Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hunger “strikes”

And when it does, the hungry strike back. In Egypt in late March, at least 7 people died during an acute shortage of subsidized bread: long lines in the spring heat contributed to violence responsible for 2 deaths, while exhaustion and complications of other ailments killed 5 others. To avoid rioting, President Hosni Mubarak called out the army—not to quell violence, but to bake and distribute bread. In Haiti, where the price of rice doubled in a single week, demonstrations began on April 3, developing over the course of a week into violence, pillaging and the arrest of over 300. To calm things down, President René Préval announced he would lower the price by $8. Considering the extent of the problem, the solution is not at all adequate: 80% of Haiti’s population lives on less than $2/day, while the price of rice rose from $35 to $70 for 110-pound bag. Dropping it to $62 is not likely to appease anger or hunger for long. Especially since such hikes in prices are not solely due to the shortages of rice or wheat that we’ve all been hearing about. According to Jean Ziegler, UN special rapporteur for the right to food, the problem is structural: drought in Australia and increased consumption in China and India cannot be blamed entirely for the 52% increase in the price of rice over the last 2 months, nor the 84% hike in other cereal prices in 4 months. Obviously, the price of oil, and thus transportation, has to be figured in. And as the French weekly, the Canard Enchaîné pointed out, (sorry, no web link) trading commodities such as rice on the world market also shares responsibility for such precipitous rises in prices. Ziegler claims that the food riots we’re seeing are merely the tip of the iceberg of a coming catastrophe: before prices rose, children under age 10 died of hunger at the rate of 1 every 5 seconds and 854 million people were seriously under nourished. And with the United States now putting big bucks ($6 billion) into biofuels, 138 million tons of corn will be used to propel people rather than feed them. Serendipitously, as I was preparing this post yesterday, I received notice of a way we all can help: go to http://www.freerice.com/. I was told the site was created by a computer programmer who wanted to devise a way to help his son study for his SAT's (vocabulary portion) and do something to help end world hunger at the same time. It consists of a vocabulary test, on which you can preset the level or have it adjust automatically to suit all ages and levels. For every correct answer, the site’s sponsors donate 20 grains of rice to the UN World Food program (a quick check of the UN site shows that rice from Free Rice has been donated to at least Bangladesh & Myanmar so far). In just a few minutes, you can donate thousands of grains of rice (and improve your vocabulary to boot)!

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