What about the children in Africa?

What about the children in Africa? October 28, 2010

This was the coup de grace for a while of those that wanted to argue about the political choices we made in Africa.  Anyone who opposed giving further food aid or other assistance to African governments was met with this rejoinder.  The rejoinder was offered so often that it became a parody of itself.  We are now at the point when someone offers this rejoinder, we assume they are doing so sarcastically, because it is pretty well understood that for all the best wishes of our policy and immediate good our policies offered, in the long run African children were made worse off by our policies.  Through our food aid, we have managed to destroy the agricultural sectors in many African countries resulting in greater needs.  It has taken a long time for us to even consider the consequences of our choices because to evaluate consequences other than the immediate ones was seen as heartless.

I’m reminded of this upon reading another soon to be Cardinal Burke interview excerpted at Commonweal’s blog.  In it Burke makes the claim:

You can never vote for someone who favors absolutely the right to choice of a woman to destroy a human life in her womb or the right to a procured abortion. … But you could never justify voting for a candidate who not only does not want to limit abortion but believes that it should be available to everyone.

The inescapable conclusion is that a Catholic can place no other political interest before abortion.  In a different time and place, this would be the equivalent of claiming that buying bread from the Lutheran baker is an explicit act of disunity with your Catholic brethren.  Of course this analogous situation isn’t imaginary.  While I don’t think anyone was ever threatened over communion for doing such a thing, it was taboo and often had social consequences.  We deem ourselves more enlightened now, and don’t consider bread buying to be an expression of solidarity.  Quite frankly I’m not sure how much more enlightened we are, but that is for another day.

But lives are being lost in abortion is a fair objection, and one I will address.  In the case of bread buying, the only thing lost is the livelihood of our wonderful – I’ve grown quite attached to him over the ensuing sentences – Catholic baker.  If you look around you don’t see too many Catholic bakeries anymore.  You don’t see many Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, etc. bakeries either.  It is very easy to say that if only we had faithful Catholics then we would still have Catholic bakeries.  That answer might make us feel content in our righteousness, but it evades the central truth that the reason we don’t have ethnic bakeries is because bread baking became industrialized.  While we can certainly conceive of a frame of reference where solidarity would have saved the Catholic bakeries, by posing it is an issue of solidarity we are failing to understand the issue as it is.

It was very easy for supporters of our government giving food aid to Africa to claim we only needed more organization, more money, and more faithfulness to the job at hand in order to rid African children of hunger.  I can very easily construct a frame where global organization eradicates child hunger in Africa.  Doing this however does not deal with the issue as it actually is.  The reason children in Africa were dying of hunger was not fundamentally because the US was offering too little food aid.  The problem was one of political and economic organization within Africa itself, to over generalize the situation.  Advocates rightly pointed out that our ability to solve those problems were limited and at the end of the day there were children dying in Africa, and you could either do something or have their deaths on your conscience.  Faced with that we unconsciously at first but consciously now proceeded to destroy much of the African agricultural sector by dumping food there.  In short, we made the problem worse which is why “What about the children in Africa?” is seen as a poor retort today.

At some point, we are going to have to accept that the reason we have legalized abortion in this country is not Nancy Pelosi, Supreme Court justices, or lack of faithfulness.  Like many political outcomes in democratic countries, we have legalized abortion in this country because the people in this country want legalized abortion.  Keep in mind that this is a country where pro-life advocates consider the following a trick question: “What penalty would you propose for mothers found to have had an abortion?”  Surveys over whether people are pro-life or pro-choice are little more than questions asking people whether they find the idea of abortion to be tasteful.  When we get results indicating that close to or over half the country finds it distasteful, pro-life advocates jump for joy thinking the prospect of making abortion illegal is just around the corner.  This dissonance is reassured with stories about how countries have never really enforced abortion prohibitions.

So we are fighting to get a law that won’t have any real enforcement provisions and were it to get any wouldn’t be enforced anyway.  In fact that isn’t fair, because I forgot to include the step of appointing Supreme Court justices that will allow us to offer such a law.   As with the starving African children, the idea of them no longer being hungry wasn’t the issue.  The issue in the end was that we were no longer convinced that what we were doing was doing any good.  Patronizing Catholic bakeries wasn’t going to keep them in business longer either.  Voting for Republicans isn’t ending abortion.  I wish I had the luxury of frittering my vote away so I could maintain the illusion that my doing so was bringing justice to the unborn.  I truly wish there were answers to ending the atrocity of abortion.  Voting for Republicans or against Democrats, whatever parlance you choose, isn’t one of them.  I’m not going to pretend that it is so you can feel validated in your choice.

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  • Austin Ruse

    Legal abortion would end in a few election cycles if all Catholics voted their faith on abortion. It not only would end at the national level, it would end at the state level. One day a future Pope will apologize for them in the same way JP the Great apologized for those Catholics who did not stop the Nazis.

  • Marion

    Well there is something to be said for supporting a pro life candidate if for no other reason than to resist expansion of funding for abortion and perhaps even to possibly lead to a reduction in abortion. Certainly no small pro life victory in and of itself. I don’t accept the statement that “the people in this country want legalized abortion”. Increasingly young people do not want legalized abortion. “The people” who elect our leaders, the people who are our leaders themselves are not fixed at any point in time. It was a very tiny number of people who made abortion on demand legal in this country in the first place, which can hardly be said to be the will of the electorate. It might be interesting indeed if given an actual vote but thus far the legality has been legislated from the high court. A tiny number of white men determined in one fell swoop to deprive humanity from an entire generation of children, not as you say, “the people”.

  • “Keep in mind that this is a country where pro-life advocates consider the following a trick question: “What penalty would you propose for mothers found to have had an abortion?” ”

    And the bishops need to be brave and stand up and say: whatever punishment the law gives to any other accomplice in murder, to whoever else hires a hitman.

    They’d be ridiculed at first, so be it. At least people will see we really take this seriously, really do see the unborn as just as human as anyone else.

  • RCM

    I was just having this discussion with my mom. The reality is 1 million or more women every year want an abortion. When you consider how many men, grandparents, there are connected to those abortions, the numbers are breath taking. I have no doubt that if abortion was made illegal today, there would be a drop in the numbers of abortion. But there would still be thousands of women wanting one/demanding one.

    I honestly do not know what the solution is.

  • A lot of the things you say just aren’t true or don’t make sense. For example, it’s not true that “we are fighting for a law that won’t have any real enforcement provisions.” And the analogy you are trying to make to Africa doesn’t really make sense, nor the analogy to bakeries.

    We live in a democracy. As you say, because we tolerate abortion-on-demand, abortion on demand is legal. We could change the laws and change the culture if we wanted to, but this would require us being completely intolerant of abortion. Which, as is clear from your article, is a cause for which you have no hope.

    It’s not voting for Republicans that matter necessarily (although practically the Republican party is opposed to abortion and the Democrats support abortion, there’s not really any such thing as an anti-abortion-Democrat), rather what matters is voting for people who can change our laws who are intolerant of the abortion regime.

    Your article is an unwelcome and illogical prescription for giving up.

  • M.Z.

    I have generally been dissatisfied with the comments so far. There are two arguments I’m interested in seeing.
    1. I am wrong and feeding children in Africa should be done even if in the long term we make the situation worse.
    2. The analogy is inapt. The difference between the two is …. And in that case I’m not interested in a gratuitous assertion that there is a frame in which the abortion strategy will work whereas the frame for the feeding of African children is purely illusion. At that point, we are in prudential land, and you have conceded the argument whether you want to acknowledge it or not.

    Although I’m not really interested in it, I’ll also accept gratuitous praise.

  • Kurt

    Legal abortion would end in a few election cycles if all Catholics voted their faith on abortion.

    A valid observation. And at a minimum, ending legal abortion would end at a minimum a third of all abortions in the USA.

    Of course, its equally true that a third of all abortions would end immediately without waiting for election cycles or legal changes if Catholics lived their faith on abortion and stopped aborting.

    there is something to be said for supporting a pro life candidate if for no other reason than to resist expansion of funding for abortion

    Why when most of the funding of abortion comes from the all-holy private sector? Are you pushing Austin’s theory that a baby is less dead when killed by private enterprise?

  • Austin Ruse

    Kurt, You say ending legal abortion would end at minimum one third of all abortions in the US. Saving a MINIMUM of 360,000 lives per year would be a good day’s work, I would say. What’s more, I am not sure how you get that 1/3 minimum number. I suspect it would be far more than that, particularly if there was aggressive prosecution of abortionists.

  • Kurt

    a good day’s work, I would say

    I would say it is good work. You don’t seem to have a clear grasp on how to get to that point, first saying it would be good work over a few election cycles and then say its a day’s work.

    It reaffirms my opinion that while you have a sincere and rightful opposition to abortion, you’re not someone I have any confidence in as far as setting a strategy to win protections for the unborn.

    Again, Catholics simply following their faith and not aborting would save unborn lives immediately without having to wait for a few election cycles.

  • Austin Ruse

    “Good day’s work” is an expression, my man.

  • Austin Ruse

    …and i am not suggesting that i believe Catholics will start being Catholics and end abortion even as you are not saying that Catholics will stop having abortions but when you do strategic planning you begin with a “big hairy audacious goal” and work toward it.

    As it is now, we are only a few votes short of overturning Roe. What’s more, most Americans believe most abortions should be illegal. We are in a good place to move forward.

  • Vermont Crank

    You can never vote for someone who favors absolutely the right to choice of a woman to destroy a human life in her womb or the right to a procured abortion.

    Of course, a Bishop has the Authority to Teach, Rule, and Sanctify whereas you are a seamless garbage man collecting bullshit ahistorical arguments in plastic bags and then dumping them on your brethren’s front lawn.

    We don’t have Abortion because “we want it;” we have it for a variety of reasons; generalised ignorance as to what it constituted; The SCOTUS Roe V Wade which, as we know, was based on lies, etc etc.

    Look, it is clear that y’all at this site are dying to vote democrat but the BS you’re spreading, think of the EPA violations.

  • grega

    I told a liberal friend the other day that I fully expect a good many of the ‘conservative’ folks that appear right now so excited to overturn Roe vs. Wade will change their tune not all that far into the future – particularly when their well to do white friends find ways around it as it will turn out – give me a break americans Aborted before 1973 – how naive are you guys?
    In my view the percentage of folks who really care about pro life and ALL it entails is less than 50% right or left on the political scale. And frankly the pro life cause will be much better served in the future by the folks who actually can compromise and can pull it all together.
    Give me a break all of a sudden humans let nature and life just run its course?
    Yeah right. Very few on the left and right play their life that way if we are really honest. Including the good Dr. hc Ruse it seems to me from his available bios.
    From the beginning of times our story has also been one of attempting to control as much as possible what is happening to us. These days it seems if one for example looks around the average catholic parish most of us average catholics seem to find two to three children a nice family size ( same seems true for the conservative uebercatholics by the way ) matching living circumstances, available resources, career choices etc. . Honestly most do not accomplish that by letting nature run its course –
    and the Burkes of this world can bark otherwise as much as their heart desires – in my mind Burke is an theoretical guy – he has not glue what makes the average catholic and human tick these days- sure he seem to make a nice living being the poster boy for the certain Amercian catholics – the man has arrived – cushy in Rome – congratulations Dr. Burke – keep kicking your fellow bishops and average catholics.

    Already most of these ‘pro life’ warriors (just like the Taliban) very much require the legal ability to send people to their death as part of their pantheon of ‘ pro life’. Give me a break Austin – sure you have a rhetoric down that will likely give you and your associates many more billable hours for yours and the institutes ‘good days work’ ? Do you really think you get any place other than sharia law if you call folks killers of children while requiring the death penalty to keep your moral compass from spinning out of control?

  • Jeremy Rich

    As a specialist in central African history who has spent about two years living in Gabon, I’d like to hear more about the argument that food aid destroys African agriculture. I’d like to hear about specific examples. I’m a specialist in food supply, but in a region where there has been little food aid (Gabon). I don’t make this out to be contrary – I actually am curious.

    It would be very important to look at different cases and how food aid has changed over time. It also depends in general on the country and the time period. Farming in Tanzania suffered greatly from forced collectivization in the 70s, while pressure from the IMF from the early 80s to promote more cash crops has posed more and more problems for agriculture in many countries (Guinea Bissau, Malawi, etc.) Aid seems to have posed a lot of problems when linked to fertilizer (Zambia comes to mind) and more importantly, authoritarian regimes (Ethiopia and Sudan in the 80s). Another giant problem lies in Western tariffs – historian Timothy Mitchell has really exposed how this plays out in Egypt, fpr example, where US aid was designed in part to promote orange exports to the US, even though US tariffs made Egyptian oranges unable to compete with US oranges.

    I think those people who use “Dead Aid” arguments about the problems caused by aid underestimate how disastrous the end of aid might be in some countries. Aid often ends up being used by regional and national leaders as a means of building patronage with rural communities, but if the aid is cut, then what happens? Especially in regions like the Sahel (Chad, Sudan, Niger) which will be increasingly hit hard by climate change?

    Again, I’m willing to hear the arguments about how food aid does ultimately weaken African agriculture.

  • Austin Ruse


    Your usual gibberish.

    FYI. I married at 47 and my wife was 39. We had 3 miscarriages in our first year. Then Archbishop Burke blessed us with a piece of Gianna Molla’ s wedding dress. Turns out we were a few weeks along with our first child Lucy. So, you can just piss off with your scummy insinuations and accusations. Ass.

  • Jeremy Rich


    I guess I have mixed feelings about the reason and fpif.com pieces. It is certainly true that food aid disrupts the market well after the end of the famine (the same is true for Haiti). Structural adjustment has done a number on govt programs along with the demand for cash crops and exports.

    However, it would be a mistake in many countries to blame the IMF solely for the lack of rural development. In some countries (Ethiopia and Tanzania come to mind), state policies in the 60s and 70s later undercut by IMF pressure were disasters to begin with. On the other hand, Malawi was a clear case where the IMF is to blame. Malawi has had plenty of misguided policies under the (Western backed) Hastings Banda dictatorship from the mid-60s through the late 90s, but the IMF was really in the wrong in the last decade.

    Wierd that none of these essays mentioned Niger, Chad, or Burkina Faso. All of these countries are facing brutal famines at the moment, esp. Niger. Chad’s long series of rebellions against the dictator Idriss Deby has been compounded by the large number of refugess from Darfur in the eastern part of the country. Chad’s oil money is going to Deby and his flunkies. Niger, by contrast, has no major military conflicts but is suffering from droughts.

    I think the biofuel issue is important, but food crises cannot be understood without reference to political issues within countries and regions.

    On Niger, see http://www.soschildrensvillages.org.uk/charity-news/archive/2010/06/sos-children-battles-the-food-crisis-in-niger


    I wish I knew of more academic work on the issue…

  • Antonio Manetti

    Some evidence for all the well-fed folks who believe starvation is a long-run good (as long as someone else is doing the starving).

    “Does food aid Really have disincentive effects? New evidence from sub-Saharan Africa”


    Awudu Abdulaia, Christopher B. Barretta and John Hoddinotta


    “Limited empirical evidence exists either to refute or confirm the pervasive belief that food aid has significant disincentive effects on recipient food production. Using household-level data from rural Ethiopia, we demonstrate that while simple descriptive statistics appear consistent with the disincentive effects hypothesis, once one controls properly for the endogeneity of food aid receipt, no empirical support remains for the hypothesis that food aid creates disincentive effects among recipient households. The macro economic evidence yields similar findings. Applying vector autoregression methods to national-level data, controlling for possible confounding variables, we find that food aid has no disincentive effect on food production.”

    Complete article available at:

    Sorry for the longish URL.

  • Antonio Manetti

    An interesting article in “Science.

    “Science for African Food Security”
    Gordon Conway* and Gary Toenniessen


    Makes the common sense point that food aid to prevent starvation and the use of science and technology to develop an adequate and sustainable source of food are not mutually exclusive goals.

  • Antonio Manetti

    I wish I knew of more academic work on the issue…

    A google scholar search using the terms “african food aid” yielded over one million hits. I’d be suprised if none of those were applicable.

  • Jeremy Rich

    Thanks, Antonio. I meant famine and food aid in Niger rather than African food aid per se, but I used google scholar to look up articles on this specific topic.

    These articles are quite good, I think. They do not conclusively support or refute the general argument that food aid to Africa causes problems, but they do point to some of the less desirable aspects of IMF policies (albeit not as the main cause of hunger):




    This last one below is most pertinent to issues on food aid in Africa – Niger’s unpopular government in 2005 claimed it wanted to let the market settle things during a time of highly inflated grain prices, and the author contends the famine worsened as a result.


    I’m a longtime lurker on Vox Nova, but I can’t imagine too many people here care about this sort of thing. Back to obscurity I go!

    • M.Z.

      Actually I was hoping you would stick around Mr. Rich, because I was enjoying the education.

  • Antonio Manetti

    To me, claims that direct food aid is always counterproductive and wasteful are simplistic and wrong.

    In that regard, the last paper you cite is definitely worth reading. After discussing a number of case histories of famine in Africa, it…”concludes by arguing that a concerted effort to eradicate famine in Africa requires intervening to reduce vulnerability and risk in each of the three areas discussed above: production, exchange, and response.”

    In plain english:

    Exchange is the economic means to procure food legally, either by purchase or barter

    Response is aid in any form that mitigates the shortage of food.

    I’d also recommend the following paper by Amrtya Sen and cited by the authors:

    Sen A (1981) Poverty and Famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation

  • Jeremy Rich

    Hi –

    Amrtya Sen is a highly respected scholar of famines. His entitlements approach has been extremely influential. He also has argued that democratic governments are more effective in alleviating famines than authoritarian regimes, although “new democracies” (that often hardly deserve the name) in Africa have suggested that democratic governments may not always really fare much better than dictatorships.

    In a lot of the lit on food aid, there’s little discussion of the ways food (and other aid) can be used by local and regional leaders as well as local NGO members and partners to build patronage. Personally, I think localized studies are better than examining broad international factors, although both are needed.

    To get a sense of how food access works along generational and gender lines, see Lisa Cliggett’s Grains from Grass: Aging, gender, and famine in rural Africa (Cornell University Press). It really exposes how poor people in rural African communities find ways to survive. Michael Watts’ Silent Violence is much older (1982, I think) and much more ponderous, but it covers similar territory. Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, 2000) is a very ambitious examination of the intersections of climate change, colonialism, capitalist expansion, and hunger. I’m never comfortable with such broad overviews, but it is a good read.