To avoid ‘Fifth Period’ of famine, political action is needed

Report on famine trends published in Political Geography wins Elsevier’s Atlas award for January 2018

Amsterdam, February 22, 2018

After a twenty-year period in which famine had become all but a distant memory, starving people in several countries around the world began making headlines again over the last year. As reported in Political Geography, if political action doesn’t alter this course the world could be headed into a ‘fifth period’ of famine, warns Elsevier Atlas Award winner Alex de Waal, Executive Director at the World Peace Foundation in Somerville, MA, US. He warns that famine almost always has multiple causes; political factors are chief among them.

“We need to drum home the point that ‘to starve’ is a transitive verb,” Dr. De Waal said. “Starvation is something we do to each other. It’s not a natural occurrence.”

To examine trends over the last 150 years, Dr. De Waal established a dataset of all famines around the globe from 1870 to those taking place today that have killed 100,000 or more people. The patterns that emerge are striking. Dr. De Waal identified and characterized four main historic periods of famine, including European colonialism, the extended World War, post-colonial totalitarianism, and post-Cold War humanitarian emergencies.

Overall, he identified 61 episodes of “great famine” in the last 150 years, which killed more than 100 million people. Almost half of those deaths occurred in China. About a quarter of famine deaths were in Europe and the Soviet Union. Contrary to what’s happened in the most recent generation, only 10 percent of those famine deaths were in Africa.

The decline in famine deaths seen in the past closely followed an increase in global humanitarian assistance budgets, which began to tick upwards in about 1980 and have continued to grow. As famine is again making the news in countries including Yemen, South Sudan, and Syria.

Dr. De Waal warns that this support for international aid is also now at risk, and says it’s time to dismiss the notion that famine is primarily caused by natural disasters and forces beyond human control. As evidence, he says, the world population grew from about 2 billion in the mid-nineteenth century to about 7.5 billion today. Meanwhile, the risk of dying from starvation dropped significantly.

The good news is that if people and governments can and do cause famines, then people and political action can also put an end to them, he says. “If we can generate enough public outrage, then I think we can make it politically toxic for leaders to perpetrate these crimes on populations,” de Waal said.

The full story and interview with the author is available to read on Elsevier Connect.


Notes for editors
The article is "The end of famine? Prospects for the elimination of mass starvation by political action," by Alex de Waal ( It appears in Political Geography, volume 62 (January 2018), published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Jason Awerdick at or +1 212 633 3103.

About Political Geography
Political Geography is the flagship journal of political geography and advances knowledge in all aspects of the geographical and spatial dimensions of politics and the political. The journal brings together leading contributions in the field and promotes interdisciplinary debates in international relations, political science, and other related fields.

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