What causes famine?

One popular explanation of the cause of famines sees them as being due simply to not enough food being available. People starve because there’s no food for them. What could be more simple? And if there’s no food available that’s because of some natural disaster—some so-called Act of God which we can’t do anything about— like flooding in Bangladesh or a drought in Ethiopia.


This simplistic view has been challenged and effectively refuted by Professor Amartya Sen in his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation that appeared in 1982. Sen showed that in most recent famines the food was available: what wasn’t available were “access rights” to it, whether money or the ability to directly grow food, on the part of those who starved.


Professor Sen returned to this theme in a radio broadcast on BBC3 on 21 March. After referring to his early experience when a schoolboy of the Bengal famine of 1943, one of the worst famines that has taken place in recent times, which he showed to have been falsely attributed by the authorities to not enough food being available. Professor Sen stated his basic case:


In every society the amount of food a person can own and consume depends on a set of rules governing his legal entitlement given by ownership, and possibilities of production and exchange. If food were to be distributed equally, the aggregate food availability would indeed determine how much food each person could get. But obviously this does not happen in any actual society. To decide whether a person will m fact be able to acquire enough food, we have to see what he owns, what he can produce with what he owns, what he can get in exchange. and so on. Starvation will result if a person is not able to establish ownership over an adequate amount of food through these means. Starvation is a social outcome reflecting an entitlement failure. Availability of food is only one influence among many affecting that outcome.


Turning to the 1974 famine in Bangladesh, he explained that what happened was that a flood destroyed the jobs of many millions of rural labourers who would normally have earned money planting and transplanting rice. With no jobs they had no income and so no money to buy food, despite 1974 being a record year for food availability over the period 1971- 75. As Sen put it, “what killed the Bangladeshi rural labourers was not any physical lack of food, but the failure of the social system to give them adequate entitlement to the food that was there”.


A similar situation had occurred in Ethiopia in 1973 except that it affected peasant farmers working their own land rather than rural wage workers. Here there was indeed a drought that did adversely affect crop production, but it wasn’t this that caused people to starve, at least not directly as in the popular “not enough food” explanation for famines.


Because they had less of their particular food crop to sell, the peasants in the Wollo province, which was the centre of the famine, suffered a reduction in their income and were therefore unable to buy food to replace that which they were unable to grow themselves. It was this collapse of their income, not the failure of their crop as such, that led to the famine. Professor Sen again: “Had there been only a fall in food output in Wollo, without a simultaneous decline in the local population’s economic fortune, food would certainly have moved into Wollo under the pull of the market”.


Nor could the famine be attributed to a lack of transport facilities, another reason sometimes advanced as a cause of famines, since the main North-South road from Addis Abba to Asmara runs through the worst hit area of Wollo. There was a movement of food along this road—out of Wollo. This happened, as it did in the notorious Irish famines of the 1840’s, because purchasing power in the area had fallen more than output, so that market forces led to the “surplus” (to market requirements) being exported to areas where people did have the money to pay for it.


So, famines are features of a society in which entitlement to food is not direct but by means of money. Professor Sen sees the solution as lying in establishing mechanisms which would ensure that every person has enough money to always be in a position to buy enough food to stop them starving. He thereby ignores the obvious solution: establish a society in which people would have free and direct access to food as of right, a moneyless, socialist society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the world’s resources. In such a society nobody would ever starve because food would be being produced for its natural purpose of feeding people.


Adam Buick