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  Famine refers to a relatively sudden event involving mass mortalities from starvation within a short period. Famine is typically distinguished from chronic hunger, understood as endemic nutritional deprivation on a persistent basis (as opposed to seasonal hunger, for example). Definitions of famine are fraught with danger because (i) cultural, as opposed to biological, definitions of starvation vary around diverse, locally defined norms, and (ii) deaths from starvation are frequently impossible to distinguish from those from disease.

Nearly all societies have periodically suffered from the consequences of famine. The earliest recorded famine which occurred in ancient Egypt dates to 4000  BC; famine conditions currently exist (1998) in Sudan and North Korea (1999). The dynamics and characteristics of mass starvation in modern times have similar structural properties however; typically such famines involve sharp price increases for staple foodstuffs, decapitalization of household assets, gathering of wild foods, borrowing and begging, petty crime and occasionally food riots, and outmigration. According to the Hunger Program at Brown University, the trend in famine casualties has been downward since 1945 but in the late 1980s states with a combined population of 200 millions failed to prevent famine within their national borders. Hunger, and famine in particular, is intolerable in the modern world, however, because it is unnecessary and unwarranted (Sen and Dreze, 1989).

Famine causation has often been linked to natural disasters, population growth and war producing a reduction in food supply (Malthus, 1798). But some major famines (for example, Bengal in 1943) were not preceded by a significant decline in food production or absolute availability and in some cases have been associated with food export. Recent analyses have focused on access to and control over food resources — sometimes called the food availability decline hypothesis. Sen (1981) argues that what we eat depends on what food we are able to acquire. Famine therefore is a function of the failure of socially specific entitlements through which individuals command bundles of commodities. Entitlements vary in relation to property rights, asset distribution, class and gender. Famine is therefore a social phenomenon rooted in the institutional and political economic arrangements which determine the access to food by different classes and strata (Watts, 1983). Mass poverty and mass starvation are obviously linked via entitlements. Mass poverty results from long-term changes in entitlements associated with social production and distribution mechanisms; famines arise from short-term changes in these same mechanisms. Famine and endemic deprivation correspond to two forms of public action to eradicate them: famine policy requires entitlement protection ensuring that it does not collapse among vulnerable groups (i.e. landless labourers, women). Chronic hunger demands entitlement promotion to expand the command people have over basic necessities (Sen and Dreze, 1989). Since 1945 India has implemented a successful anti-famine policy yet conspicuously failed to eradicate endemic deprivation; China, conversely, has overcome the hunger problem but failed to prevent massive famine in the 1950s. Africa has witnessed a catastrophic growth in the incidence of both mass starvation and chronic hunger (de Waal, 1997).

The role of state policy and of humanitarian aid figures centrally in discussions of famine and famine causation. While the public sphere is key in understanding how and why the right to food and the right to not be hungry are made effective, the recent history of famine shows clearly how the state can use famine and humanitarian aid for explicitly political purposes. The case against Stalin and the Ukrainian famine is clear in this regard, and the catastrophic Chinese famine of the late 1950s is a compelling instance of how inept state policies to achieve rapid industrialization backfired but also how an authoritarian state ignored famine signals and colluded in the deaths of 20 million people (Becker, 1997). Sen (1981) has argued that famines rarely occur in societies in which there is freedom of the press (and in which states are therefore held to be accountable in some way). Humanitarian assistance has also been an object of critique insofar as it itself becomes politicized (and rendered as a business), and often fails to be more than a short-term palliative (rather than assisting in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of famine-devastated communities: de Waal, 1997). (See also food, geography of.) (MW)

References Becker, J. 1997: Hungry ghosts. London: John Murray. de Waal, A. 1997: Famine crimes. London: Heinemann. Malthus, T. 1798: An essay on the principle of population. London: Harmondsworth. Sen, A. 1981: Poverty and famines. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Sen, A. and Dreze, J. 1989: Hunger and public action. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Watts, M. 1983: Silent violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.



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