It seems quite obvious what the cause of famines are. They are caused by a natural disaster (flood, drought, disease etc) destroying crops. With less food more people go hungry, hence starvation occurs. It seems very simple and straight forward. But Amartya Sen has proposed a radical new explanation. He argues that it is not a lack of food that causes famines, but rather an inability of people to purchase the food.
I’ll admit that the idea that unemployment or poverty as a cause of famine is an initially surprising explanation, but there seems to be something in it. As an example Sen discusses the famine of 1974 in Bangladesh. This was not caused by a lack of food as the level of food available was at its highest in five years (see chart). Rather it was due to floods in the Northern district which caused unemployment among the farm labourers who usually worked there. Without money, they could not buy food and thus famine resulted.
Panic only made the situation worse. The available food was hoarded and prices sky-rocketed. While this made a lot of profits for some speculators, it pushed food out of the reach of many poor people.
Sen claims that “Famine has often taken place when statistics have shown little or no decline in food supply.” He also uses the example of the Bengal Famine of 1943 which was caused by the decline of workers’ wages.
It has often been claimed by nationalists that during the Irish Great Famine food was exported to England despite the starvation in Ireland. This is a particularly contentious point that needs a lot more research before it can be properly decided.
It is noted that Sudan and Ethiopia suffered severe famines in the early 1980’s. However the decline in food supply that caused this decline was relatively modest, only around 10%. In contrast, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Cape Verde suffered much larger declines in food yet they were able to avoid a famine. The difference is that these countries implemented public work programs to support otherwise destitute workers. By providing them with an income, they were able to purchase food and famine was averted. The government also sold food at low prices to prevent people benefiting from hoarding.
These public works needn’t be particularly large as in famines it is usually only the poorest 5-10 per cent who starve. This is the reason India has gone so long without a famine despite many droughts, whereas African countries regularly experience famines whenever there is a drought. It is not the supply of food that matters, but rather its distribution.
These facts led Sen to make the radical claim that “Famine is entirely avoidable if the government has the incentive to act in time.” This surprising and seemingly plausible claim that distribution of food is far more important the its overall level is a radical idea that could completely change how we deal with famines.