Let them eat horse.

A row has been sparked off in Germany over calls to distribute to the poor food products pulled from supermarket shelves as part of the European horsemeat contamination scandal. Two politicians suggested last week the removed ready meals be distributed amongst the poor in Germany rather than destroyed. As the German Development minister, Dirk Niebel said:

More than 800 million people in the world are starving. Even in German, there are unfortunately people who are financially strapped, even for food … I think we cannot throw away good food…

The proposal has been criticised by opposition politicians (and the German Minister of Social Affairs) for suggesting the poor should be willing to make do with that which has been deemed not suitable for public sale.

The debate raises some broader interesting points about the expectations and rights of the poor and those who receive humanitarian assistance across the world. Does the fact of poverty mean you should be grateful for what you receive (if the opposite would be to receive nothing at all)? Or should the poor have the same expectations of quality (or in this case proper labeling) and appropriate interventions, regardless of the extent to which they materially depend on external assistance?

Of course, few would argue that the condition of poverty should remove (or weaken) rights. Not many would suggest that it is acceptable to send tins of dog food as part of food aid supplies, even if they are technically safe for human consumption. Nor, I think, would many support the idea that Muslims should be expected to eat pork, Hindus eat beef etc, if they are in need of food aid.

But what about food which is less religiously (or species) inappropriate? For example, food aid delivered to pastoralist communities in east and the Horn of Africa has frequently been dominated by maize. On one level, that a maize-heavy diet is not culturally appropriate in such communities might be argued to be less important than the fact people are receiving food when they otherwise might not. But changing what people eat, especially shifting from a protein-heavy to carbohydrate-heavy diet, has longer term health implications, as well as social and cultural ones. Should, therefore, food aid have to take such things into account, or should those in need be grateful for what they get (See p. 10, opens into PDF)?

And what about the way in which a foodstuff has been produced? Famously in 2002, the Zambian government rejected US food aid which contained genetically modified corn citing fears that it was not proven to be safe. Whilst few would argue that a national sovereign government has the legal right to reject material assistance that does not comply with its own national laws, regulations and standards, such rights are rarely transferred downwards: the legal right of individuals to refuse a particular form of assistance, and yet still to expect some form of assistance that is culturally and socially relevant. Even in the case of Zambia, its sovereign right to refuse food was severely criticised by many (especially US-based) commentators who accused the government of effectively condemning to death by starvation those most in need of urgent assistance. What those on the ground actually made of the row was much less discussed, it was simply assumed that the hungry will (and, implicitly, should) eat anything they can.

What this debate hides, of course, are deeper underlying causes of hunger both in Germany and across the world. Handing out free ready meals taken off supermarket shelves is not the only, nor indeed the best, way to meet the needs of the German poor. And the reasons why maize and other foodstuffs grown in the global North make up such a large part of international food aid reflects subsidised agriculture and the production of large surpluses in those regions, as much as if not more than humanitarian instinct.

Despite efforts by aid agencies and others to move beyond general rights to food, health, shelter, etc to realisable rights and rights to minimum standards of care and assistance, there are many who still argue the poor should be grateful with what they receive: humanitarianism as ‘charity’ rather than an obligation to protect and assist.

Be careful of those who say ‘let them eat horse’, and carefully inspect their own kitchens. Now, horse lasagne anyone?

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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