Coffee, tea, water? Martín Caparrós declines kindly. The Argentinian journalist has just had breakfast when we meet in the lounge of the hotel he is staying at during his short visit to the Netherlands. It is a noted contradiction: we, our bellies full, forgo food when around the world hundreds of millions of people do not get the required 2200 calories a day. This bitter injustice hardly impresses us anymore, says Caparrós. The fact that the United Nations uses the cold sounding 'food security' to talk about the problem contributes to that.
Caparrós wants to rebrand hunger. In 656 pages he documents stories of the poorest in the world. From rural India to the slums of Dhaka in Bangladesh. From the dumping ground in Buenos Aires in his home country of Argentina to the food bank in the United States or the land grabbing ridden Madagaskar. The book starts with a hospital in the African country of Niger. A mother straps a boy into a cloth on her back. As she always does. His belly to her back, his arms and legs spread out. Only this time, he is dead. It is the first time Caparrós is confronted with this extreme form of hunger.
What made you write a book abouth hunger in the first place?
“Hunger is a cliché. Even Miss Universe calls to stop hunger. I wanted to really understand the issue of it. So I decided to find people who suffer from it and hear their stories.”
So you ended up in Niger.
“Yes, I asked a mother feeding her children a millet dumpling (thick millet pudding served in the form of a dumpling, red.) if she really ate this every day. She said: 'Well, every day that I eat.' That was a stupid question, which showed how little I knew and how large the gap between our worlds was. On the one hand me, wondering if her diet was varied enough. And she on the other, wondering if she would eat at all. It was the moment that made me think: I want to bridge this gap.”
Docters without borders helped you find the poorest. You, the rich westerner, would visit them.
“It made me feel uncomfortable a lot of the times. But I also felt relief. I was there to hear their stories. It was proof that I cared.”
Did you give people money or food to thank them for cooperating?
“I tried not to. I was afraid that if I did, it would obscure the situation, that I would get different stories. I would usually stay for three weeks in certain areas, talking mostly to women. It may sound cynical, but a white man listening to the problems of poor people was the exact opposite of what they were used to.”
You argue that hunger is the consequence of a system. Capitalism is the culprit. At the same time you say that of all the major problems, hunger is easily fixed. It seems too simplistic: changing the system is not simple, is it?
“That's a problem. Because what would it mean to solve hunger? Make sure people take in more calories each day? That is easily done. It requires some technical changes, but you can realize those if you invest enough money on for instance roads or agricultural innovations. But the point I am making is that hunger is a metaphor for poverty. You cannot solve hunger if you do not first solve the problem of poverty. And that requires an overhaul of our system.”
How do we do that?
“Well, who knows? Until the 80s and 90s people thought equal welfare and justice could be reached with socialism or communism. By now we know better. I think politics should help us change to a moral economy."
What would a moral economy look like?
“We haven't made up our minds yet. People all over the world are thinking about it.”
They should hurry..
“It's a quest. But what are a few years in the entire world history?”
Following the banking crisis the global Occupy movement started as a revolution. In your book you conclude that the hungry are too weak to revolt. Do you expect people to take to the streets?
“Perhaps. I would like to see it happen. But history shows that making predictions is no use. They often fail to come true. My device is: try to do what you can.”
What can consumers do?
“I object to the term 'consumer'. You can obviously buy stuff that is produced fairly, which is not necessarily a bad reaction. But it's kind of sad to resist from a position the system has put you in. What should you do? Not buy anything? I don't know the answer. But do not affirm your place in the system by saying you are a conscious consumer.”
What, then? Make a statement to your government?
“For instance. I don't know yet what the solution is.”
What do you do?
“I write, speak, I investigate, I think. It is not much, but I do what I can. I hardly ever throw out food, but this is more out of habit than to make a political statement.”
You asked the people you spoke to who was to blame for the hunger. Mostly they answered God, their husband or that they did not know. You hold multinationals accountable. Why did you not include their reactions in your book?
“I have talked to business people in Chicago and New York (about trade, speculation and increasing food prices, red.). I thought it was enough. Theoretically I could have talked to more people in the business sector. But they have seasoned PR people, prepared speeches, etcetera. I didn't believe they would open up to me, so what use would it have had to listen to them? I just wanted to show what hunger was. So I chose to document the stories of those who suffer from it.”
One of the largest consumer goods companies in the world is Unilever. What would like to say to Dutch CEO Paul Polman?
“Do you really get to sleep every night?”
Which means what?
Sure, but our readers do not..
“They can use their imagination.”
(I ask a couple more times, but he will not elaborate.)
Reading your book made me feel sad at times. What were the highlights for you?
“I recall Fatema in Dhaka. She worked twelve hours a day to feed her children, her husband had left her. Even so she had energy others do not. She was thinking about her future. You need that to escape a situation like that.”
What was the biggest eyeopener for you while writing this book?
“I realized that 1,3 to 1,5 billion people, the exact statistics do not matter, live outside the system. Imagine a company in which 30 percent of the people don't work. The manager would get fired. Excluding the poorest is incredibly inefficient for a world utilizing her wealth.”