Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine

​de Waal, Alex. 2018: Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Cambridge: Polity Press. 264 pp. $24.95. ISBN: 9781509524679

As available:

Readers with an interest in the topic of famine will have frequently come across the name Alex de Waal throughout the past three decades. As a researcher, practitioner and advocate, de Waal has been at the forefront of integrating issues of power and politics into our collective understanding and engagement with famine. Along these lines, his most recent book, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, highlights the role of politics and power in causing (and preventing) famine while also challenging an overemphasis regarding concerns of population growth and extreme climatic events (as well as climate change generally). The book does not seeks to answer why famine occurs, but rather why mass famine events have become so rare. The book's 11 chapters are divided into three sections that deal with the history of famine, processes that nearly led to the elimination of famine, and factors that may perpetuate famine in the future.

Given the topic of the book, readers might not expect it to be a positive story. However, it largely is. This is doubly surprising given the tendency to focus on those in immediate need in the present while insufficiently recognizing the progress made in reducing the frequency and severity of famine around the world in the longer term. Alex de Waal describes the change as remarkable, and indeed it has been. In contemporary history, an average of 10 million people died each decade due to famine-related causes; however, after the 1970s, this declined substantially—which occurred alongside significant increases in global population. This is contrary to the frequently referenced Malthusian theory, which, despite being repeatedly proven incorrect, returns as a 'zombie' theory in popular discourse (as the author describes it, drawing on Ulrich Beck), refusing to be put to rest. This is a point de Waal returns to later in the book, when exploring potential new causes of famine.

The progress made toward eliminating famine, de Waal argues, is a combination of changes. Primary amongst these, he cites the decline of war and forced migration, the decline in dictatorship, and the rise of democratization and freedoms. Secondary changes outlined in the book include improvements in public health, more robust humanitarian response (excepting humanitarian intervention), demographic changes, advances in agricultural production, greater coverage of markets, economic growth and declines of poverty. As with efforts to understand the causes of famine, these steps made in eliminating famine are not explained by a single factor, but often the confluence of multiple changes. A case study of Ethiopia's progress demonstrates that eliminating famine can be done.

The future looked promising to Alex De Waal. Until 2017, when the spread of a form of political engagement he terms 'transactional politics' (re)emerged, a form of international engagement wherein power and politics have taken a confrontational approach, rather than a collective one. In the process, the 'logic of political power – ultimately, power over who is entitled to live and who doesn't enjoy that right' has fostered famines in places such as Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen (p. ix). Humanitarian activity that helped reduce the occurrence and severity of famine has experienced a shift. More political actors are using humanitarian activities as tactics to achieve other aims, not as initiatives that ought to be pursued in and of themselves. Recent examples of this include the lack of action of the food blockade of Yemen, and starvation as an instrument of conflict in Syria. These are the result of political choices, occurring with our collective knowledge. Famines of the present, and of the future, the author predicts, will not be due to drought, but will primarily be political. de Waal terms the broader shift of international norms 'counter-humanitarianism' that 'legitimizes political and military conduct that is indifferent to human life or subordinates human life to other ends' (p. 196). While much of this book brings together de Waal's decades of experience, the forward-looking components may be its strongest new contribution.

In addition to the worrisome trend of counter-humanitarianism, the author explores other potential processes that may see a resurgence of famine. The most apparent of these, based upon case studies from the past two decades, is the role of conflict and failed states, as well as the risks of globalized markets, such as in the form of commodity price spikes. In the process of analysing potential new causes of famine, de Waal challenges some of the alarmist discourse about looming famines, such as that often presented in climate change narratives. An unintended outcome of the unjustified fear of 'impending global scarcity' may be inappropriate and/or harmful responses that 'can make matters worse' (p. 176). The author concludes with a sobering note that while we have witnessed great progress, 'there are multiple pathways to famine, each of them intrinsically unlikely, but growing less so' (p. 196). Throughout the book, de Waal stresses the need for continued work of 'codifying and prosecuting' (p. 202) famine crimes as one of the critical mechanisms that need to be instituted in our collective effort to eliminate famine.

Alex de Waal aimed to advance our understanding of famine with this work. He has aptly done so. Some critics may question the data points in the book, which the author was at pains to explain are at best approximations, and in the process miss the point of the book. This should be on the essential reading list of anyone seeking to understand famine and all who seek to eliminate it from the human experience. Students and scholars alike will find this an important book, and it should become standard reading in courses dealing with famine in Anthropology, Development Studies, International Relations, Political Science and beyond. The book is clearly written and is accessible to a broad audience. It also infuses de Waal's practical engagement and activism with his research and the available evidence, making it an enjoyable and informative read.

Ethiopia Engraved

When European travellers and writers came to Ethiopia before the age of photography, the made engravings of what they saw. Richard Pankhurst and Leila Ingrams collected these engravings, from 1540 to 1900, and published them in "Ethiopia Engraved: An Illustrated Catalogue of Engravings by Foreign Travellers from 1681 to 1900" (1988). The period following this time period also has a collection, "Ethiopia Photographed".

This book is divided into sections of location (Aksumite Origins and Christian Churches; Gondar; Adwa, Dabra Tabor and Other Towns of the North and North-West; Shawa and its Towns; Harar; Massawa and the Gulf of Aden Ports; Eritrea) people (Tewodros; Yohannes; Menilek and Taytu) and some categories (Scenery of the North; Wildlife of Ethiopia; the Travellers and the Artists; Ethnography, Geography and History; Birds, Butterflies, Fauna, Fish, Flora and Reptiles). The book provides glimpses into the past. It also highlights how engravings are also artistic renditions, in this case of European views of Ethiopia. Romanticized and idealized or exaggerated. In other cases, the engravings look much like things can see today, such a scenery portraits and buildings.

An excellent collection for those interested in Ethiopian history.

Knowledge and Global Power

When I picked up "Knowledge and Global Power: Making New Sciences in the South" (2019), by Collyer, Connell, Maia and Morrell, I had high expectations. We need more in-depth analyses of how knowledge is produced, disseminated, validated and valued, particularly from the perspective of the Global South. It begins: "The former imperial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the rich countries of Europe and North America that we collectively call the global North, are still central in the knowledge economy. In this book we examine how their influence persists. But our focus is on the knowledge work of the system's periphery, the majority of the world, the global South." (p. xv)

The book covers three research thematics (HIV, climate change, gender). The "South" in this case was geographic (Australia, Brazil and South Africa), not necessarily the 'Global South' as it is normally used. In this sense, some questions that might be asked, such as in a place like Malawi or Burundi, were not asked. I also felt the methodology (qualitative, interviews) might have be better as a mixed-methods (one chapter used Web of Science, for some analytics) to show how the issues raised are experienced or how they manifest in a broader way. Given the large number of identifiers, it was not clear why anonymity was used – seems highly likely these individuals could be identified, if one wanted. Acknowledging their expert knowledge might give credit to these voices of the south.

One interesting reflecting on the changing landscape of knowledge work: "Surprisingly, scholars in our Southern tier countries (who published indexed by WoS between 2011 and 2016) almost unanimously completed their PhDs in their own countries… The high level of local PhDs in our three Southern tier countries suggests that while previous generations of scholars were forced to travel overseas to complete PhDs due to the lack of training facilities in their own countries; current scholars have access to satisfactory programs and are able to complete their education locally" (p. 118). While this is a positive indication of capacity in the south, it was certainly influenced by the countries selected (Australia, Brazil and South Africa).

Ethiopia Photographed (1867-1935)

Richard Pankhurst and Denis Gerard are well known to Ethiopians and those interested in Ethiopia. One of the many publications in their names, is "Ethiopia Photographed: Historic Photographs of the Country and its People Taken between 1967 and 1935" (1996). The book has a brief historical introduction, and it followed by hundreds of photographs spread over 168 pages, each with short descriptions.

The book has six sections: (1) Historic Personalities: From Tewodros to Haile Sellassie, (2) Historic Towns: North, South, East and West, (3) Addis Ababa: the "New Flower", (4) Economic, Social and Cultural Life: Tradition and Diversity, (5) Innovation and Modernization, and (6) Preparing to Resist the Impending Invasion.

For those who have spent time reading about Ethiopian history, this book provides imagery to color the narratives. Photographs have their own biases; who takes them, who gets photographed, which areas are represented and which are not, and so forth. Given these limitation, the book is an excellent and unique collection.

Growing Up in New Guinea – Margaret Mead

Margaret Mean is one of Anthropology's focal early theorists. She has penned a number of books covering issues of childhood, gender, age and aging and sexuality. Amongst her fieldwork, she worked in New Guinea, during the period between WWI and WWII. The resulting book, "Growing Up in New Guinea" (1930) explores the educational process of infants, children and youth alongside providing a broader picture of the lifecycle and way of life.

Mead seeks to use anthropological study to understand human nature. She explains: "Isolated on small Pacific Islands, in dense African jungles or Asiatic wastes, it is still possible to find untouched societies which have chosen solutions of life's problems different from our own, which can give us precious evidence on the malleability of human nature." (p. 4) The approach was not one to answer a specific research question, but to learn with an open mind, something which has slightly been lost in Anthropology as students and researchers are required to clearly outline research questions in seeking admission and/or funding. Mean explains that she "made this study of Manus education to prove no thesis, to support no reconceived theories. Many of the results came as a surprise to me…" (p. 5).

On the power of culture and impact of education, Mead concludes: "Although education can not alter the fact that the child will be in most important respects like the culture within which he is reared, methods of education may have far-reaching effects upon the development in the child of that sum total of temperament, outlook, habitual choice, which we call personality" (p. 223). Throughout, Mead reflects on the Manus society with that of America, and to an extent Samoa (where she previously did fieldwork). As an example: "If we are horrified to see a baby sitting all alone in the end of a canoe with nothing to prevent his clambering overboard into the water, the Manus would be equally horrified at the American mother who has to warn a ten-year-old child to keep his fingers from under a rocking chair, or not to lean out the side of a car." (p. 27)

On anthropological study and anthropological work, Mead provides some outlines: "With the aid of writing and an analytic point of view, it is possible for the investigator to master in a few months most of the traditions which it takes the native years to learn." (p. 5). This description reads rather ambitiously, if not condescending. A more detailed description in the Appendix explains: "In order to acquire this technique, he has devoted a great deal of time to the study of different primitive societies and the analysis of the social forms which are most characteristic of them. He has studied non-Indo European languages so that his mind will adjust easily to linguistic categories which are alien to our own. He has studied phonetics so that he may be able to recognize and record types of sound difficult for our ears to distinguish and even more difficult for our organs of speech to pronounce, accustomed as they are to different phonetic patterns. He has studied diverse kinship systems and gained speed in handling kinship categories so that the Manus scheme, which results, for instance, in individuals of the same generation addressing each other by grandparent terms, is not a perplexing obstacle but falls readily into a clear and easily comprehended pattern of thought. In addition, he is willing to forsake the amenities of civilised life and subject himself for months at a time to the inconveniences and unpleasantness of life among a people whose manners, methods of sanitation, and ways of thought, are completely alien to him. He is willing to learn their language, to immerse himself in their manners, get their culture sufficiently by heart to feel their repugnances and sympathise with their triumphs." (p. 281-282) 

Ethio Djibouti Railways

Ethiopia is a landlocked nation (following the independence of Eritrea in 1993). It is also home to Africa's second largest population, around 108 million (following Nigeria). It has also been one of Africa's fastest growing countries economically, for over a decade, often putting up growth numbers on par with China (although starting from a much lower point). One of the challenges all this presents is getting goods into and out of the country as well as moving people within and beyond it. One option that the government has pursued is opening a train line from the capital of Addis Ababa to Djibouti (Ethio-Djibouti Railways). Djibouti is one of the main shipping ports Ethiopia uses. That train line was inaugurated in early 2018, at a cost of $4.5 billion. For Ethiopia, this is a major investment. It is also a signal of what is to come, as the country has plans to expand the rail system throughout the country and connect with neighbouring nations.

I struggled to find information about the train. The phone numbers do not work (including calling locally) and the stations within Addis Ababa did not provide information or tickets (the station departing from Addis Ababa is actually outside of town, in Lebu). This post shares information about the train (see some details in the image below) as well as some reflections on my recent trip on it.

A train runs from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, and back, on alternating days (see schedule below). The transport option sounds like a great way to travel the region - and avoid some of the older highways that have seen a lot of wear and tear. I took the train from Addis Ababa / Lebu to Dire Dawa. In theory, the train departs from one end of the train each morning. One of the main challenges has been livestock along the route (not all is fenced), causing accidents (these are large herds of goats, cattle and camels). As a result of livestock deaths, some herders were upset about this, and for a time the route was stopped. It now appears to be working - see the posted schedule below.

A few positive reflections:

  • The train departed from Addis Ababa on time
  • The station was run relatively well, with thorough security checks
  • You are to arrive at 7am, and depart at 8am from the Addis Ababa / Lebu station
  • The interior of the train is basic but all you need on a train
  • Airplane style seats with small tables, overhead luggage space
  • There is one train car for eating
  • For our Addis Ababa / Lebu to Dire Dawa route, it was not full and space to stretch out
  • With the space, it is a good option for kids (space to move, bathrooms)

A few negative points:

  • ​The toilets are a proper disaster
  • No formal food / drink service (bring what you need, including toilet paper)
  • There are frequent, non-scheduled, stops, resulting in delays
  • The Addis Ababa / Lebu - Dire Dawa trip took 10 hrs, we arrived at 6pm
  • The Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa / Lebu train arrived 2 hrs late from Djibouti
  • After departing late (3pm instead of 1pm) we arrived at Lebu Station at 12:30am (10.5 hrs)
  • There are seat numbers on the ticket, but these are not used, resulting in a mad rush for seats
  • For the Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa / Lebu train there were guys wired on khat and Coke
  • For the Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa / Lebu train there was no water in the sinks or toilets

In summary: It is slower than a rented car and bus. It is relatively cheap compared to a flight, but not much different than the bus. Offers more space than a bus, as well as a washroom. I am not likely to do again, but the experience was not terrible. 

For Ethiopia, this train is a major investment that is poorly run, poorly maintained and likely to worsen with time. In memory of the late Pius Adesamni, mediocre is not good enough. We can and should do better. 

​Each train car had broken windows, from rocks thrown at it by people along the route.

The Challenges of Drought

Ethiopia and its people struggle with food insecurity and recurring drought. What are the pathways to overcome these challenges? Access to land, the establishment of justice, the creation of cooperatives, agricultural input distribution, farmer training, environmental rehabilitation, irrigation infrastructure, building institutional capacity, creating effective governmental structures. These are components of the narrative we hear in 2019. One might think that over the decades we have used evidence to arrive at the right decisions. Interestingly, this list of actions for the pathway forward were penned in 1985 by the military government, as outlined in "The Challenges of Drought: Ethiopia's Decade of Struggle in Relief and Rehabilitation" (1985) published by the Relief & Rehabilitation Commission (a governmental agency). In addition to raising many questions about the potential impact of implementing the same policies and initiatives more than three decades later, the book also is a unique source of information on the 1972-74 famine and the responses the military government (largely known as the Derg) took from 1975 to 1985.

Some interesting reflections:

Little seems to have changed in some regards, in what could be the preamble to an NGO proposal today, the RRC states: "Having done so much to rescue so many people from starvation and death, the international community would be taking a logical step forward if it now helped to provide those inputs that are needed to bring an end to dependence on foreign assistance. There is at present a very good opportunity to enable people in the drought-prone areas to break out of their cycle of dependence and to start leading self-sufficient productive lives." (p. 13-14)

Similarly, the heavy-handed state action, often imposing on its people: "In February 1985 a law was enacted whereby all nationals will contribute one month's wages out of their annual earnings to help the victims of famine." (p. 14). So-called "voluntary" contributions were also done in recent years to help pay for the cost of building what could be Africa's largest hydroelectric dam.

A similar situation would result in the downfall of the government that made this claim: "Historians of the future may well see the drought of 1972-74 as the sorrowful setting from which a new society began to emerge. That drought was the catalyst that crystalized a nationwide anger, a defiant feeling that enough was enough, that henceforth the people's own needs would decide the framework for economic development. This anger also revealed that the subjective conditions were at last present for a modern society. By welcoming the overthrow of the self-seeking monarchy, the people at large had given their consent for the restructuring of social relations along more liberal and productive lines." (p. 106)

Yet another recurring theme: "There is no pleasure to be derived from pointing out that, despite the rigours of the drought, Ethiopia's poverty has much to do with this negative attitude of Western governments. The economic pressures that bear down on our export earnings and thus reduce the agricultural inputs we can buy abroad; the deteriorating terms of trade that decrease the purchasing power of our commodities; the protectionism that makes it difficult to get our produce on to the markets; and the interest payments on our foreign debt that leave us less foreign exchange with which to modernize our agriculture – these are destructive forces beyond our control but which the international community certainly could alter in our interests if it so desired. In this sense, Ethiopia's predicament is in part the direct result of the unfair nature of relations between the industrialized world and the developing countries." (p. 228) 

Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew

​Writing anthropological and ethnographic research can be quite challenging. The experiences are so rich that one may not know where to begin and where to end. In "Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco" (2016), Lawrence Rosen provides an exemplary model for anyone grappling with these questions. To do so, he draws on experiences in Morocco over a period of nearly sixty years. The book weaves in a diverse set of literature, from history to political science and works of fiction. Many books are biographical in nature, and at first glance this book might appear to be the story of four lives, which is partly is. However, the author uses these stories to tell other stories (the first delves into Moroccan history, the second a sort of Moroccan cultural Islam 101, the third and fourth cover the lives and experiences of Berbers and Jews). For anyone interested in Morocco, this is an excellent book. And, for anyone interested in how good anthropological and ethnographic research can be made accessible to a broader readership, this is an important read.

What one "feels" as a reader, is Rosen's deep respect for the people with whom he interacts. It is not easy to convey this (although the contrary is easy). For example, he opens the book by stating: "Ordinary people have intellectual lives. They may never have written a book; they may never even have read one. But their lives are rich in ideas, constantly fashioned and revised, elaborated and rearranged." (xi) Small comments throughout give one the sense of the authors love, appreciation, and respect for the people of Morocco. This might be common amongst anthropologists, but difficult to convey in academic works such as this (published by a university press; it, however, lacked in-text references in a number of places, including for direct quotes, which was not expected of such a publication).

Rosen also speaks about, and back to the discipline of Anthropology, throughout. I found these additions quite insightful, and coming from a seasoned anthropologist, quite informative. For example: "Anthropologists, Levi-Strauss once quipped, are radicals at home and conservatives abroad. Whether as the perpetrators or the victims of functionalism - a theory that emphasizes the contribution of each element to the continued working of a whole society but that, as a result, has always had trouble with accounting for change - we anthropologists often have to make a real effort when we study others to note the alterations such theories may obscure. And, wary of appearing judgmental, we often avoid discussions of discontinuities unless we can imagine ourselves allied with the politically correct side in the equation of power. Morocco in particular may not seem to lend itself to a focus on discontinuity. Instead it seems to embrace the continuous - one king for decades, one dynasty for centuries, one religion for millennia. It sometimes becomes an exercise in pressing the limits of predilection and profession, then, to attend to change when neither the subject nor the theories are altogether hospitable to it." (p. 231)

I was recently listening to a Professor in Ethiopia, who explained that often we miss some of the socio-cultural aspects which limit or enable opportunities. In that case, that while opportunities might be granted to certain people, they may not be able to benefit by them is the broader society refuses to purchase from them. A few lines from Rosen also reflected some of this socio-cultural complexity. For example, in a "list of occupations practiced by Muslims and Jews in Sefrou in 1924 is instructive in this regard. Note that all of the tinsmiths and porters, for example, were Jews. This, older Muslims told me, was because the tinsmiths were also plumbers and had to enter a Muslim's house where they would see the women and belongings of the homeowner. But whereas the Muslims were not eager for fellow Muslims to see such things in their homes, the Jews could be expected to remain discreet and, since they were not potential martial partners or political allies, their knowledge of one's household situation was not going to bear on subsequent relationships." (p. 290)

Rural Development Options

​In 1990, Ethiopia was on the cusp of a major transition. The military government was on the way out and the EPRDF would come to power in the following year. It was in this year that "Ethiopia: Options for Rural Development" (1990), edited by Siegfried Pausewang, Fantu Cheru, Stefan Brune and Estetu Chole, was published. The writing was done during the late 1980s, but nonetheless provides an interesting window into how development researchers and practitioners felt about rural development - and what was prioritized - at that moment in history. The book has contributions from major scholars, in addition to the editors there are contributions from Dessalegn Rahmato, Alula Pankhurst, Helen Pankhurst, and a host of others. This is quite a rich book and I feel it offers insight for very similar questions being asked today. It was published by Zed books and is relatively available (compared to most books from the 80s and 90s on Ethiopia, which can be very difficult to find).

Advice that seems oft repeated (and slightly romantic): "The authors share the view that rural development is not just a question of choosing one or the other model, and that the "socialism" versus "capitalism" dichotomy has little relevance to Ethiopian rural society. Small peasants in rural communities have their own forms of organizing cooperation and equity. Instead of importing solutions from Western or Eastern models, it would be worth considering indigenous knowledge and experience, and building on local institutions with traditions of mutual aid and solidarity." (p. 4)

Pausewang's remarks on land remain useful: "There is hardly any field in which so much confusion persists so obstinately as that of land tenure in Ethiopian tradition. Even the word itself is misleading: rather than tenure, it would be more correct to speak about access to land. Land holding practice changed over time, and tremendous variations can be observed not only in different regions, but even within the same village and family. Most confusing of all is the social dimension of conceptions about rights to land: a nobleman may have conceptions of his rights to the land which are completely different from those of "his" peasants. Moreover, urban viewpoints on rights over land are often completely different from the rural viewpoint. Many misconceptions are still reproduced in public debate as well as in scientific literature and official documents. Misunderstandings are repeated time and time again. Many official statistics have been produced in such a confused and misguided fashion that the figures are not even guesses; they bear simply no relation to the reality of land holding. Nevertheless, they are quoted in scientific findings, and continue to mislead everybody." (p. 38).

Resettlement was practiced before the military government in Ethiopia, however it is interesting to note that one of the main pushes for resettlement in the country (which contributed to the loss of potentially hundreds of thousands of lives) was the World Bank: "The World Bank and US-AID proposed resettlement programmes to relieve certain areas of Tigray and Wollo. By 1979, under the supervision of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), some 20,000 ha were under cultivation in 84 resettlement sites." (p. 26)

Pausewang hints at questions of governance in the concluding chapter. However, given it was written in the late 1980s and published in 1990, the lack of discussion about governance (not as policy, but as how governing occurs) is interesting. It reflects how we might be seeing the tree very clearly, but missing the forest. Makes one wonder what we are missing today, as we focus on a range of our own issues.

Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia

Dessalegn Rahmato is the leading scholar of land issues in Ethiopia, a subject he has been researching for decades. He has published a large number of works, including The Peasant and the State (2008). One of his earlier books, Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia (1985) covers the land reform of 1975, when Ethiopia made the most significant change to land tenure in its history. The book briefly covers the land tenure system before the reform, details the reform itself, and the peasant associations that were created and critical to the implementation of the reform. This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of land tenure in Ethiopia, and a particularly rich resource on the land reform of 1975.

Dessalegn Rahmato opens the book with the following: "In content and implementation, Ethiopia's agrarian reform can be considered as a thorough and radical one. It accomplished its purpose, namely the elimination of landlordism, quite speedily - a remarkable achievement considering that at the time the reform was promulgated the new government had not yet firmly established its presence in the countryside. The reform is undoubtedly the most important and the most far-reaching social measure of the Provisional Military Government of Ethiopia, and its impact on the fabric of rural society is far more profound than any of the reforms carried out since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy. In brief, it provides for the distribution of land to peasant households, and abolishes peasant dependence on the landlord, along with the landlord himself. All rural land is under 'public ownership', and tenancy and the hiring of labour have been done away with." (p. 9)

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