The art of making money out of human misery

Commodity speculation is at all-time high, further pushing up food prices already stressed by pandemic, climate change and conflict. India’s Food Price Inflation has gone up from 4.87% to 7.68% Y-o-Y

The art of making money out of human misery

Ranjona Banerji

The World Food Programme says we are on the edge of a hunger catastrophe, as 811 million people go to bed hungry every night.

The World Economic Forum says that 47 million people are on the edge of famine.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation says that 161 million people are in “extreme food insecurity”.

We see these numbers, we see photographs of hungry children, usually black or brown, with sad eyes and flies on their faces, and we get tired because we have seen them so many times before.

But how easily we can ignore what is happening. Human selfishness is a strong motivating factor. Even we realise that the problems are closer than they appear, we know how to shut our eyes.

The pandemic, climate change, local factors and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have only worsened the matters. But it is important to see how our responses vary, from crisis to crisis.

Daniel Maxwell, professor in food security at Tufts University, wrote in The Conversation: “The crisis in Ukraine has also spotlighted a growing gap between funding and needs, especially in some of the world’s poorest countries. For example, the UN issued a flash appeal for humanitarian assistance to Ukraine in early March 2022. By April 15 it was 65% funded. Countries at risk of famine, whose appeals have been out longer, have received much less funding. On April 15, Afghanistan’s appeal was 13.5% funded; South Sudan, 8.2%; and Somalia only 4.4%. Overall funding for global humanitarian needs stood at 6.5% of requested levels.”

Have a look at the dry stats a few paragraphs up. These are real people. Not just publicity photos to tug at your purse strings.

Ukraine is a huge provider of the world’s wheat. According to Maxwell’s article, in 2021 more than half the wheat that the World Food Programme procured for distribution to countries at risk, came from Ukraine. Russia’s assault on Ukraine has had disastrous effects on the world, beyond the devastation and death in Ukraine itself.

But remember, human greed and selfishness? Because where there is human suffering, there are opportunities.

A new United Nation’s report says that over 200 million people faced acute food insecurity in 2021.

Together with that, the cost of food has escalated. We know this in India, as our own problems with economic mismanagement have led to a huge spike in food inflation. Not all of this can be blamed on the Ukraine war. From March 2021 to March 2022, India’s Consumer Food Price Inflation has gone up from 4.87% to 7.68%.

The art of making money out of human misery

You and I know this. We pay our bills. We try and cut costs. We try not to imagine what it must be like for those less fortunate than us. And that is the price we pay for living in a society of massive inequalities. And a system that concentrates on retention of power at any cost. At our cost. Rural food inflation is worse: It went up from in 5.81% in February 2022 to 8.04% in March.

Gas and fuel prices are both on the rise, and all we hear from our government are excuses and other people – some long buried in history – being blamed.

The Lighthouse Reports, a European non-profit newsroom, shared its ‘Hunger Profits’ findings with a media consortium which includes The Wire. In an article in The Wire, Kabir Agarwal, Thin Lei Win and Margit Gibbs, state that Hunger Profits: “…has found that excessive speculation by investment firms and funds in the commodities markets has contributed to the spike in prices. We also found the industry and lobbyists have sabotaged efforts to rein in such behaviour.”

Thus, while the world is in crisis and our more vulnerable areas are on the brink of starvation, rich people in fancy offices are making money out of human misery. Have you thrown your arms up in frustration because I sound like an annoying 1970s Communist throwback trade unionist? Maybe I am. But am I wrong in the context?

Several economists and market analysts have corroborated Lighthouse Reports findings. Commodity speculation is at all-time high. This is pushing up food prices already stressed by those dangerous factors of a pandemic, climate change and conflict.

The 2008 market crash in the US had repercussions across the globe. But although billions were lost and millions were ruined, the executive and owners and speculators who orchestrated the collapse were not punished. The companies and their shady policies were saved, because “they were too big to fail”.

When it comes to the planet and its people and their futures, are we not too big to fail?

Don’t answer. How about a yachting holiday in the Bahamas off some neat wheat profits? People starve. It happens. Right?

(Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. Views are personal)

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