Post Blames Free Market For Starvation In Niger

Post Blames Free Market For Starvation In Niger
Timbergs rant bypasses poverty, drought, locusts and other causes to blame greedy capitalists.

By Dan Gainor
August 11, 2005

     The decades-long crisis of African poverty and starvation has been the focal point of endless media coverage. The Aug. 11 Washington Post finally named a culprit the free market.

     The 1,100-word article, The Rise of a Market Mentality Means Many Go Hungry in Niger, was more of a rant against the free market system than objective journalism. Craig Timberg, a Post correspondent, pulled out an anti-capitalist critique blaming vendor profiteering, a government policy shift toward a free market, and a decline in the traditional culture of generosity that once helped communities in Niger survive cyclical periods of scarcity. Essentially, the article asserted that greedy capitalists are the real reason for the starvation of millions.

     The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Associated Press and U.S. government all claimed otherwise. Even Timbergs previous writing disagrees on this point.

     According to Timbergs Aug. 8 piece on Niger, This is a nation where chronic poverty, cyclical drought and flooding, and international indifference have created conditions that are among the worlds worlds most lethal to children. He added that Floodwaters have contaminated drinking sources and created pools for breeding mosquitoes. He could have added that an ill-conceived left-wing-backed ban on use of DDT is another reason for the spread of mosquitoes.

     There are so many things wrong with Timbergs anti-free market claim that it is hard to address them all. However, his trashing of a nation freed from government price controls and other mechanisms that once balanced market forces deserves some analysis. Here are some of the broader points:

    Other causes: An Aug. 5 AP article did a better job than Timberg of synopsizing the problems facing Niger, citing Ed Fox, a senior official with the Agency for International Development: The causes of the crisis are poverty, locusts, a precarious food security situation, encroaching desert, inadequate water and sanitation services, and meager health coverage. The free market wasnt mentioned.
    Western greed: Timberg mocked Niger as it reaches for a more materialistic, Westernized future. That same Westernized culture is actively giving aid to the starving nation. He didnt mention that. APs Aug. 5 story pointed out that 200 tons of high-energy food from the United States were on the way to Niger to help feed children. And he didnt address the billions of dollars in U.S. government aid or charity funding that help poor people around the world.
    Poverty: Timberg didnt tell enough about Nigers poverty or why the residents might embrace free markets. He did say: The sandy soil holds water poorly, and only one acre in 30 is considered arable. AP gave more essential information: Niger is the worlds second-poorest country, with an estimated 64 percent of its 12 million inhabitants surviving on less that $1 a day. To a starving, poverty-stricken nation, a free-market approach is the only way to provide for long-term survival.
    Population growth: Despite its overwhelming poverty, Nigers 11 million strong population is expanding at 3.3 percent per year, according to the Aug. 1 Christian Science Monitor. Thats the 10th-highest growth rate in the world, according to the UN, and it means the countrys population will double in just 21 years. Having additional mouths to feed is a major problem for a starving country and not a problem driven by the free market.
    A young democracy: Even The New York Times gave more credit to Nigers troubled recent history. An Aug. 1 article by Lydia Polgreen tried to get at the same question Timberg addressed but Polgreen included facts, not opinion. Her story, New African food crisis raises a question: Why, pointed out that Nigers democracy dates only to 1999, when it made the transition to multiparty democracy and constitutional rule after a decade of turmoil. Funny how Timberg left that out.
    The free-market solution: The Times article explained that Niger has also made, in part at least, the painful transition from a centralized, state-run economy to a market-driven one, earning praise and ultimately relief from about half of its estimated $1.6 billion in foreign debt from the World Bank. If the free market is to blame for something, its that $800 million boost.
    The rest of Africa: Lastly, the Times made it clear that Niger isnt alone in its troubles. Polgreen explained that Of the 25 countries at the bottom of the UN development list, all but two are in Africa. She added that Nigers food crisis is not, despite news reports, a famine and not even the worst on the continent. So is the free market to blame for all African poverty? Even Timberg acknowledged that 1.7 million people in nearby countries form a band of hunger thousands of miles across the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. If the free market isnt responsible for those problems, then why is that the case in Niger?