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Poverty and Development

Poverty and Development (3rd edn)

Tim Allen and Alan Thomas
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p. 1055. Hunger and Faminelocked

p. 1055. Hunger and Faminelocked

  • Tim Allen,
  • Shun-Nan Chiang
  •  and Ben Crow


This chapter focuses on hunger and famine. Chronic hunger, famine, and malnutrition are related concepts with different causes. Multiple forms of malnutrition coexisting in most countries require governing bodies to carefully design policies which consider linkages among different types of malnutrition. While 'food security' is still a popular framework to guide the interventions of development agencies and governments, other concepts help us to focus on different underlying causes of hunger. The Green Revolution helped increase global food security in some respects but made many populations more vulnerable. Meanwhile, the entitlement approach helped clarify the cause of famine in some circumstances, but recent famines are mostly a consequence of war and the choices made by governments. Famine mortality has declined dramatically, in large part because of better monitoring and more effective humanitarian assistance. However, acute hunger remains a massive problem.

5.1 Introduction

Access to enough food is a basic human need, yet hunger remains a persistent threat, or even a daily condition, for millions of people. For this reason, achieving ‘zero hunger’ and ‘ending all forms of malnutrition’ are explicit aspirations in the SDGs (Chapter 1).

It might be supposed that dealing with hunger and malnutrition is a straightforward matter of increased food production, but that is only part of the solution. Several major famines in the twentieth century happened when there was abundant food produced within the region (see Table 5.1). What’s more, farm workers, who might be expected to have the most immediate access to fresh produce, are among the most susceptible to chronic hunger. It is also the case that, while malnutrition remains a huge problem in many places (and not only in very poor countries), famines of the kind associated with famous humanitarian relief efforts in the past (such as the famine in Ethiopia in 1983–85) seem to have stopped happening.

Table 5.1 IPC food insecurity phase descriptions.

To interrogate these trends, the chapter poses the following questions:

How have conceptions of mass hunger changed since colonial times?

What are characteristics of acute and chronic hunger?

How does hunger relate to the overall availability of food?

What causes famine?

Why has famine mortality dropped so dramatically?

Is zero hunger a likely prospect?

5.2p. 106 Hunger as a focus of concern

Hunger as a human experience obviously has subjective elements. Some people tend to feel hungrier than others, and some people—and some groups of people—eat more than others. The basic idea of ‘hunger’ refers to the physiological condition of a person and thus creates difficulties to measure and evaluate social causes underpinning it (Allen 2007). Nonetheless, governments, development agencies, and scholars have developed and employed different approaches to measure hunger, to assess the social, physical, and demographic effects, and to attempt to prevent acute and chronic hunger in populations. This concern with collective hunger, at least in Europe, is particularly associated with the emergences of globalised charity and humanitarian aid in the nineteenth century.

Changing views of mass hunger

Before the mid-nineteenth century, mass hunger in a population was often seen either as an act of God and blamed on the sin or immorality of those going hungry, or attributed to nature, and therefore seen as nature’s way of preventing overpopulation. This latter idea was given force by the writings of Thomas Malthus (1798) who predicted that a growing gap between rising population and available food would mean that population size would need to be checked. If sexual restraint did not occur, the overall number of people would be reduced by epidemics and wars, or if that did not have the necessary effects, by mass starvation. In a famous phrase, he wrote that: ‘gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world’. Malthus actually changed his mind about this in his later work, noticing that famines of his own time, including the dreadful one effectively perpetrated by the British East India Company in Bengal during the 1770s, did not adhere to his theory (see Chapter 9 for more on Malthus and today’s ‘neo-Malthusians’).

Nevertheless, Malthus’s initial view fitted with the prejudices of the time and provided an easy way of blaming starvation on the people who were suffering. It was a perspective that could be readily applied, for example, to the Irish during the famine of the 1840s. Even those suggesting that policies were necessary to address the problem of widespread starvation tended to emphasise the need for employment in public works, rather than food relief. Some of the latter was provided, with very limited effects, but exports of food from Ireland during the famine continued at a remarkable rate, with thousands of ships carrying food to ports in England and Scotland. Governments or ruling classes would even sometimes explicitly justify hunger as a ‘disciplinary tool’ to teach poor people to work diligently to promote capitalist enterprise. Thus, James Vernon (2007) argues that today’s idea of ‘hunger’ goes hand in hand with the emergence of what might be thought of as modern society. Similarly, Jenny Edkins argues that ‘rather than being something that modernisation will solve, famines are produced by and symptomatic of modernity’ (2000: xvi).

Famine: An acute form of mass hunger leading to severe undernutrition and widespread death by starvation and disease. In its most dramatic manifestations, it is an uncontroversial concept. The term ‘famine’ is used both for the process leading to a situation of extreme mass hunger, and to the characteristics and consequences of that situation. However, it is less easy to distinguish between circumstances in which severe hunger is common and circumstances that can be called famine. The term famine allocates status to suffering, and using the word involves strategic choices. To promote a more objective assessment, acute food insecurity is nowadays commonly categorised using the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC), with only Phase 5 being recognised as famine (Table 5.1).

From a European perspective, the Irish famine was arguably less significant in making famine something that was unacceptable and needed to be ended than publicity about famines in colonial territories. In the late nineteenth century, journalistic accounts of starvation in Britain’s colonies: ‘connected people emotionally with the suffering of the hungry’ (Vernon 2007: 17). Also, critics of colonial rule linked hunger with the poverty that resulted from exploitative colonial policies. For example, Dadabhai Naoroji, an influential Indian political and social leader, who was elected to the British Parliament in 1892, was scathing about British policy in India, arguing that: ‘it is the drain of India’s wealth by them that lays at their own door the dreadful results of misery, starvation, and deaths of millions … Why blame poor Nature when the fault lies at your own door?’ (quoted in Vernon 2007: 51).

Although Malthusian ideas retained a currency, and famines continued to be associated with crop failures, by the early twentieth century mass hunger and famine were widely recognised as mainly consequences p. 107of poverty, war, political neglect, and economic exploitation. Starvation became a focus of humanitarian action and gave rise to organisations seeking to end hunger or at least ameliorate its consequences. After the First World War, publicity about starving children in Vienna and Berlin prompted Eglantyne Jebb, Dorothy Buxton, and others to establish the Fight the Famine movement, and in 1919, played a key role in establishing the Save the Children Fund, initially as a temporary initiative. During the Russian famine of 1921–22, Save the Children is reported to have provided food to more than 600 000 people, helping to keep them alive.

By the mid-twentieth century, a host of agencies had been set up with comparable approaches to suffering populations. Oxfam, for example, emerged out of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief set up in 1942, with the objective of providing assistance to starving people in German-occupied Greece. Also, again while the Second World War was still being waged, a conference on food and agriculture was convened on the initiative of US President Roosevelt in 1943, with 44 nations participating. They all signed a ‘Final Act’, which clearly stated that ‘poverty is the first cause of malnutrition and hunger’. Soon after the war ended, Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor, played a leading role in drafting and negotiating the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Food is included as one of the basic rights to an adequate standard of living.

In more recent times, food aid and humanitarian relief have become integral to development assistance by official donors, as well as the activities of hundreds of NGOs (as outlined in Box 5.1). The WFP and the FAO are among several UN agencies that specialise in feeding and assisting people in extreme need. Also, agendas for addressing acute and chronic hunger have been prioritised in numerous international agreements and protocols. Benchmarks have been set for global goals. Famines may still occur, but they are universally recognised as unacceptable. There is no doubt that perceptions have changed, and so too have hunger alleviation policies and responses to starvation. Nevertheless, trends in inequality and linked levels of food insecurity are matters of continuing concern. Four important ways in which these concerns have been highlighted at UN and international meetings are summarised in Box 5.2.

Box 5.1 International agencies combatting hunger

Within the UN system, several agencies work on issues relating to hunger, including WFP, UNICEF, the FAO, and the WHO (see Chapter 6). There are also state-led agencies with a nutrition-specific focus, such as USAID, DFID, and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). In addition, there are international NGOs, such as Helen Keller International, Action Against Hunger, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), OXFAM, and World Vision. Finally, there are research-based institutes such as the International Food Policy Research Institute, which publishes the Global Hunger Index, and researchers affiliated to different universities and research institutes. These organisations can mobilise national and international concern. They also facilitate several collaborative projects and platforms such as the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, the Global Nutrition Project, and the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification.

Box 5.2 Food security and a right to adequate food

Responding to a major famine in Bangladesh, a World Food Conference was convened by FAO in 1974. At the meeting, the concept of ‘food security’ was proposed as a framework to measure hunger (Sage 2016). The original framework of food security focused on food supply, but the approach evolved, and the current definition of food security includes other dimensions. The final report of a later World Food Summit in 1996, stated that food security ‘exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’. The declaration also reaffirmed adequate food as a basic human right—a right which had been included in Article 25 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It stated that: ‘We, the Heads of State and Government, or our representatives, gathered at the World Food Summit at the invitation of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, reaffirm the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.’ In a policy brief, published in 2006, the FAO elaborated four dimensions of food security, which have become the benchmark for different types of indicators to measure food-insecure situations:

Food availability—the availability of sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality, supplied through domestic production or imports.

Food access—access by individuals to adequate resources (entitlements) for acquiring appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.

Food utilisation—utilisation of food through adequate diet, clean water, sanitation, and healthcare to reach a state of nutritional wellbeing where all physiological needs are met. This brings out the importance of non-food inputs in food security.

Food stability—to be food secure, a population, household, or individual must have access to adequate food at all times. They should not risk losing access to food as a consequence of sudden shocks (e.g. an economic or climatic crisis) or cyclical events (e.g. seasonal food insecurity).

Other widely used terms that are related to food security include ‘food poverty’ and ‘food sovereignty’. Food poverty explicitly foregrounds the link between poverty and hunger. Some British scholars define food poverty as ‘the insufficient economic access to an adequate quantity and quality of food to maintain a nutritionally satisfactory and socially acceptable diet’ (O’Connor, Farag, and Baines 2016). This definition highlights ‘economic access’ as the core of ‘food poverty’. The basic meaning of ‘economic access’ is the capability of households and individuals to have access to food through the market and economic exchange. ‘Economic access’ is commonly differentiated with ‘physical access’, which indicates the capability to access food directly, such as growing food in the backyard. In contrast to food poverty, food sovereignty pays more attention to the issue around food production and people producing food.

‘Food sovereignty’ was proposed by a group of farmers named La Via Campesina at the 1996 World Food Summit. At that meeting they argued that ‘food security cannot be achieved without taking full account of those who produce food’. They emphasised the importance of control over food at the national and community level, and defined food sovereignty as ‘the right of each nation to maintain and develop its capacity to produce its basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity’ (La Via Campesina 1996). It is a concept that has become particularly associated with the needs of smallholder farmers in the Global South.

A further concept that has gained currency since the 2000s is right to adequate food. This goes beyond reiterating freedom from hunger as a basic human right, highlighting that every individual should be able to have access to food with dignity. Efforts have also focused on making this right one that is legally binding. Once admitted into law, ‘right to adequate food’ may become a legal obligation of governments and provide a formalised protection for the citizens from the threat of hunger (Beuchelt and Virchow 2012).

5.3 Categories of hunger and malnutrition

Chronic and acute hunger

When the news media, governments, or NGOs talk about hunger, they typically use ‘acute’ and ‘chronic’ to differentiate short-term and long-term conditions and impacts. Acute and chronic hunger may be associated with different causes and require different types of measurement and interventions.

Chronic hunger is when a person is not able to consume enough food to maintain a normal, active lifestyle over an extended period. Each year the UN reports on the number of people worldwide who suffer from chronic hunger, the latest figure, in a report released in September 2018, being 821 million.

Chronic hunger arises through a continuous failure to generate sufficient livelihoods opportunities.

On the other hand, acute hunger is when large food consumption gaps occur over a relatively short period, leading to high levels of malnutrition, excess mortality, and the potential for catastrophic famine. p. 108This may occur through the widespread breakdown of livelihoods for specific social classes or occupational groups.

Child stunting and child wasting are two terms used to describe the condition of hungry children. Child stunting, an indicator of chronic hunger, requires interventions that could tackle the root cause of poverty with nutritional assistance, such as feeding programmes, while child wasting, an indicator of acute hunger, requires immediate medical attention and treatment. It could be argued that these two indicators are not the most useful categories for initiating assistance efforts, because it may be too late to reverse a child’s condition by the time child stunting or wasting is identified. Nevertheless, child stunting and child wasting are often used as proxies to evaluate the nutrition condition of entire populations.

Child stunting: A form of chronic hunger, measured by the ratio between height and age. It is caused by long-term nutritional deprivation and could affect both the physical and mental development of children.

Child wasting: A form of acute hunger, measured by the ratio between weight and height. It is caused by insufficient food intake (protein and energy deficiency) in a short period and could lead to death.

Acute food insecurity

International agencies, such as FAO and the WFP, describe acute food insecurity as a situation in which a person’s inability to consume adequate food puts their lives or livelihoods in immediate danger. Standard indicators have become established, notably the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). p. 109The IPC phase descriptions are presented in Table 5.1. Only Phase Five is classified as ‘famine’—when extremely critical malnutrition and mortality levels are evident.

Forms of malnutrition

From the perspective of nutritional science, there are at least three general types of malnutrition in this sense: energy (calorie) and protein deficiency, micronutrient deficiency, and over-consumption of calories. Energy and protein deficiency occupied the primary attention of the international nutritional community and development agencies after the Second World War. When scholars mention chronic hunger or undernutrition, they usually refer to energy and protein deficiency. Since the late 1970s, the international nutritional community and development agencies gradually shifted their focus to the issue of micronutrient deficiency. Micronutrient deficiency is sometimes known as ‘hidden hunger’ because people who suffer from micronutrient deficiency may not be aware of the condition compared to the feeling of hunger in our daily lives. Nowadays, the four most commonly lacking micronutrients are vitamin A, iron, zinc, and iodine. In the late 1980s, over-consumption of energy, which could lead to overweight or obesity, began to catch the attention of academia. In the past two decades, an alarming trend in developing countries is the rapid rise of the overweight or obese population while energy and micronutrient deficiencies are still prevalent (see Chapter 6).

The issue of malnutrition has been accelerated by more globalised food systems, leading to changes in food production and dietary patterns. For example, in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth p. 110century, people in the Asia-Pacific region began to produce over-milled rice (white rice) at a large scale and trade it across countries. The emergence of the inter-Asia trade of white rice led to white rice consumption and was followed by the prevalence of a disease called beriberi, which resulted from vitamin B1 deficiency (De Bevoise 1995). In recent years, the ‘Westernisation’ of diet, with, for example, the global expansion of supermarkets in developing countries, is recognised by scholars as one of the main causes of obesity and non-communicable diseases in those countries (Hawkes 2006). Nutritionists have coined the term ‘double burden of malnutrition’ to describe the coexistence of nutritional deficiency and over-nutrition in the same country (this is a concept linked to the double burden of disease, discussed in Chapter 20).

5.4 Hunger and food availability

Reduction of malnutrition is never a linear history. On the contrary, history shows that transition into a new type of food production system is likely to be linked to degradation of nutritional conditions for particular social groups of the society. For example, the Industrial Revolution beginning in Britain in the eighteenth century pushed a large group of peasants into working in industries in urban areas and trapped these households into food insecure conditions. How to simultaneously address different forms of malnutrition, often in diverse urban and rural locations, has become a growing policy challenge for governments and development agencies, and in recent years, there has been a shift of focus in international approaches.

The Green Revolution

One reason why neo-Malthusians fear that insufficient overall food supply would lead to mass hunger abated was that, contrary to expectations, food production massively increased in parts of the world that were associated with high population growth. In the Indian sub-continent in particular, there was a worry in some quarters that famines would follow independence. In the event, the last famine in India was the 1943 famine in Bengal (see Section 5.5). Moreover, the parts of India and Pakistan most affected by the 1943 famine, from the 1960s, quite suddenly became major producers of food, not just for consumption in the region, but also for export. This was due to the initial success in raising crop yields of the so-called Green Revolution, and to advances in agri-biotechnology, especially genetic modification of crops.

Pioneering initiatives that underpinned the Green Revolution are associated with the work of Norman Borlaug, initially with wheat production in Mexico from the mid-1940s. After several years of work, Borlaug and his colleagues developed four new varieties of seeds which are insensitive to the length of daylight, less susceptible to pesticides, and very responsive to fertilisers. Because of these characteristics, the yields could be much higher than previous varieties under specific conditions. In other words, the original development of hybrid seeds already presumed the supplementary use of pesticides and fertilisers (Perkins 1998). Eventually, the distribution of hybrid seeds took on a standard form which combines seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides as one package, and the approach had remarkable effects. Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by the early 1960s, and wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India during that decade. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions massively increasing food supply. He is frequently credited with having saved over a billion people worldwide from starvation, a claim that that is based on the assumption that if overall food production had not grown so quickly, famines would have been inevitable.

Many scholars would now question that claim, arguing that the issue was almost always access to food, rather than potentially available food. Moreover, the Green Revolution also had huge social and environmental impacts in South America and Asia, in particular an increase of rural inequality, soil degradation, and the loss of plant species diversity. The Green Revolution accelerated processes whereby the global trade in food commodities prompts or compels agrarian communities to transform from subsistence farming to commodity farming, particularly cash-crop farming. The transformation comes with the risk of higher levels of food insecurity due to the dependence on staples purchased from the market. Cash-crop farming may also reduce the dietary diversity of these rural households because of the practice of mono-cropping. For these reasons, the Green Revolution did not necessarily solve the problem of hunger, and its effects foreground the key point that increasing food supply at the national level does not necessarily lead to enough access to food at the household level.

p. 111A further concern about the legacy of the Green Revolution is that modification of crop varieties to improve yields has developed into ever more invasive procedures, including new kinds of genetic manipulation. The latter involves the insertion of new DNA into plant cells. The procedures are controversial for three main reasons: first, there are concerns that there are health risks if the introduced genes are taken up by the human body; second, there are concerns that genetically manipulated crops might reduce biodiversity and that there may be unforeseen consequences of gene transfer; and third, there are concerns that agricultural biotechnology corporations control most of the technology required, and that most of their activities are orientated to large-scale farming in rich countries. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics highlights these issues and notes that there is no clear evidence that genetically manipulated crops are harmful, and that there are various ways of preserving biodiversity, but that ongoing surveillance and research are essential. Nonetheless, whatever the science, the fear that markets may be swamped with cheap, genetically manipulated crops is widespread, especially in countries where those crops are imported. Although, interestingly, crop quality standards and crop manipulation can also potentially be used to protect food markets from such imports. Much to the irritation of some farmers in the USA, the EU protects is own farmers and domestic consumers by setting requirements that prevent cultivation or sale of most genetically manipulated crops—despite pressures applied to stop doing so through the World Trade Organisation. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the country’s wheat industry encountered huge competition in the early 2000s. The response was to work closely with nutritional experts and the government to set up a regulation on mandatory wheat fortification (Kimura 2013). Because of its unique standard of fortification, the act effectively blocked wheat flour imports and protected the local wheat flour industry.

Adverse effects of food aid

Local or national markets being flooded with cheap or even free food distribution relate to wider issues, such as food dumping. Since the Second World War, different kinds of intervention purporting to solve the problems of hunger have shaped aspects of the globalised food system. Foreign food aid from the 1950s is an important example. It may be the case that millions of people have been assisted, and their lives have been saved, but food aid policies in the donor countries are usually closely tied to their national and international agricultural policies (Barrett and Maxwell 2005: 2). One important case is USAID’s Food for Peace programme. Because there were huge amounts of surplus wheat produced in the USA after the Second World War—in part due to what became Green Revolution technologies—the US government designed the Food for Peace programme to export wheat to other countries as international aid (Clapp 2012). By the early 1960s, in-kind food aid accounted for more than half of the food exported from the USA (Barrett and Maxwell 2005). This type of in-kind food aid not only undermined local food production and markets, but it also impacted the dietary habits in those recipient countries. For example, Taiwan was one of the main recipient countries in East Asia in the post-WWII period. To encourage the rice-consuming citizens to eat wheat-based products, the Taiwan government invented wheat-consumption traditions and mobilised other campaigns to encourage Taiwanese to consume more wheat-based products (Liu 2011). Eventually, this resulted in decreasing rice consumption and subsequently rice production in Taiwan.

As criticism grew about food aid having potentially counterproductive effects, WFP and other agencies made efforts to reduce direct transfer of surplus crops (Clapp 2012). More appropriate policies were devised, including donations of cash, in the expectation that, if money is locally available where there are food shortages, merchants will respond to the demand. However, the USA, Canada, and other donors were resistant to the change, partly because food aid was a means of sustaining prices in their domestic markets. Another policy shift was to move from ‘food aid’ to ‘food assistance’. As Barrett and Maxwell explain, ‘food aid has long been based on a false assumption that the best way to fight hunger is with food’ (2005: 3). In contrast, the approach of ‘food assistance’ aims ‘to address the causes of food insecurity, rather than merely treating its symptoms through direct distribution of food to hungry people’ (Barrett and Maxwell 2005: 15)—although, in practice, it was not always easy to see the difference on the ground.

A further problem with food aid, particularly when it becomes a long-term arrangement, is that it creates dependencies which may be unsustainable, or are threatened when there are market reforms. This can be a trigger for social protests and the phenomenon p. 112of food riots (Box 5.3). More generally, fluctuations in global markets, when there are few or no regulations on prices, can be volatile, and can have sudden and serious implications. A recent example is the 2007–08 Global Food Crisis. Since early 2007, the price of several crops, including wheat, rice, maize, corns, and soybeans, began to increase in several countries (Saad 2013). Although the reasons for price volatility of different crops vary, media, governments, and intra-governmental organisations framed this situation as a ‘global food crisis’ (Johnston 2010; Swan, Hadley, and Cichon 2010; Lang 2010). And it did indeed lead to civil unrest and political chaos in more than 30 countries. The reason for price volatility may vary depending on different crops. The increasing demand for biofuel, the speculation among investors, the policy changes of national governments, and the transnational trade negotiations are all possible contributing factors to the volatility of food price. Climate change may be relevant too.

Box 5.3 Food riots

Food riots across the world represent a unique type of activism. Food riots have occurred throughout history, but in the past decade, an emerging trend of food riots can be seen on a global scale. The 2007–08 food price spike triggered food riots in more than 30 countries. Similarly, from 2010 to 2012, there was another food price spike, mainly in Africa, and it was followed by food riots. In Venezuela, the economic crisis after the crash in the oil price also led to several food-related riots after 2016. In the Middle East, some scholars also identify high food prices as one of the facilitating factors to the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 (the anti-government protests and uprisings that began in Tunisia and then spread across the Arab world). Food riots are usually provoked by an increase in food prices, especially the high volatility of price in a short period. In contrast to activism by farmers’ groups or labour unions, food riots are spontaneous and less organised. Additionally, participants in food riots mostly rely on purchasing, rather than growing, food. Thus, many food riots happened in urban areas (Bush 2010). However, it is worth noting that the demands of food riots normally go beyond access to food, pointing to deep issues of economic injustice in the society (like the situation in the Arab Spring uprisings). Food riots are an appeal for public accountability. Indeed, food riots reflect the growing popularity of the idea that access to adequate food should be a basic human right. At a deeper level, as Hossain and Kalita point out, contemporary food riots share characteristics with, for example, the food riots that happened in Britain a few centuries ago, in that they ‘prioritise rights to affordable food over promotion of free markets, and articulate obligations of the public authorities to protect those rights as matters of custom’ (2014: 816). Thus, food riots may be viewed as an appeal to economic justice. Contemporary food riots normally represent a backlash against the purported benefits of an integrated global food market.

Assessing hunger in populations

To assess the scale of hunger in populations, data are typically gathered with four distinct dimensions—none of which are perfect (Scanlan 2003). The first dimension of focus is food supply, especially at the national or global level. Scholars may calculate the amount of food produced in, imported to, and exported from a nation based on governmental data. Some development agencies also develop the digital software to evaluate the condition of food production with satellite data. Yet, food supply is never the driving factor of hunger. Furthermore, food supply information is not sufficient to evaluate the food distribution patterns. The second dimension aims to meet this gap as it focuses specifically on household consumption patterns. The most common type of data comes from household consumption surveys, which document how much food and what types of food each family member consumes. The third dimension is the direct nutritional health condition of a person. Commonly, an anthropometric survey is implemented to collect some physiological characteristics to determine whether an individual appears to be undernourished. However, expense, technicalities, and ethical concerns all hinder the collection of large-scale of data. The last dimension gathers subjective data on the feelings and perceptions of individuals regarding their body and their experience of access to food in their daily lives. Surveys collecting data regarding ‘food security’ conditions commonly include these types of questions. They reflect direct perspectives from individuals who may be under threat of hunger and could serve as the basis for further intervention.

Hunger indexes

There are coexisting databases documenting and synthesising the condition of hunger, deploying alternative p. 113scales (Jones et al. 2013). One much used data resource is the Global Hunger Index (GHI) constructed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, a prominent think tank for global food policy (von Grebmer et al. 2018). GHI uses four indicators: (1) the proportion of the population who don’t consume sufficient calories; (2) the proportion of under-five children who are wasted; (3) the proportion of under-five children who are stunted; and (4) the mortality rate of under-five children. Then GHI uses a formula to combine these four indicators and generate a ‘hunger score’ for each country. It is obvious that these indicators only reflect some nutrition issues and target specific groups within the population. Typically, development agencies and governments select indicators they consider most appropriate as the proxy to the overall condition. Policymakers then rely on these statistics to evaluate the current situation and implement interventions. It is important to be aware how understandings of the state of hunger are mediated by these indicators as well as other mediums (e.g. photographs, television, and aid agency fund-raising campaigns).

According to the data shown in the GHI reports, from 2000 to 2018, the average GHI score has improved by 29 per cent, which indicates significant progress in the fight against hunger. However, the reports also highlight the unequal progress by region, as shown in Figure 5.1. Among all the regions, the progress in East and South East Asia is the most significant. Furthermore, although South Asia and Africa South of the Sahara have similar GHI scores, they are encountering different issues. While the child mortality rate is still high in Africa South of the Sahara, child wasting is a more serious issue in South Asia. This indicates these regions may need different interventions to address the issue of hunger.

Figure 5.1 Changing Global Hunger Index Scores from 2000 to 2018, by region.

Source: Reproduced from K. von Grebmer et al. 2018. 2018 Global Hunger Index: Forced Migration and Hunger. Bonn and Dublin: Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

In contrast to GHI, the Global Nutrition Report (GNR), facilitated by several leading development agencies, focuses not only on chronic undernutrition but all forms of malnutrition at the same time (Development Initiatives 2018). GNR portrays a more complicated picture of the global malnutrition condition. According to GNR, while 22.2 per cent of children under the age of five are stunted, 5.6 per cent of children at that age are overweight. Additionally, around 38 per cent of women of reproductive age are suffering from anaemia, a disease resulting primarily from iron deficiency. Furthermore, among all the world’s adult population (5 billion), around 40 per cent are overweight or obese. Overall, around 88 per cent of countries are encountering the prevalence of more than two types of malnutrition at the same time. These statistics indicate that even with the end of chronic hunger different forms of malnutrition persist.

5.5p. 114 Entitlements and livelihoods

Despite debates about adverse effects of the Green Revolution, an emphasis on food supply has continued to affect ways that malnutrition is addressed, in terms of both overall quantity of food and, increasingly, nutritional qualities. The Malthusian idea that population growth will outstrip the capacity to provide enough food, in some circumstances, triggering famines, is also an argument that remains resilient. However, that view has been vigorously criticised. Historical and demographic studies of starvation have long argued that political and economic processes were key contributors, even in situations of drought and crop failures. It is clear that in situations in which some people are starving, others are not. The Irish famine in the mid-nineteenth century is an obvious example. Who is suffering and who is not makes social stratification apparent. Since the 1980s, it is a perspective on famine that has been particularly associated with a theoretical analysis presented by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen.

Sen’s famine thesis

Sen argued that chronic and acute hunger arose from lack of an ability to reliably gain access to, and command over, food (1981). He focused, in particular, on the social relationships at an individual and household level that enable people to get food. His approach identifies two basic characteristics, endowments and entitlements, which give access to livelihoods and food. Sen provides a brief example of his analysis:

For example, a peasant has his land, labour power, and a few other resources which together make up his endowment. Starting from this endowment, he can produce a bundle of food that will be his. Or by selling his labour power, he can get a wage and with that buy commodities including food. Or, he can grow some cash crops and sell them to buy food and other commodities. There are many other possibilities (1981: 46).

Endowments refer to an individual’s and household capabilities and resources. They provide opportunities for the individual and households to secure entitlements to food, from growing crops for own consumption (direct entitlement), purchasing food with income from wage labour (exchange entitlement), or from sale of produce (trade entitlement), or receiving food via social networks or public support. The entitlements depend on the individual or household’s status, for example, legal status (relation to the state), occupational status, or traditional rights within the community in which the individual lives.

Sen used his entitlements approach in an assessment of four famines in the twentieth century, summarised in Table 5.2. He argued that particular occupation groups were more vulnerable than others. In the two South Asian cases, he found that rural labourers, those making a living by working for a wage, were over-represented in those seeking relief or dying in the famines. Farmers or peasants with access to land were less vulnerable. By contrast, the most vulnerable in the two famines in Ethiopia were farmers and pastoralists, depending on the products of livestock for their food.

Table 5.2 Changes in entitlements associated with four famines in the twentieth century.


Was there a food availability decline?

Which occupation group provided the largest number of famine victims?

Did that group suffer substantial endowment loss?

Did that group suffer exchange entitlement shifts?

Did that group suffer direct entitlement failure?

Did that group suffer trade entitlement failure?

Bengal 1943


Rural labour





Ethiopia (Wollo) 1973



A little, yes




Ethiopia (Harerghe) 1974







Bangladesh 1974


Rural labour

Earlier, yes




Source: Sen (1981), Table 10.1.

What Sen suggested in his analysis was that famine could best be understood as a failure of entitlements p. 115to food not a lack of the availability of food (Sen 1981). The entitlement approach then draws attention to causal factors such as ‘ownership patterns, unemployment, relative prices, wage-price ratios and so on’ (Sen 1993: 30).

An emphasis on livelihoods

Building on Sen’s ideas, scholars developed the concepts of resilience and vulnerability to understand how long-term political and economic structures determine the distribution of entitlements and how the distribution of entitlements may affect the capability of individuals and households to respond to crises relating to chronic hunger or famine (Watts and Bohle 1993; see also Chapter 2). With particular focus on vulnerability and resilience, the idea of ‘livelihoods’ gradually become more influential in the development field (Scoones 2009).

Livelihoods: The basic idea of the livelihoods approach is to understand ‘how different people in different places live’ and ‘how different strategies affect livelihood pathways or trajectories’ (Scoones 2009: 172). The emphasis on livelihoods in the international development field demonstrates a shift from the focus on the macro-level analysis of economic production to the focus on individual survival and the sustaining of a household in the early 1990s. Later on, Frank Ellis provides a more comprehensive definition: ‘a livelihood comprises the assets (natural, physical, human, financial and social capital), the activities, and the access (mediated by institutions and social relations) that together determine the living gained by the individual or household’ (Ellis 2000: 10).

The concept of livelihoods helped to synthesise the various other concepts relating to chronic and acute hunger and situate them in the materialised conditions and relations that allow people to make a living. For example, in Michael Watts’ study of the Nigeria famine in 1973–74, he describes a sequence of ten common coping strategies of households (quoted in Corbett 1988). These are:

Collect famine foods

Borrow grain from kin

Sale of labour power (migration)

Engage in dry season farming (migration)

Sale of small livestock

Borrow grain or money from merchants/moneylenders

Sale of domestic assets

Pledge farmland

Sale of farmland

Migrate out permanently

By reviewing several case studies of coping strategies, Corbett (1988) collates and categorises coping strategies into three stages. The first stage is ‘insurance mechanism’, in which households change their food production and consumption patterns to prolong their access to food without damaging their long-term livelihoods. The second stage is ‘disposal of productive assets’, which could be seen as the trade-off between immediate food consumption and future livelihoods. The third stage is destitution, which usually means households could no longer maintain livelihoods and need to migrate permanently.

Identifying coping strategies has two significant meanings. First, the information on coping strategies helps governments and international humanitarian agencies to develop a better early warning system and identify early stages of the process of famine (Davies 1996/2016). Second, understanding how people develop strategies to maintain their livelihoods also provides clear goals for any interventions aiming to help the recovery of households and communities after the famine or food crisis. As Susanna Davies points out, any interventions should not only focus on ‘saving lives’ but also saving ‘livelihoods’ of households and communities (ibid).

Critics of Sen

Sen’s entitlement approach rapidly became a standard paradigm for scholars to study famine, as well as food security and poverty. His analysis appeared to be objectively evidence based, while the term ‘entitlement’ succinctly captured the idea that food is a human right. The combination of rigour with normative vision made his thesis both compelling and appealing. However, there were also scholars who were more critical. For example, Tim Dyson, the eminent demographer of India, pointed out that some of the data that Sen used for his study were seriously flawed, and led him to erroneous conclusions (Dyson 1993). With respect to the Bengal famine, this was significant in terms of the scale of excess deaths (i.e. the number of people who died because of the famine, rather than other reasons), and the point at which famine-related excess deaths stopped. Using available data for the whole of Bengal, Dyson showed that deaths were about a million less than Sen calculated. He also showed that Sen was wrong to claim that famine mortality lasted for many years after the famine (Sen 1981: 215). In 1945, the registered infant mortality rate was slightly below its linear p. 116trend of 1931–42. Overall, Dyson suggested that Sen had overlooked the huge quantity of very detailed demographic material for India which was collected on famines during British colonial rule, and that his key examples of famine diverged from the norm. Crucially, both the Bengal and Bangladesh famines were not triggered by monsoon failure and drought, but had more complicated aetiologies involving, among other things, inflation and war. The implication was that the entitlement approach might still apply in Bengal, even if Sen had used better available data, but it is not at all clear that a more conventional approach to famines being triggered by crop failure might be wrong in other cases.

Other critics expressed reservations about the present, rather than the past, noting that the famines at the time his book was published in the 1980s were in Africa, rather than Asia, and were more strongly associated with conflicts and forced displacements, than differential access to food in markets. It might be that the expression ‘lack of entitlements’ could be applied to people who were unable to find food in such circumstances, but it did not seem to add anything in terms of insight. Possibly, it euphemised the political realities when populations were being starved for strategic purposes, or deliberate neglect. Moreover, such points might be made too with respect to Sen’s own examples. The 1943 Bengal Famine was at least partly a consequence of the ongoing Second World War, and the British government’s requirements for food for its army fighting in Burma. Sen recognised that was the case, but his focus on inflation and markets downplays the fact that the Indian viceroy was reporting on the situation to London and calling for food supplies. However, the British government had other priorities, and reportedly, Winston Churchill’s response was dismissive. Along these lines, it was argued even by some of those working with Sen’s entitlement concept, that there was a need to shift the focus towards the responsibility of governments to respond to early warnings of famine in time, and to address the social and political processes.

Democracy and famine

In his later work on famine, Sen himself moved towards this position, partly as it became clear from demographic data how serious the famine had been in China during the Great Leap Forward. In the early 1980s, a vast amount of demographic data was suddenly made available on China, dating back to the establishment of the People’s Republic. Those data made it apparent that the largest famine in human history had occurred during 1958–61, with almost 30 million premature deaths. It had occurred without the rest of the world being aware of what was happening. The main cause was a dramatic decline in grain output, which was to a large extent the direct consequence of government policies (Ashton et al. 1984). For Sen, what occurred could be explained by the fact that Chinese authorities were able to keep everything secret. He suggests that press freedom and democracy would have prevented the famine from happening. It was a view that he expressed in various speeches and publications, including Development and Freedom (1999). In that book he wrote:

The working of democracy and of political rights can even help to prevent famines and other economic disasters. Authoritarian rulers, who are themselves rarely affected by famines (or other such economic calamities) tend to lack the incentive to take timely preventative measures. Democratic governments, in contrast, have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentives to undertake measures to avert famines and other such catastrophes. It is not surprising that no famine has ever in the history of the world in a functioning democracy – be it economically rich (as in contemporary Western Europe or North America) or relatively poor (as in postindependence India, or Botswana, or Zimbabwe). Famines have tended to occur in colonial territories governed by rulers from elsewhere (as in British India or in Ireland administered by alienated English rulers), or in one-party states (as in the Ukraine in the 1930s, or China during 1958–61, or Cambodia in the 1970s), or in military dictatorships (as in Ethiopia, or Somalia or some of the Sahel countries in the near past) (Sen 1999: 16).

Sen contrasted China with India and claimed that India no longer had famines since independence because it was a democracy, if an imperfect one. He also noted that while governmental health and food supply policies in China had reduced levels of chronic hunger, Indian democracy was less successful in that respect.

He did not elaborate in detail how these various arguments extend or contradict his earlier analysis, but they make intuitive sense and, like entitlement theory, resonate with an appealing, human rights-orientated conception of development. However, they beg the question of what exactly is meant by democracy. To choose Zimbabwe as an example in a book published at the end of decade in which President Mugabe’s government had been associated with atrocities, including allegations of forced starvation, was peculiar. Also, famines were being reported in various locations at the turn of the century in countries with democratic political system, such as Niger and Malawi. Nevertheless, Sen’s emphasis on the need to reinvigorate p. 117older ideas about a political contract, allowing citizens to hold governments accountable for famine and hunger (among other things), has been taken up by many scholars.

5.6 From mass starvation to managed acute food insecurity

There is no doubt that Sen’s arguments have been very influential and have helped shift discussions of food security in helpful ways, but even if his general approach is accepted, it should be emphasised that they do not delineate obvious sets of policy interventions that will lead to zero hunger. Also, the entitlement approach as first formulated was unable to explain famine triggered by the widespread violations of rights during conflict and those triggered by catastrophic government policies. More recent studies suggest that famines are predominantly political phenomena, not natural disasters or economic crises. They are often an act of commission by governments. Such a position recognises that a collapse in food access may occur due to crop failures, but it is forced migration and conflict that almost invariably triggers acute hunger, and stopping that situation is a matter of choice. The latter point relates to what governments chose to do, but also to something else that has changed since Sen published Poverty and Famines in 1981: the capacities of humanitarian organisations to deliver relief has significantly improved. Nowadays, people only starve when there is not enough will to save them. That is what is happening in Yemen, and it is what happened in Somalia in 2011 (see Box 5.4 and Figure 5.2). This new approach to famine is particularly associated with the work of de Waal (2015), Devereux (2017), and O’Grada (2015).

Box 5.4 Recent famines in Somalia

In August 2017, the novelist Nuruddin Farah, frequently listed as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, returned to his native Somalia and wrote for the New York Times ‘This is what hunger looks like – again’ (Farah 2017) (see Figure 5.2). He recalls living in Somalia in 1974, ‘the rains failed, and a drought worked itself into a famine. Our destitute relatives, who had lost several children and their beasts to the famine, turned up at our doorstep.’ He describes famines in 1991 and 2011. Then, he tells the stories of those who walked from the countryside seeking food in 2017: ‘families at the internally displaced people’s camps had left their scorched farms and walked numerous miles in punishing heat, across land stripped of vegetation. Parents go mad with despair at the sight of their babies dying from hunger, thirst or both.’

Farah talked to a farmer and teacher in a camp for displaced persons near the capital, Mogadishu. He had wanted to stay in his village but the loss of livestock, food shortage, and threatened recruitment by the Islamist group, Al Shabaab, drove him and his family to leave:

Mr. Mohamed had no more milk to sell. His cows died in the famine. His classroom began emptying as the students left with their parents. The absence of rain, water and food forced him and his family to debate whether they should join the exodus. Mr. Mohamed said he wanted to stay and find a way to survive. Then, Al Shabaab began seeing him—a teacher of the Quran—as a man worth recruiting for their cause. Mr. Mohamed and his family left.

From this brief interview, it is apparent that teacher and farmer, Mr Mohammed, decided to move with his family to a refugee camp, following a sequence of events involving weather, the death of livestock, students leaving his school, and finally the approach of a fundamentalist group involved in civil war.

Farah’s interviews suggested that the current famine was more lethal than the one in 2011. ‘We lost a third of the beasts we owned in 2011’, a man said. ‘Now the devastation is more severe. We’ve lost all our cattle. No water, no food and no seeds to plant.’ People took the only option open: they left. Each family in the camp receives $70 from the aid groups to feed and support themselves.

Accounts of famine in 2011 (Maxwell and Majid 2016; Devereux 2017; O’Grada 2015) provide information on the precursors to this famine. The war with Al Shabaab had displaced some one million people; there had been a series of harvest failures and deaths of livestock. Food aid had been cut off by the government as part of its prosecution of the war, and the US was reluctant to support international assistance that might end up being coopted by a terrorist organisation. By the year of the famine, aid agencies had very limited access to the most seriously affected areas, which were rural locations under control of Al Shabaab. In a passionate appeal at the time, the Enough Project policy briefing commented:

The international response to date has been shockingly inadequate – not just because funds for humanitarian aid have fallen short, but because of the absence of political will to take bold diplomatic action to remove impediments to the delivery of aid. Unless this changes, the 2011 Somali famine will be to the Obama administration what the 1994 Rwandan genocide was to the Clinton administration – a terrible stain, an unforgiveable instance of lack of political will to push policy beyond incrementalism.

By the time the US shifted its position on international assistance, it was already too late for many victims. Estimates of the number who died in 2011–12 vary widely with the best estimate around 330 000 (O’Grada 2015: 183). It had been the worst famine of the twenty-first century, up to that point.

Figure 5.2 Famine in Somalia, 2017.

Source: US Department of State.

p. 118Humanitarian agencies and famine crimes

Alex de Waal’s book, Famine Crimes (1997), presented a damning assessment of what he termed the ‘humanitarian international’. He argued that a network of international humanitarian agencies had come to dominate thinking and responding to African famines in profoundly counterproductive ways. Drawing in part on Sen’s ideas, de Waal argued that famine prevention requires a political contract, but such a contract was rare in Africa, and efforts to develop the necessary institutions were being systematically undermined. The humanitarian international had effectively elimip. 119nated accountability by requiring African governments to pass responsibility for dealing with famine to foreign experts, who depoliticised situations, emphasised technical issues, and effectively collaborated with oppressive regimes. Humanitarian agencies, he maintained, allocated a passive and mendicant status to those ostensibly being assisted, and pursued their own interests in competing with each other for donor and charitable funding. They disempowered victims, and debased humanitarian ideals. De Waal concluded that most current humanitarian activity in Africa was useless or damaging and should be abandoned. 20 years later, de Waal continues to view famine as a crime, but has changed his mind in other respects. He credits the international humanitarian response system with having become more professional, effective, and politically aware. One component of this progress, he explains, was the establishment of the IPC classification system (as outlined in Table 5.1) as an agreed set of standards for measuring famines. The big missing element is an accountability mechanism, linked to the UN Security Council, because stopping famine is an issue of international political will (de Waal 2017). As he comments in his new book on famine, Mass Starvation (2018a):

Today’s famines, actual and threatening, have in common that they occur in virulent and intractable conflicts. More than that, they occur as the product of wars in which the belligerents deny the right of the other to exist, and in which those directing the fighting are ready to discount the lives of people – civilians and soldiers alike – in pursuit of their political and military ends (de Waal 2018a: 171).

Famines, from this perspective, are manifestly war crimes, and may constitute genocide, and there is a need to treat starvation like other appalling atrocities (Figure 5.3). Nevertheless, actual cases of famine have become rare, at least in part due to better surveillance. Now when they happen it is impossible to claim they were inevitable or that they could not be averted. According to de Waal, famines could be prevented altogether:

Figure 5.3 Famines can often be understood as war crimes or even genocide.

Source: Talal Nayer cartoon movement.

The end of the Cold War, the adoption of international human rights norms, and the rise of globalisation are among the key factors that make it possible to eliminate famine for the first time in history. Governments no longer wield the grotesque sovereign privilege to starve their people and tell the rest of the world to mind its own business. Unparalleled global prosperity and interconnectedness, the legitimacy of international concern over domestic violations, and far more information-sharing mean people are less likely to starve in silence because their rulers, or the international community, do not know what is going on (de Waal 2015: 24).

De Waal argues, famine warning and the response system is far superior today to anything that existed in the past, and it is clear that humanitarianism has played its part in the near-conquest of famine.

The decline in great famines but persistence of acute hunger

De Waal’s optimistic claim, that the era of famines is over—or almost over—draws on data on famine mortality from 58 episodes of famine since 1870, during each of which, according to the lowest credible estimate, 100 000 people died. According to a scale proposed by Howe and Devereux (2004), all the famines in the list were above the threshold for classification as ‘great’ famines, and those with mortality above one million were above the threshold for ‘calamitous’ famines. According to de Waal’s data set, at least 100 million people have died in great and calamitous famines. Less than 10 per cent died in Africa. Around 20 per cent died in Eastern Europe, mostly during the wars and violent political upheavals of the mid-twentieth century. About 65 per cent died in Asia, with almost half in China alone. These trends in famine deaths are presented in Figure 5.4.

Figure 5.4 Deaths in great and calamitous famines, by region and decade.

Source: de Waal, A. 2015. ‘Armed Conflict and the Challenge of Hunger: Is an End in Sight?’ In 2015 Global Hunger Index: Armed Conflict and the Challenge of Hunger, edited by K. von Grebmer, J. Bernstein, A. de Waal, N. Prasai, S. Yin, and Y. Yohannes. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute. Data from World Peace Institute, Tufts University

p. 120De Waal recognises that the quality of famine mortality data varies widely in quality, and that it cannot be known exactly how many people die as a direct result of famine, compared with other factors, especially in the context of war. However, his assessment of sustained declines in famine mortality are now widely accepted, although—as de Waal himself observes—this does not mean that all forms of acute hunger are necessarily declining too.

Also, while de Waal is very positive about the global use of the IPC system, and credits it with having significantly improved humanitarian early warning and response mechanisms, he notes that the process whereby IPC levels are identified and famine is declared is politically fraught (de Waal 2018b: 120). Governments want to resist the Phase 5 label (indicating catastrophe/famine), and international agencies are wary of using the term ‘famine’ too often. There is a tendency to keep assessments to Phase 4, and a new category has been introduced, using an exclamation mark (4!) to indicate that the situation would be Phase 5 without aid supplies. There is too a danger in that these assessment tools may obscure the underlying political structures that are sometimes taken for granted in technical analysis.

Consulting detailed IPC reports on vulnerable places certainly does not suggest that acute hunger is a thing of the past. Here is the text of the IPC report on South Sudan from September 2018 using the IPC Scale:

Based on the September IPC analysis, it is expected that 6.1 million people (fifty-nine per cent of the total population) faced Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse acute food insecurity at the peak of the lean season (July – August), of whom 47,000 were in Catastrophe (IPC phase 5) and 1.7 million were in Emergency (IPC Phase 4). Food security has improved slightly with the green harvest in September relative to July and August, and further improvements are expected in the post-harvest period between October and December 2018 when the number of people in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse is most likely to reduce to 4.4 million (forty-three per cent of the total population), with 26,000 in Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). However, an anticipated earlier than normal start of the lean season will result in an estimated 5.2 million (forty-nine per cent of the total population) people p. 121in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse acute food insecurity between January and March 2019, with 36,000 in Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). These estimates are in the presence of planned humanitarian food assistances.

It is obvious from reading this that the situation is far from food secure, and that there is an almost continuous possibility of large numbers of people being pushed into Phase 5, even if only for short periods. Figure 5.5 provides an overview of the current food insecure regions of Africa. It includes, significantly, climate shocks among the current drivers of food crises. In parts of Africa and elsewhere, that is anticipated to be a growing problem, which could potentially have consequences requiring massive additional commitments to sustaining food availability to the most affected regions.

Figure 5.5 Number of people in IPC Phase 3 or above (ranges) and primary drivers of risks in Africa in 2019.

Source: Map 60. Global Report on Food Crises 2019, Food Security Information Network.©FSIN 2019.

Such concerns have been underlined in 2020 in relation to the possible effects of the constraints on livelihoods associated with the COVID-19 epidemic. For example, in India the sudden lockdown immediately deprived millions of internal migrant workers of their casual employment and their temporary lodgings, leading many of them to try to walk back to their homes without food or shelter, with reports of some being sprayed with disinfectant, beaten, or arrested on the way (Sammadar 2020). Also, in some parts of the world, notably in regions of Africa, food production systems are reportedly breaking down, prompting alarming assessments from the World Food Programme. According to David Beasley, its executive director, unless there is a rapid and adequate humanitarian response, 265 million people are likely to be very vulnerable. Echoing language of the 1980s, he has observed that ‘If we don’t get food to people, people will die’, and without a concerted effort there is a real prospect of a famine of ‘biblical proportions’ p. 122(Harvey 2020). In other words, mass starvation may be avoided: it is a choice.

5.7 Conclusion

The occurrence of famine may have declined to a point where it can always be prevented. The great famines of the twentieth century, in which hundreds of thousands of people died, are not likely to return unless there is deliberate neglect of populations at national and international level. Yet, large numbers of people in the second decade of the twenty-first century are still facing acute food insecurity, and the threat of starvation remains, especially where political turmoil is likely. Moreover, chronic hunger and forms of malnutrition remain pervasive. Zero hunger can only be an aspiration. There is no prospect of it happening quickly.

As has been stressed throughout this chapter, hunger is the consequence of social and political issues; it also requires social and political actions to tackle it. Hunger is not occurring only in developing countries; all countries around the globe are encountering certain forms of undernutrition with unequal distribution at different scales. To that end, hunger is not a problem that can be solved by any single measure, such as the development of agricultural biotechnology. In most cases, solutions are primarily a matter of how forms of public authority hold to account individuals and institutions with capacities to act. It requires the hungry to have a voice, and those who can help having the political will to do so.


Mass hunger has been associated with neo-Malthusian ideas about overpopulation.

During the European colonial era, there was more awareness about famine and malnutrition.

The issues surrounding hunger are more complicated than eating enough food. Chronic hunger, famine, and malnutrition are related concepts with different causes.

Multiple forms of malnutrition coexisting in most countries require governing bodies to carefully design policies which consider linkages among different types of malnutrition.

While ‘food security’ is still a popular framework to guide the interventions of development agencies and governments, other concepts help us focus on different underlying causes of hunger.

The Green Revolution helped increase global food security in some respects but made many populations more vulnerable.

Chronic hunger is closely connected with poverty.

The entitlement approach helped clarify the cause of famine in some circumstances, but recent famines are mostly a consequence of war and the choices made by governments.

Famine mortality has declined dramatically, in large part because of better monitoring and more effective humanitarian assistance. However, acute hunger remains a massive problem.

Zero hunger will not occur any time soon.


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