I don’t want Jeff Bezos to end world hunger

The opinions stated here are my own, not those of my company.

There is a Twitter account that’s very popular. Every day it tweets out a message that Jeff Bezos won’t solve world hunger.

It’s used as an example of being against billionaires, and why his company Blue Origins is a bad use of money.

The problem with this argument is that if Bezos decided he actually did want to solve world hunger, it would elicit even more criticism.

The problem is not in the amount of food in this paper

Obviously, the problem of feeding the world is more complicated than just throwing money at the problem. We already produce enough food to feed the world. You can go to your grocery store and find plenty of food.

Lots of food, 30–40% of it, is wasted. This might be failing to drink all of your milk before it expires, or even a lack of cold storage causes spoilage. Distribution of food is a large problem too, as there are food deserts even in the US where they don’t have nearby access to a grocery store.

Now, Amazon does have a very good logistics network. You can get anything shipped to you from Amazon within two days, in some places even the same day. They even deliver groceries to you.

So why can’t they do that everywhere? Many places are remote and don’t have sufficient infrastructure like electricity to distribute food. About two billion people don’t even get groceries, as they are subsistence farmers. If there is a bad harvest they’ll be hungry because they’re not going to grocery stores.

Amazon has actually done a lot in making food more affordable. Their acquisition of Whole Foods several years ago has been followed by several broad price drops. It is still expensive, but it seems like Amazon is using their funding to reduce the price of goods which seems to strike at the heart of criticisms.

Why are people hungry? Sure, food can be expensive, but that’s only with regards to buying food at a grocery store. There are plenty of charities that help those in need. Whole Foods itself donates 10 tons of food a week. Food banks should be setup to meet the needs of the public. I get that there is a stigma to using a food bank, but that isn’t something Jeff Bezos can fix. Hollywood has a greater effect on culture.

Of course what people mean is that Jeff Bezos should literally pay out of pocket for this huge logistical task. They want him to pay for delivery trucks, for refrigeration, for farmers. He can’t wire electrical grids himself, so there are two ways this could go.

First, he uses the power of Amazon to build out these infrastructure networks. In a neo-colonial way, he will create private roads, private water pipes, and private electric generators. Amazon effectively takes over small towns in Sub-Saharan Africa and slowly creeps to meet all their needs: Internet, basic goods, and schools. After all, Amazon will need local employees who are well equipped to fulfill the roles of the company.

Second is that he works with local governments to get these things built. But that also is a form of neo-colonialism, with a private actor basically mandating how governments run. Local governments may waste that money through corruption, as too often happens with foreign aid, or they ingratiate themselves to Bezos in an attempt to pull in more money. This means they will implement policies that bring themselves closer to Amazon even without direct private ownership.

For the record, his ten billion dollar climate fund does include grants for charities doing farming resilience. It’s not enough to meet the moment, but it’s a heck of a lot of funding that others will need to carry out.

This criticism may be used in an attempt to tax billionaires to fund these networks, but even that is limited. Taxes aren’t guaranteed to go towards social services, particularly when there are many other interests. Food banks could always benefit from more funding, but you need to elect politicians who will help. Again, we return to the problem of corrupt officials. While I do agree that taxes should be higher on wealthier individuals, that is not going to be a panacea. And if Amazon made less profit, would that money be spent in the desired places?

It’s not easy. Clearly, if it was easy we’d be doing it. But the only way we can work towards it is a broad decentralized approach that doesn’t give too much power to any one actor. Highly corrupt officials are not going to need to care about individuals. Soviet Russia is known for having long lines of hungry people. Regardless of the frequency of that, it shows that no government can simply solve hunger top-down.

City Fruit is one such community garden organization from Seattle

Local approaches can work effectively, where possible. Urban and community gardens are a way for communities to become self-sufficient, much like the subsistence farmers around the world. Still, with the specter of climate change, crop yields may deplete. This uncertainty can greatly affect communities, and we’ll need to build logistical networks to redistribute food.

I get that people can be frustrated by the wide gap between multi-billionaires versus the growing homeless encampments in cities. But this process needs to start from the bottom, and it cannot be solved by money alone. Much like Bo Burnham satirizes in his latest special, he is not the right person in the right position to actually make meaningful policy, no matter how funny he is.

Social Media Expert -- Rowan University 2017 -- IoT & Assistant @ Google