Causes of Famine

Starvation is a matter of some people not having enough food to eat, and not a matter of there being not enough food to eat.

Amartya Sen

Large numbers of people starve during famine, which is usually followed by epidemics of lethal infectious diseases. Typically, a plethora of forces or conditions act within society to deprive people of food to survive. General food decline in a population may be an important factor, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient as a cause, as amply revealed by critical treatises of numerous famines over the past two centuries. This has led analysts to recognize that famines are complex, often with many ('component') causes that vary in their attribution, depending on the classes of society affected, and their timing, severity, duration, and degree of interaction. The constellation of causes and potential solutions of famine can be examined from ecological, economic, social, and public health perspectives, each offering different insights into the ecology of famine. While each view is valid and informative, none are complete or mutually exclusive, making it necessary to integrate these diverse perspectives to understand the complexity of famine and approaches to its prevention. In offering an epidemiologic overview, there appear to be at least three dominant causes of famine that have emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that appear particularly relevant to understanding modern famine causation (Figure 1): (1) market failure; (2) armed conflict; and (3) failure in central planning. Importantly, none are sole-acting causes and, therefore, for each one there are other antecedent factors, sometimes operative for years before, as well as concurrent and late-acting components that together lead to famine.

Market failure

Market failure

Famine of 1943 of 1974 Famines of 1984-85

War or armed conflict

Winter of 1944 of 1991-92

Central plan failure

1933-34 of 1959-60 Famine of 1997-98

Figure 1 Complex causal networks of selected modern famines, stratified by a dominant cause. Each pie illustrates a complete cause; each wedge illustrates an assumed, essential component cause, without any one of which famine would not occur. Inclusion of causes based on literature reviews; sizes of pie slices are subjective based on descriptions in the literature (causal concepts adapted from Rothman and Greenland, 1998). A: market failure - loss of direct or trade entitlement through a combination of: (1) increased food prices due to food shortage from decreased agricultural production or importation, hoarding and speculation, or other market forces leading to unfavorable terms of exchange; plus (2) loss of means to command food through cash, labor, credit, and other assets (endowment) by vulnerable groups of society. B: war or armed conflict - declared or internal; through siege, blockade, or other expression of force, during a time course leading up to and concurrent with famine. C: central plan failure - occurring within centrally planned states lacking democratic processes, notably in twentieth century communist states; directives that disrupt infrastructure, productivity, and economic well-being, and access to food through heavy taxation, extraction of food grains, livestock and other productive assets and terror, or restrict movement of food stocks outside free-market dynamics, leading to starvation of the masses. D: natural disaster - climatological and environmental catastrophes including floods, or single, repeated or chronic droughts. E: food availability decline - food shortage resulting from poor crop production, lack of trade, poor food transport, storage and marketing sytems. F: weak infrastructure - inadequate systems of finance, credit, roads, communications, agricultural production including irrigation or flood protection systems. G: poor/unstable governance - weak and ineffective forms of governance, including anarchy. H: inadequate aid response/administrative mismanagement - inadequate national or international counter-famine measures, including employment or food procurement policies as well as withheld, slow, ineffectual, or insufficient relief. I: other causes - a catch-all 'causal complement' to those listed above, of interacting prefamine and intrafamine sociological, governmental, environmental, and market forces that render each famine unique.

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