Are there really more than a billion people going to bed hungry each night? Our research on this question has taken us to rural villages and teeming urban slums around the world, collecting data and speaking with poor people about what they eat and what else they buy, from Morocco to Kenya, Indonesia to India.
We've also tapped into a wealth of insights from our academic colleagues. What we've found is that the story of hunger, and of poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn't necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice.
But unfortunately, this is not always the world as the experts view it. All too many of them still promote sweeping, ideological solutions to problems that defy one-size-fits-all answers, arguing over foreign aid, for example, while the facts on the ground bear little resemblance to the fierce policy battles they wage. [ … ] It is not because they spend all the rest on other necessities. In Udaipur, India, for example, we find that the typical poor household could spend up to 30 percent more on food, if it completely cut expenditures on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. The poor seem to have many choices, and they don't choose to spend as much as they can on food. Equally remarkable is that even the money that people do spend on food is not spent to maximize the intake of calories or micronutrients. Studies have shown that when very poor people get a chance to spend a little bit more on food, they don't put everything into getting more calories. Instead, they buy better-tasting, more expensive calories. – Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, "More than one billionpeople are hungry in the world: But what if the experts are wrong?"
– (Foreign Policy, May/June 2011)
Whoever said that man does not live by bread alone was onto something.
What about all the "could'ves," "would'ves," and "should'ves" of evolutionary psychology, based on the unchallenged assertion that early humans did everything and anything to get more food (= survive) and pass on their selfish genes? Does the fact that that's now been tested and shown to be false with an observable, global, modern human population, mean the theory will change? Or go on obliviously with its monotonous assertions?
(Note: The article does not argue against aid, but pleads for a human-based understanding of what interventions help, where, and why.)
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.