Mass Starvation in a World of Plenty

Babies are dying of starvation in Niger—a large country in dry Africa with 12 million people. Their emaciated mothers and fathers are eating rats except lately the rats themselves are starving. A massive attack of locusts in the midst of a prolonged drought led to a harvest failure and the spreading fatal famine.

The government, a nominal democracy and very poor, has exhausted its grain stores, having sounded the international alarm in November. The United Nations (UN)-connected World Food Program, beset with similar demands in parts of Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Darfur, is now distributing sacks of grain. The United Nations estimates 800,000 little children to be in mortal peril and overall 2.5 million humans on the edge of survival.

There is no drought nor are there any locusts in Greenwich, Connecticut. The lawns of the hyper-rich’s mansions are green, immaculately manicured. Their pets are groomed, wardrobed and housed in grand style.

Greenwich is the Hedge Fund capital of the United States. Over 100 hedge funds solicit the vast liquid wealth of the wealthy and package it through investment strategies resting on tiers of speculative instruments (e.g. convertible arbitrage, long/short, event driven). Making money from money. Not making money from producing any goods or services. Not even providing anything discernibly useful. The Hedge Fund managers will mumble about their contributions to risk management (of their risky, speculative, investment instruments). Very abstract, are these mega-speculators.

Back in Niger, the vast areas of parched, sun-baked earth fissure. The carcasses of cattle rot and some are eaten by their desperate owners, before the vultures descend to dine. Families trek six hours over the arid savannas looking for help or anything edible, while their trip makes them weaker and further from their homes.

Even in normal times, one in four children die before they reach their fifth birthday. Now the call is out to foreign charities. As of August, the UN has now requested $30 million, but only $7 million has been donated since November. In late July, the BBC, as it did in the 1980s, in Ethiopia, came through with the wrenching visuals—little babies with toothpick wrists and sticks for legs, crying their last cries. Dehydration and infectious diseases close in on the children and their parents.

One haunting segment showed a father, losing his extended family day by day, he looks to the sky: “Forgive me, God, for weeping,” he exclaimed, “I can’t feed my family. I have nothing.”

The BBC program showed once again that a “picture is worth a thousand words.” Quickly, ABC’s Nightline took portions of the report and played them with other commentary on July 26th, /The New York Times/ followed with two features.

Still, the Niger calamity has not reached more than a fraction of the audience watching one reality show.

Back in Greenwich, the dreams of riches by Edward Lampert, Phil Tudor Jones and Steven Cohen have long since been exceeded by surrealistic paydays. According to The Wall Street Journal, these hedge fund billionaires made respectively last year $1.02 billion, $300 million and $450 million. Just in one year. Broken down into 50 weeks, 5 days a week, a full 8 hour day, Mr. Lampert’s rewards come to $20 million a week, or $4 million a day or $1/2 million an hour! Every hour, on the average.

Ted Koppel asked Mark Malloch Brown of the UN Development Program about a stand-by fund. Each famine should not require taking out the giant tin cup before the family of nations, after the BBC alerts the public. Mr. Brown said “there’s talk of a revolving fund of something like $1 billion, which would fund all of this up front—Even 100 million would make a huge difference.”

The Greenwich hedge fund people have started their equivalent of charity balls and dinners for poverty organizations in our country. The Manhattan super-rich have been doing this for many years. It is a successful way to receive both approbation and subservience by the receiving non-profit poverty service organizations.

Now suppose Messrs Lampert, Jones and Cohen, along with their comparably enriched colleagues sat down in a Greenwich country club to a private viewing of the most devastating African famines. Suppose they were informed by development experts that, of course, the true solution to the “poverty trap” in these societies are aid programs to assist farmers in growing and storing safely more food, having safe drinking water (preventing many diseases) together with effective assaults against TB, malaria and AIDS. All within a framework of advancing political democracy.

But right now and for the foreseeable future, what is needed is a revolving fund well within the means of the dozen speculation Kings in the room. That such a fund would enable quick response teams, transportation, food and provide basic medicines directly to the mouths of the needy. That they can put together just such a standby monetary fund and even find ways to establish an income revenue stream to keep it going. A little highly nutritious food goes a long way when people are starving.

Play the searing videos again for these gentlemen. Give them a frame of reference for their humanity. After the accolades pour in, should they act, they’ll realize that what they did was not just for eradicating the crime of avoidable mass starvation in a world of plenty. They’ll realize they did it for themselves as well.

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