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..:: Famine ::..


Alan Schneider


             Some time ago, I was having a conversation with a Chinese PhD (in engineering) regarding the theme of Enlightenment, and its relevancy to human affairs in general. Not all that surprisingly, he was generally unreceptive to the subject, but polite enough to bear with my arguments. His final remark remained with me, however, “If people do not even have anything to eat, they cannot feed their minds, either!” Since the air we all breathe is generally provided with the oxygen we need to support our physiology, food and water remain as the next most pressing requirements. The air may be contaminated, as may the water, and water may be less available in a given locality, but the absence of food amounts to a death sentence for the local inhabitants. The body is the tyrant of consciousness, imposing all manner of limitations on the awareness it sustains, whether higher, lower, or median. This essay, written during the time of my attendance at Arizona State University, deals with that subject – famine, and its affects on human personal and social consciousness.           

            Famine, for our purposes here, can be defined as an acute general shortage of food occurring in a specific locality of the world. This is in contrast to a much more extensive condition around the world known as malnutrition – which denotes a generally inadequate and undernourished condition in an individual’s diet (Mellor/Delgado, p.9). There are almost certainly many more people suffering from the effects of malnutrition than are threatened with acute starvation on the planet today (Keen, pp.129,130). Yet famine occurs at any time the total food supply is abruptly curtailed to levels below subsistence for sufficiently large segments of local populations. (1.3) 

            The majority of reports of famine conditions have occurred in the continent of Africa, the probable birth place of humanity, and  the oldest human problem as well; survival –  in what has always tended to become an economy of scarcity over time. This tendency is true of all resources, but is particularly serious in the case of the food shortage, due to the immediacy of the concern involved. Death can follow the interval of starvation within days, or weeks, in the best case eventuality (De Wall, pp.70-73). It would initially seem that modern agricultural processing would have eliminated this specter long ago, but the backward state of much of the planet has continued to this day. In underdeveloped third world countries where modern conditions have not seen their advent yet, and time honored (but frequently horrendously inefficient) stone age techniques are still used, famine is an omnipresent threat. (1.3) 

            When the normally high birth rate in these areas is combined with the primitive conditions noted above, the result is a blueprint for socioeconomic disaster. The threat of starvation is a pressing concern for people living under it more or less continually by virtue of a strapped and inefficient method of food production. If we then add a general lack of information (of any kind, about anything) to this equation, the resultant social stagnation is comprehensive. The attitude frequently encountered in the third world is that death, suffering, and instability are the norm, and that it has always been so, and always will be (Singh, p. 273). It simply does not seem to occur to people to wonder about the possibility of another, perhaps more farsighted, way of acting. (1.3) 

            I wish to propose that a much better integrated solution to both the problems of starvation and malnutrition needs to be developed at this time, and education is the key to this process.  During the nineteen nineties, much attention was focused around the world on the provision of relief to the desperately under-resourced conditions of great tracts of Africa. Literally millions of people were threatened with outright starvation over significant areas of the continent. The eventual result of this campaign was the importing of vast quantities of food into the effected areas over a very short period of time, and the subsequent containment of the immediate problem. But the gift of education did not accompany the gifts of food. The outcome was an immediate population explosion, one which  then  overshadowed the effect of the original famine relief completely (Barker, pp. 8-11). Today there are even more people threatened with starvation in an even more intractable situation in the original effected areas. (1.3)

            Clearly, the first thrust of education in such cases must be directed at birth control information, and at disseminating this information to the general population. If this is not done, we have ultimately only delayed the disaster. A population in which no systematic method of birth control is practiced or available, will always eventually overtake the available food supply (Franke/ Chasin, pp.133-115). I wish to note here that ease and availability of birth control techniques, and general access to information about them, is the first key to the elimination of famine in the world today. (1.3) 

            This brings me to the issue of organized religion. There is a very lamentable tendency of religion across the board to repress access to information concerned with any aspect of sexuality. This is an almost universal characteristic which is seen to some degree in virtually every major belief system in the world. The attitude of many religious belief systems seems to be that the physical body is a fundamentally unclean phenomenon about which information should be restricted, particularly information about the sexual process. Here we simply see what is a particularly effective representation of the case in point. Why do religions tend to aggravate this issue, and create resistance to sexual information? Is not the human being also a sexual being by nature? Most religions have traditionally found themselves confronted with the condition of human nature as a problem to be overcome, and have tended to perceive sexuality as the focus of this problem. (2.3.4) 

            The practice of sexuality tends to bring with it certain presumptions, among them the supposition (at least between heterosexual individuals) that this act will be taking place between a man and woman, and more or less voluntarily. The question is whether the fact that this is a naturally occurring phenomenon is also compatible with a moral outlook on life. (2.3.4) 

            The problem here is that repression does not support morality. It can and does support fear and ignorance, however, and supports the use of these as tools of intimidation by the dysfunctional and control motivated individual who often is attracted to religious organizations. A deep seated resentment directed at the sexually functional individual frequently is seen as the driving factor in the behavior of these people, something which very definitely does not reflect a sincere concern for the well being of others. (3.4) 

            This type of ingrained negative attitude is very difficult to change. And it stands as an indication of a more basic problem in the human community: alienation on all levels (Barker, p.118). If we have not learned to respond with some degree of empathy and compassion to the plight of others – any plight – then we are more or less disconnected from their condition, and from the human condition as well. These are the hidden enemies  in the case of large scale suffering and disaster – alienation and apathy. Education can and must be used to counteract these pervasive, subtle, and most destructive forms of social decay. (1.3.4) 

            And this obviously must be conducted on every level in the endemic society of the famine affected areas. If anything, the simple process of birth control education is probably a bare minimum for these communities, and needs to be supported with a general increase in the levels of total understanding of the concept of responsible, far sighted living. Reference needs to be made to the emerging world community of which we are all a part, and which is potentially affected by any development anywhere. We are all important, and we all make a difference. By repeatedly stressing this point, the twin demons of alienation and apathy are slowly dispelled from human consciousness, and replaced by motivated concern. I have personally seen this work as a functional awareness enhancing process under conditions of the most “hopeless” poverty and desolation, and believe that the interpersonal skills involved in conveying this perspective can be learned by others, and subsequently taught to large numbers of victims in regions stricken with disease, famine, and malnutrition.  (3.4) 

            The specific type of birth control which should be advocated by relief workers in poverty and famine affected areas is the condom. This is the only known method which simultaneously reliably prevents conception, and also prevents the proliferation of the HIV virus. It is well known that the AIDS epidemic originated in Africa, very probably in Nigeria, and was disseminated around the world from there. Africa has the world’s highest AIDS rate by far, due in no small part to the aforementioned origin (Keen, pp.76-78). Anyone with useable hands can apply a condom, and the simplicity, directness, cost effectiveness, and reliability of this technique for both birth control and disease prevention make it the obvious preferred choice. Since AIDS is a problem in most regions where famine also threatens the local population, the two concerns can and should be addressed with the delivery not only of famine relief, but of condoms and the instructions in their use as well. (1.3.4)           

            The last factor at work in the poverty/disease/starvation cycle is political corruption on the part of local and national civic leaders. This is the one area which is most difficult to effect. Adverse conditions in any society anywhere tend to select for an amoral type of personal consciousness in a potential leader of the community. This is the type of individual who will be most willing to circumvent morality, and most adept at the techniques for effectively doing so (Bates/Lofchie, pp.130-132). It is much more challenging to be an honest, forthright person in the world, than to be manipulative and deceptive. Honesty requires accountability and responsibility. Someone has to be there on the bottom line to take credit and curses from the masses. The battle against corrupt officialdom is always the final social conflict. (3.4) 

            In summation, I must insist here that comprehensive continuing education in the famine, disease, and poverty stricken areas of the world, occurring on as many levels as possible, represents the best possible solution scenario for these problems. And education in the use of modern agricultural methods must be accompanied by parallel education in the use of condoms as the best, most reliable method of both disease control and birth control.


Singh, Charles. India’s Poverty and Its Solution. India: Asia Publishing House, 1964.

Barker, Jonathan. Rural Communities Under Stress – Peasant Farmers in the State of

            Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.   

Franke, Richard, and Chasin, Barbara. Seeds of Famine. Allenheld, Osmun & Co.


De Waal, Alexander. Famine That Kills. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Bates, Robert, and Lofchie, Michael. Agricultural Development in Africa. Praeger

             Publishers, CBS, 1980.

Mellor, John, Delgado, Christopher, and Blackie, Malcolm. Accelerating Food

             Production in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1987.

Keen, David. The Benefits of Famine. Princeton University Press. 1994.

Website: www.grassroots.org. Dedicated to humanitarian efforts around the world.

Website: www.golbalaidsalliance.org. AIDS prevention and education worldwide.

Website: www.doctorswithoutborders.org. Medical relief and support, worldwide.

Website: www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/vWN. Current Famine Emergencies.


                                          - With Love, Alan -

                         (Copyright 2009, by Alan Schneider)


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