this newspaper and lifting a cup of coffee to your mouth. That's a cup of coffee that you may have made at the office from a couple of spoonfuls of Nescafé and be swallowing down simply out of a need to stay awake, or that you may have bought in a bustling coffee bar for up to £2 and be drinking while perched on an aluminium chair, getting froth on your top lip. Whatever, it won't feel like a big deal, it's just one little moment in a busy day.

A coffee farmer in Ethiopia called Mohammed Ali Indris spoke recently to a researcher from Oxfam. "Five years ago, I was producing seven sacks of coffee and this was enough to buy clothes, medicines, services. But now even if I sell four times as much, it is impossible to cover all of my expenses. Three of the children can't go to school. We have stopped buying edible oil. We are eating mainly corn. The children's skin is getting dry and they are showing signs of malnutrition."

Mohammed Ali Indris has seen the money that he gets from his farm fall to a fifth of his previous income. He now gets about $60 (£38) a year for his household of 12 people to live on. That works out as $5 for each person. When Oxfam published its report on coffee and poverty a couple of months ago, which quoted Mohammed Ali Indris, it collected all the necessary facts and figures to shock us out of our complacent coffee-drinking: that the price paid to the producers of coffee beans has fallen to about a quarter of the level, in real terms, of 40 years ago; that in some places in the world the price that farmers get for their coffee covers just over half of their production costs; that hundreds of thousands of labourers on coffee farms have stopped working altogether, and live in absolute destitution.

Yet the movement for global equality isn't just about whipping up our guilt. It is about trying to create a momentum for change, and in some ways that it already happening. For instance, many of those people who have become aware of the effects on the poor of falling commodity prices have switched to buying fairly traded goods. That is the answer for the individual consumer; at least that way you don't have to weep crocodile tears into your frothy coffee as you read about Mr Idris and his starving children. Farmers elsewhere in Ethiopia, at the Oromiya Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union for instance, receive more than twice as much money as he does because they sell it under a fair trade scheme.

The protesters have also forced some changes on our governments. The Jubilee movement for debt reduction has helped to bring about a change in attitudes to debt repayments by the very poorest countries, and Ethiopia qualified last year for the partial debt relief given to "highly indebted poor countries".

But wider changes remain elusive. Fairly traded coffee, after all, only amounts to 2 per cent of the global coffee market. While the huge corporations that make billions of dollars in profit out of coffee are able to pay the producers less than their production costs, it is hardly surprising that coffee farmers are going hungry.

We in the West have long preached the gospel of free trade to the South while protecting our own markets with tariffs and our producers with subsidies. But there are no such subsidies for farmers in the poorest countries, who bear the brunt of the reality of free trade and its absolute indifference to the rights of the poor.

Similarly, even if Western governments have let Ethiopia off some of the costs of its debts, the Jubilee movement has stated that so far all that has been allowed to Ethiopia is just "too little, too late". For this desperate country, over $1bn of debt remains, and debt servicing still takes up about 10 per cent of all government revenues.

As Joseph Stiglitz, the former chief economist at the World Bank, says in his remarkable book Globalization and its Discontents: "For decades, the cries of the poor in Africa and in other parts of the world have been largely unheard in the West... until the protesters came along there was little hope for change and no outlets for complaint." Although the outlets for complaint have certainly opened up, unless we see more response from our governments and international institutions, the changes on offer will always be too little, and too late.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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