Famine: A Short History

Violetta Hionidou on an excellent history of the famine as a phenomenon

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Reviewed by: Violetta Hionidou
Author: Cormac Ó Gráda
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Price (RRP): £19.95

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Famines still make their way to the news reports, though much less than 20 or 30 years ago. Cormac Ó Gráda’s new book presents a concise introduction to famines of all times.

This is a very welcome addition to the existing works since it constitutes a first attempt to address famines as a phenomenon, examining their long history and the variety of the individual experiences. The book addresses a wealth of issues ranging from the causality of famines, their frequency, their significance as a population safety valve, their demographic and social effects, the way markets operate during famines, the relief of famines, and their future.

Contrary to common perceptions that women are more vulnerable than men in times of famines, the opposite seems to be the case. Looking at who dies in times of famines, Karl Marx’s comment that famine kills “poor devils only” continues to be largely true, more so in the 20th century.

In examining what the causes of death are during famines, a shift is seen to have taken place from societies where infectious diseases dominate in normal times and where infectious diseases also become the main killers during famines, to societies where infectious diseases have ceased to be significant killers in normal times and where starvation dominates among famine deaths. Interestingly, for some significant famines such as the Great Leap famine of China in 1959–61, we still do not know what the main causes of death were.

Examining a significant 20th-century famine, Ó Gráda argues convincingly that the Bengal famine of 1942–43 was mostly the result of a failure on the part of the British government to cope with a food deficit in a war situation rather than an entitlement problem. The author rightly cautions against dismissing the importance of food availability decline in 20th-century famines. Shifting entitlements may well be the result of a food availability decline rather than the cause of a famine.

Relief constitutes another significant chapter in the history of famines. Relief is virtually never purely benevolent. Rather, there are usually strings attached. In recent years NGOs played an increasingly significant role in offering relief to the famished. But the questions accompanying such offerings are many, and the ways in which NGOs operate are not always transparent.

NGOs’ lack of local knowledge and politics has led to considerable mistakes at times, as in the case of the 1984–85 Ethiopian famine when they unwittingly supported the ruthless resettlement programmes of the government. In other cases, NGOs have been eager to ‘detect’ famines, and to campaign for donations, though many of those ‘famines’ did not materialise.

Famines are surely on the wane. Even in Africa, today’s famines are mostly of very small scale. Long-term malnutrition is much more of a problem than famines. Is there a future for the famine, asks Ó Gráda? Unfortunately, the answer he gives is yes. In the future, most famines will be associated with war and they will be used as one of its weapons.

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This is an excellent book. Whether you need a quick reference or a text-book on famines or you wish to study a specific aspect, this book is the place to start.