Famines through the ages

Published: November 23, 2017 - 16:40 Updated: November 23, 2017 - 17:10

Data shows that not drought itself but limited state capacity or government negligence has been the leading cause of famine through the 20th century

The world stands on the precipice of a humanitarian disaster. Surplus global food production notwithstanding, 70 million people are estimated to be food insecure in 2017. A whopping 20 million of these are at risk of death by starvation in four countries – Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. The situation presents a paradox. Despite tremendous technological and social advances, why do famines persist? Turning to history gives us some answers.

Famines through history

Famines have been an intricate part of human history. In pre-colonial Tanzania, for example, the frequency of the calamity led to people measuring their lives by famines. The local populace further believed that the red glow at Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit presaged death by starvation, showing the intimate ways through which famines were tied to local beliefs.

Deaths from famine through centuries have been disputed due to an unsystematic recording of casualties and difficulties of attribution. Despite data accuracy concerns, the 20th century, a period marked by great technological advancement, has been the deadliest in modern human history in terms of famine-related mortalities which stand at around 75 million. Even after ignoring the deaths due to the Great Leap Forward in China (which claimed around 30 million lives), the century witnessed the deaths of over 40 million people, concentrated mainly in Europe and East Asia. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, associated with hunger-related catastrophe in public perception, have accounted for just 11 percent of global famine mortality in this period.

Weather shocks, traditionally associated with famines, have ceased to be their primary driver. Development of modern communication and transport technologies allows rapid dissemination of stress signals and remedial actions.

However, famines have steadily reduced over time. Europe saw its last famine in the 1940s, East Asia in the 1960s, and South-east Asia in the 1970s. In a cruel twist, the continent with the lowest recorded famine mortalities – Africa – remains the only place where famine is at present entrenched.

What causes famines?

Historically, famines were caused by a range of factors resulting in crop failure but their occurrence in modern history has taken a specific turn. Weather shocks, traditionally associated with famines, have ceased to be their primary driver. Development of modern communication and transport technologies allows rapid dissemination of stress signals and remedial actions. It would not be far-fetched to say the lorry is among the most effective anti-famine developments in the recent past.

Why do famines still occur? 

Economist Amartya Sen’s entitlement theory is useful here. The theory, in the context of famines, describes ways in which an individual can procure food – by growing it, working for it, buying it or being provided it. The theory shifted the narrative from a viewpoint that relied on the premise of ‘too many people, limited food’ to the inability of people to acquire food. This was crucial because it demonstrated that famines could occur even in food surplus situations if individuals could not acquire food due to external shocks.

The insight from this viewpoint is internalised in modern welfare states. For example, in cases where weather shocks might destroy local agriculture and create inflationary conditions which can affect people’s ability to grow, buy or work for food, food transfers can be provided by governments. This is a standard that they are expected to meet. Which is why Sen claimed that famines did not happen in countries with freely elected governments and an adversarial press due to democratic accountability. Hence, the answer to their occurrence often lies in benign or deliberate ignorance of famine-like conditions which impede food transfers.

As seen, a drought in itself has not been a dominant trigger, except from the 1960s to ’80s when Ethiopia and the Sahel region in Africa suffered adverse weather shocks. Limited state capacity or neglect (conflict, conflict + drought, government policy) has been the leading cause of famines through the 20th century.  

India’s colonial history illustrates this well. Take the Bengal famine of 1943. Fearful of the advancing Japanese army from Burma, the British destroyed rice stocks and local boats. Coupled with a relatively poor rice harvest in 1942, runaway inflation followed. The initial reaction of the British was to incorrectly blame the traders for hoarding rice stockpiles, and price controls and anti-hoarding drives were initiated. Once the gravity of the situation became clear, entreaties for aid were made to the War Cabinet led by Winston Churchill, to little effect. Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, best captured the spine-chilling indifference as he noted, “Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country.” This criminal negligence resulted in a loss of 2.1 million lives. The memory of hunger through the colonial rule shaped the social contract on food security in India. As a result, the public distribution system was introduced as a mechanism of food price stabilisation on June 1, 1947.

The independence of newly formed nation-states in Africa, on the other hand, was associated with increased instability. Militarisation, counter-insurgency and civil war increased food insecurity. In the Horn today, the equation war + drought = famine often holds true.

Food insecurity today

Conflicts, limited democratic accountability, and low administrative capacity have fostered a situation of unprecedented food insecurity in modern history.

Over 30 percent of the entire population in Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan are at a high risk of famine. Unity region in South Sudan, the oil and conflict epicentre, was in fact declared hit by a famine in February which the timely intervention of aid agencies subsequently averted. Raging civil wars, conflict between international actors (Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition) and local actors (Boko Haram and Al Shabab) has diminished state capacity, fostering chronic hunger for millions.

As history has shown, negligence and dereliction of basic State responsibilities can be deadly. While the aid agencies have launched missions in these countries, they only constitute Band-Aid treatment for the malaise. A sustainable solution lies in democratic accountability and building the capacity to deliver services. It bears repetition that lack of accountability has led to the loss of millions of lives.

The author is an adviser to the government of Ethiopia on agriculture transformation.

This story is from print issue of HardNews