Profiting from hunger


The Cutting Edge: Sex, Drugs and Dinner
Presented by Alexei Sayle
SBS TV, Tuesday, August 3, 8.30 p.m. (Adelaide 8.00)
Reviewed by Ignatius Kim

Throughout the modern era, in a time of unparalleled human achievements, when we have supposedly mastered our collective destiny — the "end of history" — people have been condemned to die from hunger en masse.

The world was shocked recently by the situation in Somalia, just as it was in the mid-'80s by the Ethiopian famines, the famines in Bangladesh in the early '70s and, in the '60s, by the plight of the Biafrans.

In fact, if television cameras had been there to record the Irish famines in the 1840s, they would have been confronted by a tragedy of similar depth.

While some live in relative prosperity, the reality for the global majority today is that we have yet to crawl out of the darkest days of our history — let alone march towards the end of it.

What Alexei Sayle (The Young Ones, Alexei Sayle's Stuff) does in Sex, Drugs and Dinner is go a long way to demystify and explain the unjust international order that results in third world exploitation.

Sayle starts out in a Covent Garden market where we discover Ethiopian lentils and Somalian mangoes on sale to London's caterers and restaurateurs. It is a point of departure that immediately makes clear the nature of the problem: food is not grown to feed people, it is grown to be sold. The question he sets out to answer is why, for the peoples of the third world, the two are mutually exclusive.

For that Sayle goes to the Dominican Republic to look at why the ostensibly fair trade between rich and poor countries is inherently tilted against the latter.

Through interviews with peasants we learn how, in the 1950s, they were driven off their lands into the uncultivable hills to make way for sugar plantations geared towards export. They lost their means of subsistence in return for work on the plantations or sugar mills, which paid them barely enough to survive.

Even then, the heavy competition from other sugar growing countries drove prices down, and the mill and plantation owners soon took their money elsewhere, leaving the former peasants high and dry. When they returned to farm their old lands, they were barred by the owners. So, while these lands remained bare, the peasants starved.

Exacerbating the problem today is the debt crisis as interest rates continually rise on the money that was borrowed to develop cash crops. The documentary points out that the third world pays more in interest than the total aid it receives from the west. This ties the poor countries tighter to the exploitative world market as they try to spend less and earn more export income, resulting in cuts to social spending and more concentration of land ownership.

The environmental problem with this production for sale rather than need is also pointed out: in the past 10 years in the Dominican Republic, a country less than two-thirds the size of Scotland, 400 rivers have completely disappeared as the avaricious agribusinesses, now growing pineapples and coffee, devour the island's waterways.

This cycle of poverty is true for the third world in general: while the people starve, they are forced to export their own food to pay off colossal debts to the parasitic banks of the North.

For example, half of Ghana's children are malnourished while half of the land is used to grow cocoa destined for western confectionery companies.

An ironic peep is taken at the one type of cash crop that brings in a profit for the poor countries — illicit drugs. Third world farmers do not grow these crops because they are evil (as George Bush would have had us believe) but because it offers them a way out, as limited as it is.

Third world starvation is hardly a comical topic, but Sayle's acidic wit is directed towards indicting the international system that makes the poor countries produce the wealth while the powers that be in the North accumulate all the benefits. It is a system that, by its very nature, profits from hunger. For an anarchic comedian, Sayle is very clear and systematic in explaining this system.

In pointing to a light at the end of the tunnel, some vague solutions are alluded to (consumer awareness in the first world; a fairer trading system for the third world). However, considering how daring and radical the diagnosis of the problem was, I was disappointed by the diluted prescription.

A mention of how some third world countries — especially the Dominican Republic's immediate western neighbour, Cuba — have responded to the injustice and fought back would not have been a huge step for the documentary to take.

Nevertheless, Sex, Drugs and Dinner is highly informative and highly recommended.