The Causes of Poverty (18): Amartya Sen, Famines, and Democracy

Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence … they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press. … a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threaten by famines can have. Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen argues that democracy (which is a subset of human rights) is the best way to avoid famines. Of course, a well-functioning democracy is not a sufficient condition for the absence of famines. Other mechanisms also contribute to famine prevention, so it’s not impossible to see famines in democracies.

What is a famine?

G. B. Masefield states:

On balance it seems clear that any satisfactory definition of famine must provide that the food shortage is either widespread or extreme, if not both, and that the degree of extremity is best measured by human mortality from starvation. (source)

A famine occurs when there is a sudden collapse of the level of food availability and consumption (measured in terms of calorie intake). Sen’s argument is that a focus on lack of availability isn’t enough. Actual consumption is what counts. And consumption can drop when availability doesn’t (this was the case in the Bengal famine of 1943 for instance). Famines occur not only from a lack of food, caused by drought, crop failures or floods, but also from a lack of information. Rumors of a famine, even false rumors, are often enough for people to start hoarding and panic buying, which pushes up the price of goods, and which makes it impossible for poor people to get enough food. As a result, they may starve in the midst of abundance. A war may have the same effect or make it worse. And so can ineffective food distribution mechanisms.


An important point about famines is therefore inequality:

While Famines involve fairly widespread acute starvation, there is no reason to think that it will affect all groups in the famine-affected nation. Indeed, it is by no means clear that there has ever occurred a famine in which all groups in a country have suffered from starvation, since different groups typically do have very different commanding powers over food, and an over-all shortage brings out the contrasting powers in stark clarity. Amartya Sen (source)


Free information can counter these risks. It can debunk myths and rumors about food availability. It can inform accountable governments of certain risks and force them to act in order to remedy the food distribution, to impose price controls etc.

Price controls, however, are a risky business. Higher food prices may lead to a larger volume of food production because food producers will be encouraged to produce. Hence, higher prices may increase the overall availability of food and reduce the risk of famine. However, as we have seen, availability is not enough to stop famines. Distribution and equality of availability is just as important, and higher prices may result in very unequal availability and may put poor people at risk. But then, again, these poor people may find a better paying job in food production if food prices are higher… This is all very complicated indeed.

8 thoughts on “The Causes of Poverty (18): Amartya Sen, Famines, and Democracy”

  1. Es increible que en este siglo todavia veamos paises tan necesitados y que esten pasando tanta hambre cuando hay paises que los habitantes tengan el derecho de exigir su alimento, desperdiciarlo y reprocharlo mientras que vemos seres humamos que se comformarian hasta con lo mas pobre es increible………..


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