The politics of who starves

July 18, 2018

In his column for Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee reviews Alex de Waal’s new book on how and why famines take place.

YOU DO not expect to find much good news in a book with the words “mass starvation” in the title. Dread feels appropriate, maybe obligatory. But Alex de Waal’s Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (Polity) makes some encouraging points, and it seems appropriate to start with them, just to deprive pessimism of its home-court advantage.

“At least 100 million people died in great and calamitous famines in the 140 years from 1870 to 2010,” writes de Waal, “and almost all of them died before 1980.” Here the author, who is executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, employs a couple of ordinary words that have specific meanings within the field of famine research: a “great” famine causes 100,000 “excess” deaths (i.e., beyond the normal mortality rates in a given place and time), while the threshold for “calamitous” is one million dead.

The decades between 1920 and 1950 appear in de Waal’s charts and graphs as mountainous spikes looming over everything else in that 140-year span, never falling below 10 million deaths per decade. Four great or calamitous famines occurred from 1931 to 1940, followed by a staggering leap to 14 during 1941 to 1950.

Children attempt to open a grain car in the famine in Bengal during 1943
Children attempt to open a grain car in the famine in Bengal during 1943

But the number of fatalities starts to plunge around 1970, with the Cambodian famine of 1975-79 being the last on de Waal’s timeline to be identified as calamitous. Since 1980, “the annual death toll in great famines has averaged 53,000, about 5 percent of the historic level.”


MISSING FROM those figures is any reckoning with the impact of smaller-scale famines, past and present. And 53,000 people per year dying from famine is a small number in only the most abstract and relative sense; in absolute terms, it still qualifies as a disaster. (Also worth keeping in mind: the author acknowledges that the available sources almost certainly underestimate the number of fatalities for the pre-1950 decades.)

But the indicators of progress, however qualified, seem firm enough to make complacency a danger. That is very much de Waal’s point. “In February 2017,” he writes:

The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) warned that the number of people in acute need of humanitarian assistance had risen to 70 million, up from 45 million in 2015, and that 20 million people in four countries — Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen — faced a “credible risk of famine” during the year. This marked an alarming reversal of the positive trends of the previous 30 years.

We may be at “a critical turning point, a moment at which famine could return” on the scale it once had.

The greatest danger comes from a perspective on famine that is both fatalistic and wrong: a belief that, as Thomas Malthus put it in 1798 in the first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population, “gigantic inevitable Famine” stalks humanity due to the intrinsic tendency of human communities to grow faster than the output of foodstuffs. So “with one mighty blow,” Malthus says, famine “levels the population with the food of the world.” Mass starvation, then, is in effect the revenge of supply on demand.

Borrowing a term from the social theorist Ulrich Beck, de Waal calls this understanding of famine a “zombie concept”: one that “cannot be killed by normal means, and with limitless endurance keeps coming back to torment and infect the living.” As it happens, de Waal first mentions the Malthusian zombie on a page that also presents a graph comparing world population and famine mortality between 1870 and 2010. While there is a very rough correspondence between them until about 1970, they go in opposite directions after that.

The Malthusian scenario overlooks the fact that extreme poverty can cause famine even when food is available — particularly when market forces create a perverse incentive to withhold it in anticipation of higher prices. Displaced populations without adequate sanitation or health care are more vulnerable to the communicable diseases and waterborne infections that are the main causes of famine mortality, rather than starvation itself. These are conditions that can be mitigated through human effort and not the doings of “gigantic inevitable Famine” seizing its chance to thin the herd.


PASSIVE RESIGNATION takes famine as a sign of nature’s indifference to our species. A more active and recognizably human sort of malevolence is involved in what de Waal calls famine crime: the use of hunger as an instrument of power. Stalin’s policy towards Ukraine in the early 1930s and the Nazi “Hunger Plan” intended to depopulate the Western Soviet Union were the most ambitious famine crimes of the first half of the 20th century. But the democratic West certainly made its bid during World War II with the Bengal famine of 1943: “requisitioning food reserves and stopping all waterborne means of transport, including fishing boats,” the Churchill government then refused to undertake famine relief efforts in Bengal, with the calamitous result that at least 2.1 million Bengalis died.

“Famines strike selectively; it is the poor and politically excluded who are its first and principal victims, commonly its only ones,” writes de Waal. “Starvation relentlessly hunts out outsiders and marginalized minorities — or, to phrase it more accurately, those in power administer famines to target these people.”

In its more optimistic moments de Waal’s book implies that agricultural progress combined with the willingness of those in the more affluent sectors of the world to provide medical relief and humanitarian relief would be sufficient to keep the number of famine fatalities worldwide on its downward trend — even with the effects of climate change factored in. But what he calls “the resurgence of xenophobia and resource nationalism around the world” amounts to a growing tendency for wealthy societies to think of themselves as so many lifeboats, with no obligation except to themselves.

In that context the Malthusian zombie — the idea that famine is inevitable and a necessary restoration of balance — seems especially vicious. Mass Starvation quotes a remark by a scholar from the 19th century that identifies the danger ahead: “I have always felt a certain horror of political economists since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would be scarcely enough to do any good.” A tipping point comes when resignation becomes complicity.

First published at Inside Higher Ed.

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