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

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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.

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Power & Politics in the Horn of Africa

Alex de Waal is one the world's most well versed scholars on East African politics, and has been intimately engaged with the region for decades. His 2015 book, "The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power," is essential reading for those interested in the region, or the intersection of politics and power broadly. Continuing the "thought provokers" series, a selection of quotes for this book follows, although highly recommended for full-length reading. 

On the political marketplace, de Waal argues the process:

  • "…is fundamentally inhumane, reducing human beings to mere instruments and commodities, mutating public goods into private ones, and co-opting good intentions to achieve malign outcomes. We see politicians manipulating commendable policy goals such as state-building and peacekeeping as mechanisms to accumulate power and money, while perpetuating those same miseries that gave rise to those politics in the first place." (p. 4)

On the gendered political marketplace:

  • "The political marketplace is gendered. The politicians in every chapter in this book are male. The social values and norms of a political marketplace are militarized and masculine. Those who rise in these political systems are those who can best mobilize money and deploy violence; not only men but men who are ruthless and inured to sentiment, who reduce human beings and human dignity to instruments and commodities. I do not develop a gender critique of the political marketplace in this book. However, the gendered nature of the business of power should be evident on every page." (p. 34)

On politicking and power:

  • "After the government crackdown on opposition protesters, human rights organizations and western governments vigorously condemned Ethiopia. Meles was confident that his government would ride out the storm: the US would continue to support Ethiopia because of counter-terrorism, and the Europeans would speak harsh words but continue their aid because Ethiopia was a shining example of poverty reduction and progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. He was right." (p. 169)
  • "In November 1989, SPLA and Ethiopian troops crossed the border at Kurmuk and were poised to take the town of Damazin, and the nearby Blue Nile dam that generated Khartoum's electricity supply. The Sudanese army was helpless – and was saved only by a secret commando action by the EPLF, which defeated the SPLA and the Ethiopians in January of 1990. In August of that year, President Bashir cautious alignment with Saudi Arabia was overruled by the leader of the Sudanese Islamists, Hassan al Turabi, who declared Sudan's support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This caused a deep financial crisis, and the Sudanese regime was saved only by the weakness of the SPLA – which collapsed after its sponsor, Menguistu, was overthrown – and remarkably creative political-business management" (p. 43-44).

On Somaliland:

  • "Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from Somalia in May 1991 and set up a government that, more than two decades on, is functional but not internationally recognized. It has held a succession of competitive elections in which the loser has gracefully accepted his loss – including a presidential election in April 2003 that was decided by just eighty votes out of 675,000. The second-placed candidate, Ahmed Silanyo, gracefully ceded defeat to Dahir Kayin. Silanyo went on to win the 2010 elections by a handsome margin, and Kayin duly handed over power. Somaliland's political stability is an exception not only in Somalia but more widely in the region, and this small country of 3.5 million – a third of whom live in the capital city Hargaisa – has become the focus of a small but fascinating branch of comparative political science." (p. 130)
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