15 June, 2009Issue 9.8EconomicsPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Let Them Eat Cake

Amreeta Mathai

Famine: A Short HistoryCormac Ó Gráda
Famine: A Short History
Princeton University Press, 2009
344 Pages
ISBN 978-0691122373

In the 20th century alone, an estimated 70 million people perished from famine. To name a few of the most disastrous incidents: during World War II, the Bengal Famine claimed 8 million lives; in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, famine took over 30 million lives; and in the mid-1980s, famines in Ethiopia threatened over 8 million people with starvation.

While famine has commonly been attributed to bad harvests, recent scholarship has shifted focus from natural disasters to government failures. Cormac O’Grada’s new book, Famine: A Short History, is no exception. A professor of economics at University College Dublin, O’Grada examines the complex relationship between famine, politics, and public action. Famine’s strength derives from O’Grada’s mining of the historical record, using extensive empirical data to explore the causes and consequences of this fatal phenomenon. Ultimately, O’Grada boldly claims that the “onward march of accountable government will rid the world’s last vulnerable regions of the scourge of famine.” The book, however, grazes the surface of various complex and unresolved policy debates about the end of famine without exploring these issues in depth. Fair enough, for a general history of famine, but this passing investigation makes his bold claim seem somewhat over-optimistic and specious.

The direct relationship to death is what distinguishes famine from chronic malnutrition, in which lack of food adversely affects people’s health but does not directly lead to fatality. Accordingly, O’Grada defines famine as “a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced diseases.” He goes on to explore the history of thought behind what causes such dire food scarcity. As O’Grada notes, Thomas Malthus was one of the most recognized figures to theorize on this subject. Famously, in 1798, he grimly hypothesized that the world’s population would grow too large for the earth’s productive capacity and that absolute food shortages would cause famine: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” This was, perhaps, a plausible claim at the time. But Malthus failed to foresee the technological advances that would ultimately enhance the earth’s productive potential.

Echoing the evidence presented by other scholars of famine, O’Grada posits that in the modern era, famine is no longer the result of absolute shortages of food. In absolute terms, worldwide food production is enough to feed the world’s population. And presumably, advances in communication and transportation technologies should aid in getting food wherever it is needed. So why does famine persist?

Borrowing from Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, O’Grada argues that famine is a social phenomenon. For Sen, famine marks “the inability of large groups of people to establish command over food in the society in which they live.” Even if the proximate cause of a local food shortage is natural disaster or a bad harvest, the extent to which human life is affected by such shocks depends on the way that society is organized. This line of reasoning holds true for recent disasters: Hurricane Katrina, for instance, could have been less devastating if the government had been more organized, or more concerned.

Until relatively recently, the most aid that famine victims could hope for was local relief, either from the public or private sector. As O’Grada demonstrates, elites have long accepted moral obligations to relieve the worst effects of famine. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the wealthy would often intervene to prevent food crises from becoming famines. But there are limits to private citizen action. As O’Grada puts it, “Private charity may do much to alleviate individual suffering, but the relief of hundreds for an indefinite period comes only within the means of governments.”

Sen argues that only democratic governments are consistently moved to prevent major disasters affecting the populace. Yet, despite agreeing with Sen’s argument, O’Grada fails to explore its implications for famine management in non-democratic or weak states.
In doing so, O’Grada sidesteps the vital and highly contentious debates over the meaning of “accountable governance” as applied to both sovereign nations and international organisations. If all national governments were somehow organized so as to be accountable to their citizens, then famine might be a rarity. However, accountable governance across all states is a reality yet to be realised. The crucial point here is that the end of famine, in the near future, has to do with responsive international governance and its tenuous and complicated relationship with issues of national sovereignty and development.

Mobilising international efforts to address famine is at times a Sisyphean exercise. How can we get the global public invested and interested in famine? The mechanism of primary importance, within democratic states, is the media. In a democracy, a free press with transparent lines of communication should spread both information and criticism. Governments failing to avert excess mortality, due to famine, would be penalized by their citizenry. However, as O’Grada points out, while this may be the case domestically within democratic governments, the extent to which the international press can garner the same effect on famines occurring on foreign territory is questionable. In his words, “the attention span of the international media—and their readership—is too fleeting to monitor famines from start to finish.” NGOs working to prevent famine have to mobilize the concern of an international public—and this often requires the use of devastating images that only become available after a major problem has begun.

O’Grada cautions us that overemphasis on the existence of corrupt governments, and their role in allowing famines to persist, allows the international community to justify their inaction. There are some donors, however, who have chosen to deal with what they see as corruption in other ways. In February 2009, for example, donors informed President Kibaki of Kenya that they would not channel food aid through the government until the issues of corruption and mismanagement in his administration had been addressed. Rather, the donors insisted upon channeling aid through the World Food Programme. This response raises two questions. First, are donors in a position to judge the level of corruption in a foreign government? After all, what qualifies as corrupt in one country may be a standard transaction in another. Second, to whom are international NGOs accountable?

The issue of NGO accountability is greatly contested within the development literature. Generally, international NGOs are not accountable to the people to whom they provide services, but rather to their donors, some who may know relatively little about effective program implementation within a developing country. If an international NGO fails to avert a famine, it rarely suffers any consequences.

Additionally, there is the issue of creating dependency. It has been argued, with some empirical evidence, that the influx of foreign food aid can hurt domestic markets by undercutting domestic producers and driving them out of business. O’Grada notes that the 1999 Food Aid Convention stipulates that food aid be “culturally acceptable” and, where possible, not interfere with indigenous food markets. But in situations that require immediate action and in which local governments, private producers, and NGOs have little in the way of effective communication or cooperation, this sort of stipulation is impractical. Furthermore, the line between non-interference in domestic markets and allowing people to starve is blurred, and erring on the side of caution to prevent deaths seems prudent. These issues are extremely difficult to address and thus make the international prevention of famine an arduous task.

Furthermore, the extent to which foreign governments forward their own agendas in offering food aid is a controversial issue. Without a comprehensive and legitimate system governing international famine prevention, foreign governments are also not held accountable for the ways in which they offer or fail to offer aid. O’Grada notes that foreign aid is rarely disinterested. He quotes US Senator Hubert Humphrey as saying “Food is power!” in reference to US foreign assistance. He further cites the 1974 example of the United States holding back aid to Bangladesh until it ceased exporting jute to Cuba. When American food arrived it was “too late for famine victims”.

The eventual elimination of famine is dependent on the continued economic and political development of impoverished nations. National governments, which can be held accountable by their constituents, have incentives to prevent such disasters. The problem for the time being, however, is how the international aid regime should address food crises. O’Grada’s book, while briefly laying out these issues, does little to help the reader puzzle through their complex implications. If international NGOs and foreign aid remain the major avenues for famine relief, we must recognise the inherently political nature of those organisations, their intentions, and their accountability. This accountability should not run from the NGO director to the foreign donor, as it currently does. Rather, donors and NGOs should be accountable to famine victims, the very people they are trying to help.

Amreeta Mathai is reading for an MPhil in Development Studies at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a contributing editor of the Oxonian Review.