January 23, 2005

Why Do So Many People in the World Go Hungry?

Daniel Venn
‘Why Do So Many People in the World Go Hungry?’

‘Hunger is not a scourge but a scandal’
The polemic issue over the continuation of hunger in a mainly democratic and modern society has produced varied explanations. Firstly, the climatic and population determinisms both to a certain amount held true in describing the nineteenth century, however more recently have been demoted to merely secondary or short-term factors. Is it arrogant to think that human reason has conquered nature’s power? More recently, the human involvement has come under closer scrutiny. Sen’s infamous definition of famine that hunger is ‘the characteristic of some people not having enough to eat. It is the characteristic of there being not enough to eat’ exemplifies this new wave of thinking. Susan George, from whom the opening quote is taken, takes Sen’s argument down a more neo-Marxist route, seeing the undeveloped world in a class war as the new proletariat with the new bourgeoisie developed world. Has colonialism actually departed or has it been replace in the form of globalisation and unequal trade? Zimbabwe can be taken as a example, is President Mugabe’s ill-fated resistance to the white, Western domination despotic and arrogant, or a desperate attempt to escape the dependency Western economies impose on African nations? Democracy, although seemingly being the answer to famine, has recently has come under attack as well. The re-emergence of famine in India – a democratic state – has brought some older theories into question. The hunger question in the twenty first century is complex, where a range of problems must be considered to establish any kind of valid explanation.
Firstly, the power of nature as a destructive force has a valid place in history. The famines of 1314–5 in Europe can be put down to a succession of failed harvests caused by colder and wetter summers. The ‘mini ice-age’ in the seventeenth century ruined crops over a long period of time. Furthermore, the eruption of the Tombaro volcano in Indonesia caused climate change all over the world and resulted in many failed harvests as far as Northern Europe and North America. The widespread damage caused by this eruption led to the world’s ‘last great subsistence crisis’, according to John D. Post. India can also provide good evidence to support climate determinism. Every major famine of the nineteenth century followed a complete or partial failure of the monsoon rains.
Climate, however, as a principal factor of hunger has become unpopular with recent historians, as the human role in hunger causation has risen to prominence. Climate has therefore been relegated to a secondary factor. Figures supplied by Sainath confirm that climatic determinism is not valid as a sole factor in drought and famine. He argues that Indian districts can survive off a minimum of 800mm in order to get by, however, areas such as Kalahandi has much higher rainfall but still has deadly problems with drought. In fact, Kalahandi has not dropped below the minimum in the last twenty years and yet has suffered continual difficulties. What makes this example even clearer is that California’s annual rainfall is only a quarter of Kalahandi’s and yet grapes are cultivated there and no famine has occurred in living memory. Malthusians and neo-Malthusians argue that natural disasters such as drought or plagues highlight problems with population. Climatic determinism is also attacked by George who argues that climate is a useful scapegoat to deter attention from an absence of planning, investment and justice.
However, recent denial of climate as a plausible factor in hunger has been refuted by Arnold. He argues that even if the threat of famine in the West has effectively disappeared it does not mean that that fear of famine is not present in less developed areas or indeed in the past of developed nations. Arnold also highlights the psychological effects of Famine illustrated by market reaction to the threat of food shortage; a vicious trail of events, those with grain start to hoard, causing grain prices to saw, causing food riots. An example of a problem created due to the mere threat of climatic disaster.
Ball nicely surmises the role of climate in famine and hunger causation, in that climate normally is influential in pushing the limits of the ‘conditions for disaster’ made up from ‘a combination of social, political, economic and environmental factors’.
The works of Thomas Malthus have an influential role in theories in hunger. However, many historians feel that it might be a misleading one. The Malthusian argument that population growth will outstrip food production has never really developed as history has progressed. Additionally, Neo-Malthusian alarm in the 1970s by authors such as Ehrlich has never materialised. Marxists attack this view by suggesting that the unequal distribution of capital and wealth not population growth is the cause of famine. The use of contraceptive checks on population even as far back as Malthus’s period [abortion, female infanticide, late marriage] also poses new questions of society and culture, of how and why different places put different emphasis on birth control, rather than population growth. Boserup directly contradicts Malthus and suggests that population increase sparks innovation not hunger and goes on to argue that rise in population has actually grown alongside standard of living; also, that urbanisation, industry and the formation of the state would not have happened without the pressure of population.
Amartya Sen’s influential theory of ‘entitlements’ shifts the argument from a natural explanation of hunger to a man-made one. His theory is based upon a series of ‘entitlements’ – legal and economic resources available to exchange for food. In times of famine these entitlements can lose value altogether, this is especially true for those who provide a service. However, Sen’s theory does not really explain the cause of hunger just what happens after a food shortage has already started. Sen himself acknowledges the psychological power of famine as a determinant for a decline in entitlements. Murkerjee takes this one step further suggesting that any of seven basic causes can lower entitlements. Oriental Despotism, a phrase coined by Wittfogel to describe the ‘colonisation of water’ in Asia, would be appropriate in the Indian case, where there is significant disparity and exploitation between those with entitlements in water over those without; a problem highlighted by Sainath. Sainath also highlights that corruption in the Indian bureaucracy leads to increased hunger. The exploitation of Drought Relief in India is a major drain on funding and a ‘scam’ that never reaches those who need it.
As a solution to hunger, Sen promotes Free Trade and globalisation, however, a wealth of fellow commentators and current examples suggest that this is the opposite of what is needed. Shiva notes ‘Free Trade = importation of hunger and employment’ also that the re-emergence of famine in many Indian states, such as Orissa, indicates that Sen’s theory that famine has been eradicated in India due to democracy is an error of judgement.
The role of globalisation in world hunger is emphasised in George’s conflict theory. She argues that the western, mainly American, dominance of the world market through the WTO is impoverishing countries and leaving them open to hunger. Furthermore, the stranglehold that developed nations have on less developed states is extremely difficult to escape. Those that do try to escape this Western grip ends up as another factor for causing major famine and chaos, as they try and drag their nations out of colonial repression. Taking Zimbabwe as an example, the western media’s portrayal of President Mugabe’s refusal of Western aid is one of disgust and terror and is total across all media. However, his seemingly despotic and catastrophic leadership could be argued to be a direct consequence of the West’s success in making Africa dependant upon it. Mugabe, in order to free his country of Western dependency, needs to change attitudes and plunge his country into chaos. It is forgotten that Mugabe was a condoned African leader for the best part of two decades and was democratically elected before recent events. Further research is needed to prove this case but the wall presented by the bias of current Western media and the present anarchy in Zimbabwe makes it difficult for an impartial view to escape as anyone coming out of Zimbabwe has some political persuasion.
In conclusion, as with all history, no one factor is solely responsible for the causation of hunger. The supply of food available for consummation must have a major role to play in hunger, after all hunger is, is a lack of food. However, social, political and cultural roles also play a major role. Famine can quite plausibly be explained as an indication of weaknesses within a society, be it corruption, or a lack of effective measures to combat drought or other crop destroying disasters. Globalisation and Free Trade also allow Western countries to obtain the power of life and death over less developed countries. The slump of Zimbabwe highlights what occurs when a country breaks from this vicious monopoly ran by Western conglomerates. Hunger is indeed a scandal.

1493 Words

Arnold, D., Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change (Oxford, 1988), ch. 2
Ball, Nicole, ‘Understanding the Causes of African Famine’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 14 (1976) pp. 517–522
Boserup, Ester, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: the Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure (London, 1993)
George S., How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger, (London, 1976)

Mukherjee, A, Hunger: Theory, Perspectives and Reality (Aldershot, 2004)

Sainath, P., Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts, (London, 1996), pp.317–24, 339–46, 367–70

Sen, A., Poverty and Famines (Oxford, 1981), ch.1, pp.1–8

Shiva, V, ‘The Real Reasons for Hunger’, The Observer: Special Reports, 23rd June 2002.
(17th November 2004)

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