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.

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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) 

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Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement

Priscilla Claeys's "Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement: Reclaiming Control" (2015) had some high level support and praise (Jun Borras, Olivier De Schutter, etc). The beginning of the abstract reads: "Our global food system is undergoing rapid change. Since the global food crisis of 2007-2008, a range of new issues have come to public attention, such as land grabbing, food prices volatility, agrofuels and climate change. Peasant social movements are trying to respond to these challenges by organizing from the local to the global to demand food sovereignty. As the transnational agrarian movement La Via Campesina celebrates its 20th anniversary, this book takes stock of the movement's achievements and reflects on challenges for the future. It provides an in-depth analysis of the movement's vision and strategies, and shows how it has contributed not only to the emergence of an alternative development paradigm but also of an alternative conception of human rights."

For those interested in La Via Campesina and the emergence of legal approaches (via human rights), this is a useful resource. With regard to international legal advocacy, Claey offers some interesting experiences (namely the role of: critical junctures, networks and allies, framing and re-problematizing):

  • "Very few 'new rights' that emerge from the grassroots find their way onto the international human rights agenda (Bob 2010b). How did peasant organizations succeed in getting support for a process of negotiation of a Declaration on the Rights of Peasants at the UN? Three success factors are worth highlighting here. First, the global food crisis of 207-8 put the spotlight on smallholder farmers and gave peasant activities unprecedented access to international arenas to advance their demands." (p. 60)
  • "Second, Via Campesina's demand for a new instrument was endorsed by a number of key actors who helped identify the 'legal opportunities' (Israel 2003) that could be seized at the HRC. The close ties, shared diagnosis and trust built between Via Campesina activists and human rights experts over the years played a central role in enabling them to move swiftly, and strategically. Without that endorsement, peasant activists would not have been able to advance their claims at the HRC." (p. 60)
  • "Third, Indonesian peasant activists succeeded in framing their claims as human rights abuses, and in bringing their claims to the attention of peasant organizations in other countries, first in South-East Asia, then the world over. Most importantly, they chose not to depict their grievances as abuses of well-accepted human rights." (p. 61)

On the latter point, the author elaborates later in the text, one quote from that:

  • "Diagnostic work is crucial because it enables 'system attributions' (McAdam et al. 1996, 9); it allows (potential) movement constituents to attribute everyday problems to global and structural mechanisms, and to overcome the 'fundamental attribution error', the tendency of people to explain their situation as a function of individual deficiencies rather than features of the system (Ross 1977). In the case of Via Campesina, diagnostic work has involved identifying injustices (appropriation of natural resources, forced rural migration, broken families and traditions, hunger, poverty and despair), victims (people of the land) and culprits (large financial institutions, neoliberal states, agribusiness and other transnational corporations)." (p. 82)
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The History of Famine and Epidemics in Ethiopia

Richard Pankhurst made significant contributions to the study of history in Ethiopia (see a listing of some of his works here). In this book, "The History of Famine and Epidemics in Ethiopia Prior to the Twentieth Century" (1985), published by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Richard Pankhurst brings together a series of others works:

  1. The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1889-92 (1961) University College Review
  2. The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-92: A New Assessment (1966) Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
  3. The History of Famine and Pestilence in Ethiopia Prior to the Founding of Gondar (1972) Ethiopian Medical Journal
  4. The Earliest History of Famine and Pestilence in Ethiopia (1973) Ethiopian Medical Journal
  5. Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia (1961)
  6. Economic History of Ethiopia 1800-1935 (1968)

What I liked from the book is the clear outline of the complex interaction of factors that result in famine and epidemic. Rarely is it ever a single factor. This approach may have been more common in historical works than in development studies in decades past. Pankhurst outlines how in the 1888-92 famine, the first factor was animal disease, which contributed to agricultural failure as fields could not be plowed. The failure of rains also contributed to poor agricultural yields and a hot and dry season resulted in more locust, which compounded the losses. As famine struck, prices for all food commodities rose, deepening the food insecurity situation. As people began to die, poor sanitation resulted in the spread of human disease, and further loss of human life.

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