How Can Famines Be Ended?

By de Waal, Alex | New Internationalist, April 2018 | Go to article overview

How Can Famines Be Ended?


de Waal, Alex, New Internationalist


What would it take to end starvation? A few years ago, this question was moot as famines appeared to have disappeared - or at least to have been confined to Stalinist anachronisms such as North Korea. But with the disturbing resurgence of famine in 2017, the issue becomes salient once more.

Famine is a political phenomenon; starvation happens when some (powerful) people inflict it on other (less powerful) people. It's manmade - and the gendered word is deliberate. It's also a complex, compound evil - each famine is a vortex where different factors converge and combine.

The most commonly proposed formulae for ending famine are destined to fail because they don't put the politics first. Let me outline four false solutions: namely, green revolution technology; population control; more aid; and early warning systems. In each case there's a valid point to be made - but also a simplistic myth and a possibly dangerous agenda.

I will then raise an alternative and controversial suggestion - that the road to eliminating mass starvation is to prosecute the people who perpetrate it. This has possibilities and perils. Last, I will propose that ending famine demands the kind of broad-based public campaign that has challenged other great common evils of our time.

A Green Revolution for Africa

Try a Google Images search using the terms 'famine' and 'starvation' and you will quickly find a powerful reinforcement for the idea that famine is synonymous with drought and food shortage in Africa. A search in January 2018 yielded an overwhelming number of pictures of hungry African children, along with photographs of droughts, crop failures and deserts, and a few historic images from Ireland and from colonial era famines. From the top 250 images (125 'famine' and 125 'starvation'), just a handful showed scenes of war or concentration camps.

It is often assumed that famine is an overwhelmingly African problem, that comes about because the land is too dry and because the Green Revolution - which expanded crop yields in South Asia a generation ago - bypassed the continent. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. According to the World Peace Foundation, which has recorded 58 episodes of famine and forced mass starvation that killed 100,000 or more people since 1870, of a total of just over 100 million famine deaths, just under a tenth are African. Only an eighth are caused by natural hazards - mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Food production shortfalls certainly contribute to famines, but for every single famine of the past 50 years, they have been far less important than war, dictatorship and economic mismanagement. In many terrible famines, such as Cambodia's Year Zero under the Khmer Rouge (when 1.2 million people died of starvation between 1975-79), farming technologies were next-toirrelevant because the starvation was politically driven. Much the same is true of today's crises in Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen.

Limiting population growth

Ever since Thomas Malthus's Essay on Population in 1798, there's been a popular belief that famine is nature's corrective to overpopulation - just as the number of wild goats on an island could grow to a point where they eat all the vegetation and die of starvation.

The population argument conveniently blames the poor for their own poverty, and is a nice alibi for agro-industries to promote industrial farming as the solution to a global problem. It's a beguiling metaphor for our reckless exploitation of the planet's resources - and for sure there are limits to our appetites for consumption.

But while the number of people in the world is one factor in the global resource equation, it isn't the most important. Most of the consumption of nonrenewable resources is done by the developed world; most of the destruction of the world's fisheries and forests is the work of corporate capitalism, not the poor. And there's an empirical challenge to the Malthusian thesis. …

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