LONDON — London. -- The wheel of fortune is slowly beginning to turn in Somalia. At last food aid is arriving, and the U.N. peace-keeping soldiers from Pakistan are starting to disembark. Once the world's humanitarian machinery is put in gear -- indefensibly belated though it is on this occasion -- it invariably makes a significant impact.
We are a long way from the 19th-century attitude of ''let them die.''
The confident utilitarian, James Mill, wrote to the great economist, David Ricardo, ''Does not this English weather frighten you? . . . There must now be, of necessity, a very deficient crop and very high prices -- and those with an unexampled scarcity of work will produce a degree of misery, the thought of which makes the flesh creep on one's bones -- one third of the people must die -- it would be a blessing to take them into the streets and highways, and cut their throats as we do with pigs.''
Ricardo wrote back at once, assuring his friend that he was ''sorry to see a disposition to inflame the minds of the lower orders by persuading them that legislation can afford them any relief.''
No one today would dare write this kind of stuff; nevertheless, over the last 20 years we've seen a slew of writers and scholars arguing for ''lifeboat ethics.''
They believe that resources should be concentrated only on those with an adequate degree of purposefulness. They seem to think that because the population curve is rising, it will, of necessity, overwhelm the earth's abundance. Legislating to keep people alive is as strange to them as it was to Ricardo.
This is both naive and irresponsible. There is no need for famine. Indeed, there is no need for malnutrition or early death. Even some of the poorest countries have shown that where there is a will there's a way.
India has not had a famine since 1943, despite its burgeoning population and its struggle to achieve what it has now solidly maintained for over a decade, self-sufficiency in food.
Harvard University Professor Amartya Sen, author of ''Hunger and Public Action,'' explains why in two sentences. One is a procedure to create jobs for those affected by calamity, so that they can earn food from government reserves while engaged in useful public works. The other is an open political system, complemented by an adversarial press, that soon lets the
government know if things are going wrong in distant parts. In China, lacking an adversarial press, bureaucrats keep the lid on bad news, and the country was overwhelmed in 1958 by a famine that killed nearly 30 million people.
In Africa, an excessive concentration on stories of failure has given a vastly exaggerated and indiscriminate impression of apathy, incompetence and corruption. Thus Botswana's remarkable record of famine prevention surprises many outsiders. Five years of continuous drought in the mid-1980s was handled with such dexterity that there is no evidence that people either starved or were forced to migrate. The nutritional status of children deteriorated only marginally and temporarily.
Famine, even in the poorest of countries, is never an annual event. What hurts is the continuous tenuousness of existence that shortens life and keeps the living desperately wretched. But it does not have to be.
At the time of the revolution in 1949 China's income was among the lowest in the world, hunger was widespread, the level of illiteracy high and life expectancy only 40 years. Until 1979 and the introduction of Deng Xiaoping's great economic reforms, the national income of China had grown almost imperceptibly. But China had taken gigantic steps in life expectancy (the high 60s, approaching the rates in North America and Europe), and literacy was almost universal.
Other countries without much money -- Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica -- have done the same, far surpassing in good health, literacy and longevity, such high-growth, prosperous countries as Brazil and Oman. It is not a question of affordability. The basic steps toward preventing morbidity and premature mortality and ensuring basic literacy are within the means of even the poorest countries.
It is ironic that as China has introduced its capitalist reforms and its growth rate has spurted, its mortality rate has begun to rise again. This is not only culpable but unnecessary. There are high-growth, wealth-creating economies -- South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore -- that have combined fast-paced capitalist endeavor with care and attention to the elementary needs of even the poorest.
Is it too late to wish Somalia's famine could concentrate a few warlords' minds on what is possible, even in this most destitute of societies? It is never too late. The knowledge is there. Only hatred, blindness, venality and stupidity stand in its way.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.