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Hunger Games

A malnourished boy sits in the sand outside a hut on April 14, 2000 in a camp for people looking for food and water in Danan in Ogadin Province in Ethiopia. Thousands of people arrived there to look for food as their food and water had run out. Most families had also lost their animals to the drought. (Getty)

A History of Famine

by Douglas Gollin

Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future. Cormac Ó Gráda. Princeton University Press, 2015. 248pp.

Nearly 3,000 years ago, according to the Old Testament, an army of Arameans, led by King Ben-hadad, besieged the West Bank city of Samaria. Cut off from its agricultural hinterlands, the city soon ran out of food. In desperation, many people appear to have resorted to consuming barely edible sources of nutrients, including “dove’s dung” and the scraps of flesh that they could scavenge from donkeys’ skulls. Eventually, even those grew scarce, and the Bible recounts that the starving inhabitants of the city turned to killing and eating their own children.

Such a grotesque story could be written off as the result of authorial license or historical error. But as the economic historian Cormac Ó Gráda writes in his new book, Eating People Is Wrong, evidence of famine-induced cannibalism abounds, even in the past century. Separating truth from fiction can be difficult, and narratives of cannibalism are inevitably subject to political bias, but Ó Gráda is a careful investigator, closely examining history for what he refers to as “famine’s darkest secret.”

In truly desperate times, Ó Gráda writes, people’s animal instincts can overcome even the sturdiest veneer of civilization. Cannibalism appears to have reared its head in the massive Soviet famines of the 1920s and 1930s in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and elsewhere, which have been detailed in many places, including in the historian Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

Cannibalism may headline Ó Gráda’s book, but it is the subject of only his first essay. The rest of the collection ranges widely, exploring the root causes of food shortages and investigating how to prevent them. One essay examines how famines can arise from government negligence; another highlights the importance of defining and understanding famine as distinct from chronic hunger.

Taken together, the essays offer fresh and provocative insights. The book is uneven—some chapters will be dense for a reader without a background in economics or statistics; other chapters are more accessible. The book does not aim to be comprehensive or to present a unifying theoretical or analytic framework. Yet this new work still adds significant value. Ó Gráda argues persuasively that famines can result from bad data and government inaction in addition to political malfeasance. He emphasizes the importance of gathering accurate information on crop yields and food consumption. He also warns that aid agencies and relief organizations sometimes conflate famines with the more systemic problem of food insecurity, which makes aid less effective in both cases. His book is especially relevant today. As climate change and population growth place global food systems under increasing stress, a thorough understanding of the causes and consequences of famines will arguably be more important than ever.


Ó Gráda argues that some very poor economies are especially vulnerable to famines. In places where the level of food consumption is already low, even small shocks—a shortfall in food production, for example, or a disruption in the supply chain—can lead to a full-scale crisis.

This may seem like an obvious point, but it represents a small yet significant departure from the influential scholarship of the Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen. In Poverty and Famines, one of the most important books on the subject, Sen’s great contribution is to point out that supply shortfalls do not automatically lead to consumption shortfalls and that famines cannot easily be explained by production failures. Sen’s argument is based on the observation that many people do not actually grow their own food, even in largely agrarian economies. People instead acquire food through many other channels. Some purchase it in the market; others acquire it through family networks or transfers from others in their community. Governments, too, can play a role in distributing food, as can nongovernmental organizations of various kinds. Sen argues that for a famine to occur, there must be a widespread breakdown that leads to the simultaneous failure of multiple mechanisms of food acquisition. In other work, Sen and the economist Jean Drèze have argued that famines represent a failure of state and political institutions; well-functioning polities do not allow famines to occur.

But that argument assumes that governments have the capacity to move food from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity or to move people from areas of shortage to areas of plenty. Yet both frequently prove difficult or impossible. As Ó Gráda points out, food is heavy, bulky, and often perishable. Markets do a good job, generally, of moving food from farms to cities, albeit with high transportation costs. But when food supplies dwindle, famine relief involves moving food in the opposite direction, from city warehouses to rural villages, with costs escalating as the food moves to more remote areas. This kind of relief effort is expensive, and it also demands a high degree of logistical expertise, as governments try to figure out how much food to move to different locations.

When it comes to moving people, governments face different costs—and different obstacles. Many of the most vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the disabled, cannot move easily. And introducing large numbers of poor and hungry people to places of relative abundance risks stoking class tensions and social unrest.

To be successful, famine relief thus requires a significant commitment of resources and political effort. Governments also need accurate information about the food supply and demand, and those in power must be willing to recognize and act on that information. Even when governments have the right intentions, policies may fail if the data are poor or if policymakers are blinded by ideology. To be sure, there are cases in which governments have used starvation as a weapon. But Ó Gráda identifies a number of instances in which the blame for a particular famine lay less with government malevolence than with negligence.

Consider the great Bengal famine of 1943. Sen has characterized this event as a “boom” famine, in which market forces pulled supplies of food away from the rural poor and toward richer urban dwellers whose incomes had risen, in part due to a wartime economic expansion.

Ó Gráda does not directly dispute Sen’s account, but his focus lies elsewhere. Ó Gráda argues that the failure of the policy response to the famine was due in large part to the unwillingness of British officials to acknowledge that food supplies were dwindling as a result of a modest shortfall in production. Relying on a belief that markets would rectify localized shortfalls, policymakers chose deliberate inaction. In Ó Gráda’s account, state and national leaders maintained that any shortages were due to hoarding by speculators rather than to low production. Officials apparently feared that acknowledging any production shortfalls would induce speculators to increase their stores of grain in the expectation of rising prices. As a result, the government continued to trumpet the sufficiency of the food supply even as the famine began to take hold.

DANAN, ETHIOPIA: An Ethiopian holds a child as thousands of refugees of the drought arrived in the camp of Danan, southwest of Addis Ababa, 09 April 2000. (Getty)

Ó Gráda points out that it was also politically convenient for the British to believe that the food supply in Bengal was adequate, as recognizing shortages might have required them to divert shipping and food that were going to the war effort elsewhere in Asia. There may also have been an ideological component to their inaction, as many believed in the power of markets to move food from areas of surplus to those of deficit. Thus, a conjunction of poor data, political convenience, and flawed theory shaped the government’s response. Ó Gráda concludes that the famine was “the product of the wartime priorities of the ruling colonial elite.”

Ó Gráda paints a similar picture of the famine during the Great Leap Forward, which afflicted China from 1959 to 1961. Blinded by misleading reports of massive agricultural surpluses, Chinese government officials believed the country had entered a new era of abundance. In 1958, according to the economists Gene Hsin Chang and Guanzhong James Wen, Chinese leaders predicted that the Communist Party’s economic and social initiatives would nearly double grain production within the year, thanks to unprecedented (not to mention biologically impossible) crop yields. Provincial officials, not to be outdone by rival regions, raced to show that the productivity increases in their own regions matched the national reports, producing ever more inflated statistics and obscuring the warning signs of famine.

Other famines have followed a similar pattern, and often indifference or outright antipathy toward poor people has compounded the problem. During the Russian famine of 1891 and 1892, for example, Leo Tolstoy wrote that elites believed “that the masses [were] poor because they [were] lazy and drunkards.” No wonder the tsar’s government was so slow to act.


In some cases, the problem is simply that the relevant data do not exist. Some governments do not collect data that could help identify the warning signs of famine, and many of those that do are reluctant to publicize or share the information due to political sensitivities. The North Korean government, for example, has long been reluctant to make data on hunger and starvation publicly available, at least outside the country. In India, the world’s largest democracy, the Nobel Prize–winning economist Angus Deaton has pressed the government for greater transparency on data and methodologies related to the calculation of living standards and poverty levels. “My work shows how important it is that independent researchers should have access to data, so that government statistics can be checked, and so that the democratic debate within India can be informed by the different interpretations of different scholars,” Deaton wrote in an October 2015 op-ed in The Hindu. But such data remain highly sensitive.

In other parts of the world, the dearth of data owes less to government opacity than to the logistical difficulty of collecting information. In many African countries, systematic data on food production and availability are limited and often of poor quality. Many countries report crop yields using crude estimates based on isolated and anecdotal reports instead of deriving their figures from exact measures taken at harvest time from a representative sample of farms. Of course, the logistical and technical capacity required for such calculations should not be underestimated: they would necessitate collecting samples during the harvest from hundreds of farm plots across the country.

In the absence of reliable data, famine monitoring involves finding ways to measure food availability indirectly, using price data, for example (although prices can vary due to non-food-related factors, such as transportation costs). Although new technologies—such as cell phones, which can be used to survey market traders as a way to spot food shortages and price spikes—offer some promise, the evidence is not yet clear on whether they can reliably identify production shortfalls or food shortages.


The dearth of data poses significant challenges for governments and international organizations as they seek to gauge the scale and significance of food shortages. But those players are themselves part of the problem. Ó Gráda points out that over the past several decades, aid agencies and relief organizations have tended to overstate the severity of food shortages in Africa and have consequently conflated chronic hunger and food insecurity with acute crises and famines.

The distinction between famine and chronic hunger is not merely semantic. Famines call for the rapid provision of relief services and food aid; chronic hunger requires longer-term investments in development and agricultural productivity. Citizens of rich countries tend to be more sympathetic toward famine relief than toward long-term development aid, Ó Gráda notes, spurring the growth of a development industry that has financial incentives to blur the distinction between the two. But fuzzy thinking has the potential to lead to bad outcomes. As Ó Gráda writes, most economists believe that food aid can be a valuable tool in crisis situations and for famine relief—but that it can have a negative effect if it becomes institutionalized and begins to undercut the incentives for domestic food production.

AJIEP, SUDAN-JULY 1998: The emaciated legs of a girl at Ajiep, southern Sudan, during the famine of 1998. (Photo By Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

If the development industry continues to confuse chronic hunger with famine, humanitarian organizations may misallocate resources—to tragic effect. Instead of bolstering efforts to improve agricultural productivity or to create employment opportunities outside of farming, development spending may go toward short-term fixes and short-lived projects that do not address the deeper, structural causes of hunger and food insecurity.

Funding for aid depends on the willingness of ordinary people to spend money—either directly or through their government—for the benefit of people and communities they will never directly encounter. The outpouring of charitable giving in rich countries in response to famines, natural disasters, and other crises represents a triumph of civic morality and a reflection of the power of communications technology. But this charitable impulse is fragile, as is clear from surveys that suggest that people remain deeply suspicious of foreign aid and routinely overestimate how much their government spends on it.

In the meantime, governments and relief organizations must deepen their evidence base on food production and food availability. The challenge is not new. In fact, Tolstoy identified it as far back as 1892, in a report on the Russian famine:

If our education and learning is of any avail to us, what greater good can it do than avert such a universal calamity as is the present one?

To figure out how much corn is needed for the support of those who have none in this present year, and how much corn there is in Russia, and if there is not enough of it to go around, to order the necessary corn from abroad,—all that is our direct duty. . . .

. . . Is this really so difficult? We, who know how to figure out how many different kinds of bugs there are in the world, how many microbes there are in a given area, how many millions of versts it is to the stars, and how many pounds of iron and of oxygen there are in each star,—shall we not be able to figure out how much people must eat in order not to starve, and how much has been harvested . . . ?

As the world struggles to adapt to a changing climate, and as the global population heads toward nine billion, the need for accurate data, clearheaded analysis, and deep thinking about food availability and famine will increase dramatically. Ó Gráda’s book offers a sobering reminder of the importance of making judgments based on good data and unhindered by ideological filters.

*Douglas Gollin is Professor of Development Economics at the University of Oxford.

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