Famine Essay

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Famines are complex processes, usually arising from a combination of several causes over an extended period. Their effects on different households and social groups vary greatly according to levels of anticipation and preparedness, capacity to cope with sustained adversity, and ability to return to previous livelihood patterns once the crisis period has passed. The difficulty of pinpointing critical causes and effects, other than on a case-by-case basis, makes it hard to define what famine is or when it starts and stops. As a result, there are no agreed-on mechanisms to trigger appropriate interventions to prevent or mitigate famines, and the question of responsibility for relief is normative and politicized governments and international agencies often fail to achieve them. It would also be useful to differentiate between successful but last-ditch humanitarian efforts and long-term programs designed to make people food secure. However, an instrumental definition of famine vulnerability would require ongoing assessment of several aspects of people’s livelihoods, which would be difficult in practice.

Because famines do not start suddenly and are difficult to define objectively, it usually falls to national governments to declare their existence. The World Food Program, like all United Nations agencies, can only intervene in sovereign states by invitation. Yet governments have an in-built incentive not to acknowledge that they have allowed famines to occur under their watch, at least until they have to, when it is again usually too late for some. National and regional vulnerability assessment committees are attempting to redress this problem, as are donor-funded schemes, such as the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET). Both, however, depend primarily on measurement of rainfall and crop yields rather than on social indicators. Vulnerable people themselves are more likely to label famines by their sociopolitical causes, such as land theft, or by strategies used to survive them.

Definition Problems

The simplest way to define famine is as a significant increase in mortality from starvation or starvation-related disease over an extensive geographical area. This is hard to measure, however, because famines often occur in regions where mortality rates are variable and poorly recorded. Disputes arise over deaths resulting from behaviors in response to hunger—for example, from eating venomous wild foods. Diseases such as cholera are common when people migrate en masse toward dwindling water sources—and epidemics can last for years after food crises have passed—but it is a matter for debate which disease deaths should count as famine mortality. It is tricky to distinguish between deaths from starvation and from gastric diseases.

More important, if famine is defined by mass mortality, famine relief will always be too late. Interventions early enough to prevent starvation can be described as famine prevention, but without a specific phenomenon to which to respond, both

Causes of Famines

In this context, it is no longer helpful to distinguish between natural and man-made famines. Even when drought is a proximate trigger, a famine will occur only if both markets and political systems fail to respond to food shortages. The likelihood of drought or other disasters has itself been increased by human forces, including both local and global climate change. Since the groundbreaking work of Amartya K. Sen in the early 1980s, most analysts have focused on the ability of individuals and households to command food rather than on aggregate food availability. This usefully switches the focus away from technological solutions to a technical problem and onto socioeconomic and political understandings of famine causation. For example, development of commercial farming for export can increase the vulnerability of nearby smallholders left on the poorest land.

Overpopulation in poor areas can leave too little food to go round, but the effect of HIV/AIDS has shown that reduced populations are sometimes more vulnerable, when it is the most productive members of households who are stricken. Temporary or permanent migration by young men to urban areas in search of paid employment can also contribute to chronic food shortages, though it may improve individual households’ entitlement to food. Thus famines can be engendered by ordinary, unspectacular economic or social processes. From the 1970s until the early 21st century, almost all famines were associated with conflict or political repression. More recent crises, however, reflect the declining capacity of governments to respond to disease, worsening terms of trade, and infrastructural gaps.

Effects of Famines

Famines affect different social groups in varying ways, depending on the range and reliability of their entitlements to food. Particular professional classes whose work is dispensable in times of hardship, such as barbers, may suffer more than poorer laborers who are better able to adjust the nature or location of their work. People’s own coping strategies are critical to their chances of survival but can involve taking risks. Migration and crime are both common responses that involve increased mortality rates, as suggested by the fact that more men than women die in most famines. Vital indigenous knowledge of which wild foods are safe to consume is likely to be limited in areas where famine is unprecedented, and this knowledge is diminishing, even in chronically vulnerable areas, because of the impact of HIV/AIDS.

Mortality patterns are further confused because deaths from starvation-related disease are far more common than from starvation itself. While the likelihood of dying from disease is greatly increased by hunger, the chance of becoming infected in the first place is less strongly correlated with food intake. As a result, starving people perceive their chances of survival to be arbitrary and beyond their control. They are therefore liable to protect their long-term livelihoods in preference to maximizing their consumption in response to prolonged hunger. For example, it is rare for key productive assets such as land or cattle to be sold until famine crises are acute. Savings, jewelry, and unessential tools are usually disposed of first, though this is made more difficult by declining prices for household assets, particularly relative to the cost of food.

Recently, humanitarian agencies have attempted to match their relief efforts to people’s coping strategies, for example, by providing food for work programs close to homes. However, these are hard to target and organize and attract far more women than men, who prefer to work for cash. Care also needs to be taken not to encourage extreme behaviors. Coping strategies can be divisive or violent—for example, household breakups and murder rise sharply during famines. They are also finite. Households surviving one famine by selling assets may not be able to cope with a second, even many years later. Relief therefore needs to start before people have made decisions that will permanently affect their livelihoods. This suggests a need for better cooperation between humanitarian and development agencies. Long-term sustainable development would reduce the risk of famines. Again, however, it is important to consider poor people’s priorities. Poverty reduction strategies may be rejected if they are perceived to increase risk, even if they are designed to improve household food production or profits. Examples include genetically modified seeds and projects encouraging diversification into high-value nonfood crops.

Responses to Famines

For relief to be timely and effective, it is essential to establish who bears primary responsibility for it. Ideally it should be the government, provided it has sufficient capacity and will. However, we cannot assume that all nation-states will take the (often difficult and expensive) measures necessary to prevent starvation in every case, especially if the threat of famine is in a remote or politically unimportant area. Indeed, where a local population is from a minority ethnic group or tends to support political parties opposed to the government, leaders may even see benefits in allowing famine to develop. Many authors now argue that the politics of relief has a greater bearing on the likelihood and extent of famine mortality than any other factor.

Famine prevention therefore becomes a question of how to provide incentives for states to uphold their populations’ right to sufficient food, as established in the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26.1). One way could be to establish such rights legally. Supreme Court cases in India and South Africa have held specific governments accountable for failures to prevent starvation. However, only 22 nations guarantee this right in their constitutions, and scarcely any have specific legislation to ensure that it is enforced. The International Criminal Court could investigate cases where governments have been directly culpable for famines, but the court is unlikely to see them as straightforward or as taking priority.

An alternative would be to rely on democracy and free media to punish governments that fail to prevent famines. Although the fear of losing power would be a powerful incentive, this may not help where famines only affect minority groups. Though shocking, recent famines will not be the only issue in most elections and may not be the main one in voters’ minds. Moreover, underfunded local media organizations— and notoriously fickle and uninformed international ones—rarely provide early enough warnings of imminent famines to prompt preventive action. Taking responsibility for famine response away from governments, however, would be problematic. International agencies or nongovernmental organizations may exacerbate political problems associated with food insecurity, as recently happened, for example, when President Mugabe disputed FEWSNET’s warnings of severe shortages in Zimbabwe.


  1. Devereux, Stephen. 2007. The New Famines: Why Famines Persist in an Era of Globalization. London: Routledge.
  2. De Waal, Alexander. 1989. Famine That Kills. Oxford, England: Clarendon.
  3. Edkins, Jenny. 2000. Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  4. Howe, Paul and Stephen Devereux. 2004. “Famine Intensity and Magnitude Scales: A Proposal for an Instrumental Definition of Famine.” Disasters 28(4):353-72.
  5. Keen, David. 1994. The Benefits of Famine: A Political Economy of Famine and Relief in Southwestern Sudan, 1983-1989. Oxford, England: Blackwell.
  6. Sen, Amartya K. 1981. Poverty and Famines: Essays in Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford, England: Clarendon.

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