Thursday, March 16, 2017

Oxfam — hungry for change? (1985)

From the March 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was a rainswept Swansea night as we made our way to the Quaker meeting room. We were going to listen — the two of us — to a talk given by the South Wales campaign organiser for Oxfam. The meeting was being organised by the local Humanists and the subject was Poverty, Famine and Population. We'd been to Humanist meetings before and the regulars recognised us. 'Good'', said the Chairman, "the SPGB. That means a good discussion."

He introduced the speaker, an imposing man of about 50 with thick greying hair, a full beard and a pleasing, intimate manner. He was also, as the chairman informed us, a local Labour councillor. He spoke without notes and a Welsh eloquence. Oxfam, he told us, was a rapidly expanding organisation. It needed to be because the problem it was facing was getting worse not better. It had changed its approach from being a mere money-collector and now, with the slogan "Hungry for Change", was putting a lot more effort and resources into trying to explain to people the causes of world hunger. It was showing, he pointed out. that there was no natural barrier to the world's population being fed. There was evidence, in fact, that the earth could already feed nine times its present population. The idea about the world being overpopulated was not based on the true facts.

Such talk surprised and delighted us both. Oxfam publicity had always seemed calculated to give the impression that there just couldn't be enough to go round, but that nevertheless we had to help the starving as best we could. It had also harped on the "population explosion" and said how essential it was to keep population down. Now it had changed tack and was arguing the same thing that socialists, with little support from anyone, had argued for a long time.

The speaker went on to point out the absurd contradictions of social arrangements by which many millions of the world's people starve each year in the world while large amounts of food are locked away or destroyed because of "overproduction". He told us that a number of EEC food storage warehouses existed in the Swansea area itself but that information about them was hard to come by as the authorities would not give details readily. Even the local press was reluctant to write about them for fear of losing potential advertisers in the food business. He did however have some statistics of stocks of butter and dried milk held locally and they seemed staggering, especially when they were multiplied thousands of times over to get the picture for the whole EEC. He added that other foods such as meat, fruit and vegetables couldn't be readily stored so that thousands of people had the full-time task of destroying such food. They did this every working hour of every day of the year.

Powerful stuff. But the conclusion that followed was less so. The speaker said that we in the "rich countries" had to learn to accept less to help those in the "poor countries". This brought some questions to both our minds. Didn't this contradict what he'd said earlier about the world being potentially self-sufficient many times over? If we could produce a lot more than we needed, why should we have to accept less? And could Britain's three million-odd unemployed and Europe's 30 million living below the poverty line be expected to "accept less"? And what about the majority of us who lived on a wage or salary? We weren't exactly rolling in it either.

The questions came thick and fast. An elderly woman suggested that you couldn't really talk about "overproduction" when millions were starving. This seemed to make sense but the speaker rejected it and said there definitely was overproduction. Another woman asked what concerned people could do to help. He said she could sign the Oxfam petition on the table at the back of the room which was to be presented to Margaret Thatcher when it had a million signatures. Someone else said he was glad that the overpopulation scare had been shown to be false. But then came an unexpected challenge to the speaker. An elderly but energetic-looking man at the front "declared an interest". He introduced himself as a semi-retired academic who was a specialist in population matters. He spent some considerable time listing his qualifications and the various official bodies he'd served and was serving on. Such credentials brought a hush to the audience. The speaker, he said, had drastically underestimated the population problem. It was very serious indeed. He knew this from his own professional work in the field. Oxfam was wrong to quote hopeful statistics about potential food production as they were based not on the reality of things but on the notion that people could somehow be brought to share things out, not to be greedy, and to work for the common good. And people were not like that, were they? The old "human nature" myth again, both us SPGBers were thinking, only this time in academic guise.

The speaker looked distinctly uncomfortable as he listened to the academic. In his reply he struggled a bit, then didn't seem to be doing too badly. But finally, when the questioner came back at him and asked why, if population wasn't a problem, all Third World governments were pursuing policies of population control, he was well and truly stumped.

At this point the chairman pointed to one of us who had his hand up. He was clearly hoping for succour for his speaker, and to a certain extent he got it. The first socialist point made was that academic specialists usually have a stake in their speciality and this can lead them to make exaggerated claims for its importance. So perhaps we should view with at least a little scepticism what the man at the front had said. Whatever he said, however, he could not dispute that the world could feed us all. The speaker had been right about this and the most recent figures produced by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation showed it beyond doubt. But such abundance was only possible on one condition — that of producing food not to be sold on the market for profit but to be eaten. And the same principle applied to all other goods and services. The reason people didn't have food was not that they didn't need it or that it couldn't be produced but that they didn't have money to buy it. The first woman had been right to say there wasn't overproduction — in fact there was probably underproduction in terms of what people really needed. "Greed" wasn't a barrier to production for need either but was simply a symptom of the insecurity provoked in people by the production for profit society existing in all countries of the world. Greed wasn't inevitable. It was a response to conditions and would have no place in a society of abundance where people would have free access to everything that was produced. And if Third World governments were trying to get their populations down, it wasn't because their first priority was to help people but because a slowdown in population growth was necessary to allow production for profit in those countries to develop as smoothly and efficiently as possible. At another moment those governments might adopt different population policies as others (France and Germany for example) had done in the past when it seemed to the advantage of the profit system there to have more people.

The other socialist pointed out that people would not get a clear view of the problem as long as they thought in "national" terms. We had to think in a planetary way and in terms of using the resources of the whole planet sanely and rationally and in the interests of all its inhabitants. But this needed political change which could only come from a consciousness by the majority of people that it was in their interest to organise things differently — on the basis of a frontierless, classless, worldwide society which produced solely for human need not profit.

All this gave the speaker a breathing space and his response seemed to be that he agreed with the socialist arguments. But then, in answer to other questions, he showed that he didn't agree, or at least hadn't fully grasped the implications. He continued to talk about people in Britain having to make do with less and about the need to help and encourage other nations to improve their lot. He appeared not to have taken the point that all the countries of the world were organised on a production for profit basis — and were therefore capitalist — for he insisted on distinguishing between capitalist and "socialist" countries (like Russia). Here, no doubt, we were seeing the lifetime reflexes of a left-wing Labourite coming into play.

We made one final intervention to say that Oxfam. for all its sincere and determined efforts, was still only scraping the surface of the problem and would not begin to solve it unless it started to alert people to the fundamental causes of world hunger. The Chairman said we should not be blaming Oxfam for failing to do what wasn't in its brief. It wasn't in business, he declared, to spread the idea of world social revolution. In a sense he was right of course, but if Oxfam was serious in its concern for causes, then, at the end of the day, it would have to draw political conclusions.

The speaker conceded that there might be something in what we said but then proceeded to show that he was still firmly entrenched in the idea of trying to solve the problem of world hunger within the framework of production for profit. Not for more than a brief moment was he going to allow himself to move outside that framework, and this was why he was such an easy prey to "specialists" like the "academic" whose arguments, if you accepted the logic of production for profit on which they were based, were difficult to fault.

As the two of us walked out into the wet, we talked about the meeting and agreed that even if the speaker hadn't seemed to move very far in our direction, it was an encouraging sign that "respectable" charities such as Oxfam were now coming to see that problems do have a cause. And even if Oxfam still wasn't looking far enough for the cause or wasn't drawing the obvious conclusions from what it found, at least some of the ideas it was now spreading could only be of help to the socialist movement. The world could feed us all, it was saying, and population wasn't outstripping resources. It was good that now not only socialists were saying these things. What would be even better would be if there were more socialists to take them to their logical conclusion.
Howard Moss
Gareth Thomas

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