The Political Nature of Famine

Contrary to popular belief, famine is not merely a result of a dearth of food availability. Rather it is a result of the social and economic structuring in place at the time.


To explain the impotence of famine relief and food aid efforts, it is necessary to examine the root causes of chronic starvation and famine. Advantage or access to goods (what Amartya Sen refers to as entitlements) requires a specific set of social circumstances. An entitlement for command over food is dependent on class and social standing.  For example, during famines in Bengal and Bangladesh the lack of food affected a laborer more than it affected a subsistence farmer. This is because a farmer has the endowments, or productive capability, to turn his livelihood into food, making it easier to cope with famine. Whereas a laborer is dependent on the continued functioning of a capitalist market economy in which specialized food production is widely available. Thus, the political conditions of society and economic institutions (war, social revolt, exchange disturbances) are the determining factors in transforming a food dearth into a famine crisis. It is a misconception, then, that famine and chronic hunger are technical problems which can be helped by NGO programs and aid. James Ferguson’s notion of an anti-politics machine applies to how NGOs, in order to receive donations and gain access to a foreign country, must simplify the matter as non-political and ingratiate themselves to that country’s government. According to Alex De Waal, Famine can only be prevented when a political contract is established with the government and they are held accountable for famine prevention. NGOs and Food Aid do not have the ability to inspire public action and social movements that would effectively render the issue of famine political. Food Aid is ineffective because of the many and complicated incentives driving it. Food Aid is donor-oriented, meaning it is not geared towards the alleviation of food insecurity but rather the donors’ goals of foreign policy aims and surplus disposal. For example, the argument between North Korea and the United States to emblazon grain bags with the American flag and the instance of raisins being included unnecessarily on humanitarian list of rations for the sake of American raisin growers, are both examples of the political motivations of Food Aid. As a result of this unfocused assortment of interests, Food Aid does little to either alleviate hunger or to improve foreign policy and national agriculture interests.


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