The world today again stands on the precipice of a global humanitarian disaster. Despite a surplus in global food production, chronic food insecurity is a reality for millions. As per assessments, 70 million people are likely to be food insecure in 2017 of which a whopping 20 million are at an imminent risk of death by mass starvation
in 4 countries – Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. To put that number in context, total casualties from famine
in the whole of 20th century – a century beset with major disasters such as those in Bengal (1943), China (Great leap forward – 1958-62), Bangladesh (1974) and Ethiopia (1973-74 and 1983-85) was 75 million. The situation forces us to confront a paradox. Despite tremendous technological and social advances, why do famines persist? What causes them and how are they evolving over time? Turning to history gives us some useful lessons.
Famines through history
Not all instances of hunger are classified as famines. In pre-colonial times in Tanzania, for example, famines were classified informally in increasing order of magnitudes – ordinary food shortages and shortages that kill. Their frequency, in fact, normalized them which resulted in lack of a systematic approach to capturing their occurrence. As John Iliffe, a scholar of African history at University of Cambridge, notes in his work, ‘A Modern History of Tanganyika’ (pre-cursor to the modern state of Tanzania), the situation was such that men measured out their lives in famines. Yet, the potential of these localized and frequent occurrences of hunger to kill was well recognized. John Iliffe further observed that the local populace believed that red glow at the summit of the great Mount Kilimanjaro presaged death by starvation.
Some scholars estimate that 2 million people died due to famines in 17th century, 10 million in the 18th and 25 million in the 19th. These are likely to be underestimations due to lack of systematic recording of instances of famines. For example - in the 18th century, the great Bengal famine
has been roughly estimated to have claimed 10 million lives alone (one-third of the then population), thus making it the worst famine
ever recorded in human history next only to the great leap forward in China which caused mortalities in excess of 30 million. Hence the overall number of mortalities has been subject to numerous debates and revisions. Notwithstanding the data accuracy concerns, what remains undisputed is that 20th century was the deadliest in modern human history in terms of famine
related mortalities. (see chart below)
Source: Stephen Devereux, Famine
in the 20th century, IDS working paper
The century has been estimated to have claimed between 70 – 80 million lives due to famines and its aftermaths such as cholera and other water and hygiene related diseases. In fact, famine
mortality has been higher in the second half of the century due to China’s great leap forward. However, even ignoring the event as a historical anomaly, the century has claimed over 40 million lives in numerous famines, most of which have been concentrated in Europe and East Asia.
South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa which are associated with food catastrophe have just accounted for 11% of global famine
mortality. What is also noticeable is that overall, famines have been steadily rolled back. Europe saw its last famine
in the 1940s, East Asia in 1960s, and the South East Asia in 1970s. In a cruel twist of fate, the continent that has seen the least recoded famine
mortalities – Africa, remains the only place on earth where they are presently entrenched.
What causes famines?
While historically caused by a range of factors resulting in crop failures such as excess rainfall, droughts, or even volcanic eruptions, their occurrence in the modern history has taken a specific turn. Weather shocks, though traditionally associated with famines, have ceased to be primary drivers of their cause over the centuries. There are multiple reasons for this, the major one being rapid development of modern communication technology and transport systems which have led to rapid dissemination of stress signals and allow remedial actions to be taken. It would probably not be far-fetched to call the humble lorry, one of the most effective anti-famine
development of the past decades. The question still persists then, why do famines happen?
Amartya Sen entitlement theory is a useful guide to answer this question. According to Sen, a person’s “entitlement set” is the full range of goods and services that the person can acquire by converting their “endowments” (assets and resources, including labor power) through “exchange entitlement mappings”. The theory, in the context of famine, describes all the legal ways in which food can be procured by individuals. Hence, there are four ways 4 ways to get food to prevent hunger – one can either grow it, work for it, buy it or be given it through transfers.
The theory, first outlined in 1976, went to change the discourse around famines. It shifted the narrative decisively from a viewpoint of – too many people, too little food – to the inability of people to acquire food. This was a crucial insight because it showed that, famines could occur irrespective of the food availability situation. In fact, even food surplus situations could experience famines due to the inability of groups of people to acquire food.
The insight from this, in many ways is internalized in modern welfare states. For example, while weather shocks might destroy local agrarian ecosystem and create inflationary conditions which can affect people’s ability to grow, buy or work for food, food transfers can still be received from the government or international agencies, a standard that these institutions are commonly expected to meet. Which is indeed why, Sen famously claimed that countries with a freely elected government and an adversarial press do not see famines due to the culture of democratic accountability. Hence, the answer of modern famines often lies in benign or deliberate ignorance of famine
like conditions which impede food transfers. The chart below, illustrates that well -
Source: Stephen Devereux, Famine
in the 20th century, IDS working paper
As seen in the chart, limited state capacity or neglect (conflict, conflict + drought, government policy) have been the leading causes of famines through the 20th century. Drought by itself has not been a major dominant trigger for a famine
except in the period from 1960s to 80s where droughts ravaged Ethiopia and the Sahel region in Africa.
A stark example of government culpability can be found in the great Bengal famine
of 1943. Fearful of the advancing Japanese army from Burma, the British indulged in denial policies. The scorched earth tactics included destroying large stocks of rice in major rice producing regions to potentially deny the Japanese of food. Boats of locals were also captured as they were deemed large enough to carry more than ten people, hence allowing the Japanese a source a transport. These actions disturbed the local markets and coupled with a relatively poor rice harvest in 1942, Bengal began to experience runway inflation. The initial reaction of the British was that of denial. The inflation was incorrectly blamed on traders hoarding rice stockpiles. They went on to impose price controls, which led to the creation of black market, and started a drive against hoarders which had negligible impact. Once the gravity of the situation became clear, entreaties for aid were made to the British War Cabinet led by Winston Churchill, to little effect. Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India 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." Famine
codes, developed by the British in 1870, which dictated a plan of action in instances of mass hunger, were not applied.
Furthermore, large scale aid was denied by the War Cabinet because of supposed lack of availability of ships, a fact that has since then been disproven. The impact was calamitous. A total of 2.1 million lives were lost due to the intransigence of the British. The memory of the famine, coming on the back of numerous famines through the period of colonialization, shaped the social contract on food security between the Indian state and the people. As a result, the public distribution system was introduced as mechanism of food price stabilization on June 1st, 1947.
However, a similar story did not play out in many countries in Africa where things after independence took a different route. The period after independence was associated with increased political instability and emergence of famines where militarization, counter insurgency and civil war players a role in increasing food insecurity. In the horn today – the equation; war + drought = famine
often holds true.
Food insecurity today
Today, persistent conflicts, limited democratic accountability, coupled with low administrative capacity has fostered a situation of unprecedented food insecurity in modern history.
Source: FSIN state of food security 2017
As can be seen, Yemen is on a precipice of a disaster with 40% of its population on the verge of starvation.
The situation is particularly grim at the frontlines of the conflict between the Iran backed Houthi rebels and Saudi led coalition. 9 out of 22 governorates of Yemen are facing a situation of emergency. The situation has been compounded by internally displaced population (IDP) due to conflict. So brutal has been the conflict in Yemen that over 2.2 million people have been internally displaced making it the second highest IDP destination globally after Syria.
Meanwhile the horn of Africa, is mired in another crisis precipitated by South Sudan and Somalia. Formed in 2011, South Sudan, the world’s newest country has been in the throes of deadly civil war since 2013. The opposition forces led by Riek Machar, the ex-deputy president, member of the Nuer tribe (16% of the population) has waged an ongoing war with Salva Kiir’s forces, the President, member of the Dinka tribe (35% of the population). Since the outbreak of hostilities, the fight has often centered on oil, its main export, leading to large scale displacements in the two oil producing regions of Unity and Upper Nile. The total number of internally displaced people stands at 1.85 million (one in six people) as per the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). Unity region, which is Nuer dominated and is the home of Reik Machar, has been at the forefront of this violence. It alone accounts for 45% of the total internally displaced population. Being the epicenter of conflict led to acute food insecurity which resulted in over 100,000 people being declared famine
hit in February. Even though timely humanitarian action has averted the catastrophe of a famine, chronic food insecurity remains a reality for over 5 million people.
Similarly the situation in north-east Nigeria has been driven by the years of conflict the terrorist group, Boko Haram. Somalia is the only country among the four where weather has played a dominant role in creating a situation of food insecurity. A famine
ravaged the country in 2011, destroying the rural economy. Conflict with Al-Shabab further destroyed the local agrarian ecosystems. In this context, two successive droughts have broken the back of the local economy, leaving 6 million people insecure with 2 – 4 million extremely vulnerable.
As history has shown, cost of negligence and dereliction of basic state responsibilities can be deadly. While the aid agencies like the World Food Program and UNICEF have launched massive missions in these countries backed by impressive technological advancements like geomapping of famine
struck areas, these responses only constitute a band-aid. A sustainable solution to food insecurity and famine
lies in democratic accountability and building administrative capacity to deliver services. Though roots of democracy have deepened globally, the present scenario is a stark reminder of the need for its acceleration. The lack of democratic accountability has led to loss of millions of lives, it is a lesson that is worth repeating.
Romit Mehta is an advisor on agriculture transformation to the government of Ethiopia. Views are personal.