Why We Are Less at Risk of Major Famines Today than in the Past

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Cormac Ó Gráda is professor of economics at University College Dublin. His books include Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce (Princeton, 2006), Ireland’s Great Famine: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Dublin, 2006) and Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009).  His current research is mainly on living standards in pre-industrial England and on twentieth-century famines.

Famines are an emotive and troubling subject, not only because of what they do to people and communities, but because they expose the darkest side of human nature.  Famines produce their saints and their heroes, but they turn many more ordinarily decent people into sinners.  When starvation threatens and the instinct for self-preservation takes over, communal and family loyalties ebb.  Then the most terrible acts become commonplace.  These include child abandonment, voluntary enslavement, opportunistic land grabbing, rising criminality and worse.  Famines don’t just kill people, they make them behave in ways which are unimaginable in normal times, and therefore unimaginable to us.

People born in countries with relatively recent histories of famine—such as Ireland or Ukraine—sometimes like to see themselves as vicarious victims, but many of the ‘victims’ must also be—and this is the part that is difficult to accept—vicarious child abandoners, thieves, land-grabbers, black marketeers, and worse.

Famine at its most brutal can lead to cannibalism. Deuteronomy 28: 57 describes a mother who "shall eat [her children] for want of all things secretly in the siege and straitness," and the history of famine is replete with references to cannibalism.  Sometimes cannibalism is evoked as a powerful metaphor for horror and disaster, so that distinguishing fact from fiction is difficult.  But it was probably more widespread in the past than modern Western cultural sensibilities can readily grasp.  In the 1920s an American missionary organization in China reported "several" authenticated cases of cannibalism in its pleas for donations.  Theodore White’s graphic account of the Henan famine of 1942-3 refers to one Mrs. Ma who was charged with eating her little girl; she merely denied that she had killed it.  Recent evidence on the sale of human meat in Anhui Province during the Great Leap Forward Famine of 1959-61 is therefore in a long tradition.  The Soviet famines of the early 1920s and 1930s also yielded hard evidence of cannibalism, both in the more restricted sense of survivors eating the flesh of unfortunates who had succumbed and in the sense of victims being murdered for consumption.  At the height of the Leningrad famine-blockade in 1941-42, hundreds were prosecuted for cannibalism, and meat patties sold in the city’s Haymarket may have contained human flesh, though no questions were asked.

In Ireland too the long history of famine is pockmarked with references to cannibalism, although hard evidence for it during the Great Famine of the 1840s is lacking.  In India too the widespread famines of the nineteenth century do not seem to have given rise to cannibalism.  Nor did famine victims in Biafra in the late 1960s and in the Sahel in the early 1970s—and in Africa more generally since—resort to cannibalism either.  Perhaps fears that the corpses of famine victims were infected were a constraint, even allowing for the risks taken by those on the verge of starvation.  In the end, although culture would seem to matter even in extreme situations, the historic evidence also is a reminder of the awfulness of famine and of the fragility of the human civilizing process.

Famines are an emotive topic for yet another reason: there is always the suspicion or the belief that they could have been avoided, but for the lack of compassion or preventive action from the powerful and the wealthy.  The crimes of the uncaring are often reckoned in the ensuing death toll.  The authorities in turn try to talk down the number of famine deaths. At the height of the Great Bengali Famine of 1943-44 the secretary of state for India claimed that the weekly death toll was about one thousand, though "it might be higher."  This amounted to virtual denial of a catastrophe claiming closer to forty thousand weekly at the time. 

In the absence of hard data, mortality gets talked up or down.  Vietnam in 1945, China in 1959-61, and North Korea in the mid-1990s are well-known examples.  Particularly controversial are estimates of death toll in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s.  Demographers nowadays reckon the Soviet famines of 1931-33 to have cost up to six million lives in total, including one million in Kazakhstan.  Yet a joint statement adopted by sixty-five UN member-states in 2003 refers to "the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine (Holodomor), which took from seven million to ten million innocent lives and became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people."  It must be said that no serious historian, even in Ukraine, accepts this propagandistic toll, which incidentally exceeds the six million usually associated with the Jewish holocaust. 

As Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen has noted, famines and democracy don’t mix.  Representative government and a free press are more likely to nip famine in the bud, since regimes that allow famine are less likely to be re-elected.  It is hard to think of any exception to Sen’s rule.  In Ireland in the 1840s the press was relatively free, but Ireland then was at best only a semi-democracy where the franchise was confined to a very small propertied and professional minority.  Niger in 2004-05 might be considered an exception—indeed Médecins sans frontières claim that electioneering in the months before the crisis distracted attention away from the impending threat of famine—but, in the event, the famine of 2005 turned out to be so minor in terms of excess deaths as to hardly qualify as a true famine.  Alas, democracy and extreme poverty don’t mix either; the forces that increase the viability of democracy also reduce the likelihood of famine.  At the same time, campaigns to increase transparency and civil rights in poor countries are likely to reduce the risk of famine, since they place those responsible for relieving the poor under pressure.

Recent famines, such as those in Malawi (2002) and Niger (2005), have been small compared to earlier famines. For all the publicity these famines attracted in the media, excess mortality in both cases was, happily, miniscule.  But Niger confirmed once again that stories of everyday malnutrition and destitution are less newsworthy than the famines which they sometimes have given rise.  The problem in countries like Niger is not so much the danger of famine as the extremely high levels of non-crisis mortality.  In sub-Saharan Africa generally, where famine remains a threat, the demographic impact of HIV/AIDS in the recent past has been much greater than that of famines. 

As for predictions about the future of famine, it is worth noting that past prognostications have rarely got it right.  Most notorious, perhaps, is biologist Paul Ehrlich’s doomsday forecast in the late 1960s that in the following decade "hundreds of millions of people" were bound to succumb to famine "in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."  The Ethiopian famine of 1974 forced Wallace Aykroyd, a calmer scholar, to add an epilogue to his The Conquest of Famine, in which he tempered optimism with the hope that the knowledge and experience gained in Ethiopia would prove useful in relieving famines elsewhere in future.  In the 1980s fear of global overpopulation prompted hard-line (and high-profile) Malthusian writers to predict the Great Die-Off in which some four billion people would perish. 

It would thus be foolhardy to predict far into the future.  In several respects, however, the outlook for the next decade or so is more hopeful today than in the past.  The good news, as I argue in the final chapter of Famine: A Short History, is that the huge increase in global living standards since 1900 and the accompanying globalization of disaster relief mean that poor but peaceful regions of the world are less at risk nowadays than even in the 1980s.  It also helps that there are no Stalins, Hitlers, or Maos on the horizon. Nor is the current economic recession, though worrying and severe, likely to last. After all, the 2006-07 spike in world food prices, which some commentators deemed a sign of things to come, is now almost forgotten.  Global food production per head has been rising, and the necessary medical technology well understood.  Even the poorest nations in the world, with the possible exception of Niger and Afghanistan, have already embarked on the transition towards smaller family size.  Famine early warning systems are in place, and there are hundreds of NGOs eager and ready to help. 

Thus the prospects of avoiding famines across the globe during the next decade or so are probably better than they ever have been.  Famines can and must be avoided.  Global warming is an undoubted threat, but a more distant one: though likely to impact drought-prone areas disproportionately, it is unlikely to be severe enough to increase the risks of famine in the short run.  Nonetheless, it would be foolhardy to rule out the return of famines of biblical proportions sometime in the future.  The recurrence of major war, regional or international, can never be ruled out.  Such an eventuality would mean that all bets about eradicating famine are off.

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Randll Reese Besch - 6/30/2009

Both here an abroad to massive famines with such a rickety infrastructure and logistical trains for farming and food. Climate change, water deficeit, contamination from flooding, overpopulation, food shortages (1 billion starving now) can add up very easily. It could all come tumbling down like a house of cards. I wish this had been addressed.