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Understanding causes of famines of the past may help put an end to them

Atlas winner considers prospects for eliminating mass starvation by political action

Produce Stand Street Market, Buenos Aires Argentina © istock.com/carterdayne
Produce Stand Street Market, Buenos Aires Argentina © istock.com/carterdayne

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

The end of famine? Prospects for the elimination of mass starvation by political action

Alex de Waal
Political Geography, Volume 62, January 2018, Pages 184-195

Search Google news on famine and plenty of recent reports will come up. As of January 2018, many of those stories feature children who are suffering from malnutrition and starving today in Yemen. What’s in many ways worse is that those children aren’t suffering due to a natural disaster, but rather because of decisions that have been made by other people.

According to Atlas award winner Alex de Waal at the World Peace Foundation in Somerville, MA, these images of famine that have returned to the news in the past year follow a twenty year period in which mass starvation had become a distant memory, “fading as a matter of concern,” he writes, “to all but historians.” On the one hand, his article published in the journal Political Geography highlights the incredible progress made in recent decades, following four historic periods of famine. That progress is due to many economic, public health and political factors—and to humanitarian action. But, de Waal also asks whether the world might be headed into a “fifth period” of famine. Indeed, he says, people are starving and at risk of famine today not just in Yemen, but also in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria, along with conflict-ridden areas of Congo and Myanmar.

To examine trends over the last 150 years, de Waal established a dataset of all famines around the globe from 1870 to present that killed 100,000 or more people. De Waal explains that he couldn’t look back farther than that because the data available are too problematic. In fact, these data are always tricky for several reasons. That’s because background rates of mortality have changed significantly over time. There are also many controversial issues to address. For instance, when counting deaths due to starvation, should you include those who died from infectious diseases that took hold only because people were already suffering from malnutrition? What about those who died while attempting to flee from famine-afflicted areas?

“The data are questionable,” de Waal said. “You can’t have precise figures, but you can tell a general story.”

The patterns that emerge are striking. De Waal identified four main historic periods of famine. He characterized those four periods as 1) European colonialism, 2) the extended World War, 3) post-colonial totalitarianism, and 4) 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.

On the other hand, the trends over time show incredible progress. The global risk of dying in famine has dropped precipitously since the 1970s. That decline in famine deaths over the years closely follows the 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, de Waal warns that this support for international aid is also now at risk in many countries.

The fact that the starvation in Yemen is man-made is also no anomaly, he says. While famine generally has multiple causes, de Waal says, political causes are chief among them.

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

He points out that the world population has grown since the mid-nineteenth century, from about 2 billion to 7.5 billion today. And, yet, the risk of dying from starvation has dropped. Nevertheless, he says, if you were to ask people why there are people starving in the world, you’d most likely have them point to overpopulation and natural disaster as the main causes.

“Like a zombie,” he writes, “this concept resists being killed by evidence and logic, and repeatedly returns to plague the living.”

The fact that famine almost always has political causes, depressing as it may be, is good news in a sense. If people and governments can and do cause famines, then it follows that people and political action can also put an end to them. While there’s work to be done, de Waal says he’s been heartened to see political leaders standing up and saying that the deaths in Yemen are unacceptable.

“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.

A Conversation with Alex de Waal

Atlas spoke with Alex de Waal at the World Peace Foundation about his award-winning article in the journal Political Geography entitled “The end of famine? Prospects for the elimination of mass starvation by political action.” Listen now.

Atlas: You begin your paper by highlighting a return in 2017 to news about famine? Why is that so notable?

Alex de Waal: Over the centuries, famine has been a constant of human history. It’s remarkably difficult to know how many have died during famines over the years. But over the last 150 years, we can begin to get a reasonable estimate. Based upon the records that I’ve been able to put together between the years 1870 and about 1980, just over 100 million people have died of famine in about 61 episodes of what I would call “great famines.” That’s about 10 million people per decade. What’s quite striking is that over the last 30-odd years that number has massively decreased. We’re running at a level of famine mortality that’s no more than 5 percent of historic levels, so some tremendously good news has happened in recent decades in terms of moving toward ending this age-old scourge. Given this, it’s striking in the last year or 18 months that this downward trend in famine deaths has not only stalled, but there are signs it’s beginning to creep upward again. That’s a serious cause for concern.

Atlas: What’s caused the number of famine deaths to decline and what’s behind the recent uptick?

Alex de Waal: There are a number of elements. The first is: every famine has multiple causes. There’s no one single thing that creates famine, with the occasional exception of forced mass starvation by a genocidal government, which, fortunately, is quite rare. Among those causes, political causes are the most important. Every famine of the last 50 to 60 years has had politics prominently amongst its causes. What we’ve seen are political reasons for famines have declined. We have fewer totalitarian governments. We don’t have wars of extermination or genocide, but we do have wars of which famine is a byproduct of the way war is fought and the way governments conduct their military affairs without reference to the wellbeing of people. If we recognize that the great majority of famine deaths are politically caused then we need to look in the political arena for why they are coming back. In each of the cases where we’ve seen famine alerts in the last year—well-known cases in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, also Syria, and conflict-ridden areas of Congo and Myanmar—what we see is conflict-driven famines that are the product of brutal ways of waging wars and governments that are indifferent to the survival of ordinary people. Really, it is that phenomenon that is bringing famine back.

Atlas: How difficult is it to capture these trends in famine over 150 years?

Alex de Waal: There are huge methodological difficulties in estimating famine mortality, even in the best of times. You have to estimate normal mortality. You have to define when famine begins and ends. You must consider what is to be included in death attributable to famine. Conventionally, deaths associated with diseases that are spread during famine when people are rendered more susceptible due to malnutrition should be included. But there are controversies about violent deaths or deaths that occur as people are trying to escape famine. For example in South Sudan, should we include drowning deaths as people search for food or are running away from stricken places? The baseline mortality has changed over time, which also makes this a challenge. The measures of mortality that prevailed in 19th century, if we saw those today would be considered crisis levels. This is the reason why scholars haven’t ventured here before. The data are questionable, but by combining the best estimates, and I’ve used low estimates, you can’t have precise figures but you can tell a general story. The big picture patterns are striking.

Atlas: It’s clear in your article that famine isn’t an African phenomenon despite the fact many people probably think of it that way. Why do we have that wrong?

Alex de Waal: I think over the last generation the most common and best-known episodes of famine have occurred in Africa, but historically this hasn’t been the case. Over the last 150 years, there were huge famines associated with imperial conquest, affecting all of the third world—South Asia, East Asia, Africa, Latin America, too. But then, for the next period we’re concerned with in the middle part of the 20th century—from the First World War to the Second—the epicenter of famine was in the Middle East, eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, and the eastern front during World War Two. Notably, this included the Nazi Hunger Plan, which was a plan to kill 30 million people by starvation, which, fortunately, wasn’t achieved, although many millions of people died. In East Asia, China, Southeast Asia, famines were all associated with war and totalitarian governments. Then, after World War Two, the biggest famines were associated with totalitarianism in Asia—most infamously the famine in China, which was the worst on record, and also Cambodia. Overall, 60-odd percent of famine mortality has been in Asia, nearly 20 percent in Europe, and about 10 percent in Africa. It’s really only because of the recency of African famines that they dominate our imagination today.

Atlas: What else particularly struck you?

Alex de Waal: One of the things I find most striking is that our Western imagination of famine is still dominated by ideas of natural disaster and overpopulation and, empirically, these actually have only a tenuous or non-existent link to recent famines. Even while the population of the world has grown massively over the last 150 years, famine mortality has dropped precipitously. That’s even true in countries that were, for a while, famously associated with famine, such as Ethiopia. Ethiopia has now successfully prevented famine, just as India did in previous decades. I think the imagery we have—the paradigm in our heads of famine as being caused by natural disasters and crops withering and so on, needs to be discarded. We need, therefore, to bring into focus the role of human agency.

There are two sides to this. One is the effectiveness of humanitarian response; this has saved many millions of lives. The decline over the last 30 years in famine mortality is to a considerable degree attributed to the effectiveness of international humanitarian response, which reaches much further and more deeply than before and with a professionalism and effectiveness that we never had before. So, for example, child nutrition technologies are far more effective today. Children are saved today who, 30 years ago, would have died. Infectious disease outbreaks are prevented that would have killed thousands a few decades ago. There’s been enormous progress, which is to be commended and preserved at a time when international aid is under threat.

At the same time, humanitarian aid cannot deal with the political causes. To raise funds from the public, aid agencies tend to depoliticize these crises. They use images that aren’t politically challenging. Even when talking about Yemen, which is entirely a political famine, with no element of natural disaster. The imagery of starving people is often presented in such a way so as to take the political sting away. We’re caught in a trap. We want to respond effectively and we do, but we’re poor at dealing with the political causes of famine.

Atlas: Do you see ways in which those political causes could better be addressed or that we could at least move in that direction?

Alex de Waal: This really is the endpoint of my article. It’s the thrust of my piece and of my forthcoming book, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, which will be out in 2018. The argument I put forward is that we need various forms of accountability. We need political accountability and, in the case of violations of international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity, we need criminal accountability. It’s not so much that the law is deficient, although it could be stronger. We don’t seem to care enough about criminalizing starvation or calling into account leaders who cause starvation.

Atlas: Are there ways in which the public might get involved usefully to address hunger and urge accountability you just talked about?

Alex de Waal: I believe so. I’m encouraged by the fact that the famine in Yemen—the greatest humanitarian crisis today, which is entirely preventable and caused by the Saudi war along with complicity by other parties too—I’m encouraged that political leaders in the US and Europe are standing up and saying this is unacceptable. I think if there were more public outrage, if voters would write to their representatives and say “Stop this. Make sure our governments are not associated in any way or complicit in any way,” I think we can not only bring an end to that crisis, but we can also set a marker that these sorts of famine crimes are not acceptable in the contemporary world.

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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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