The Causes of Poverty (57): No, It’s Not Overpopulation

There is enough food, water and energy in the world to support a decent life for the whole of humanity, even if the numbers of humans continue to grow at their current rate. Poverty, hunger, drought and lack of energy are caused by an inefficient and unjust distribution. It’s not the size of humanity and the supposed pressure it puts on the earth’s resources that results in poverty and suffering for so many of us. Let’s have a closer look at water, food and energy.

Water

The earth’s fresh water reserves are relatively small, and a lot is wasted on inefficient irrigation, inefficient home use and the production of animal food (the animals in turn are used for the production of meat consumed by people who already eat too much meat). More efficiency could help a lot, but there is also the vast reserve of salt water:

Desalination currently costs about $2 per thousand gallons, which in real units, is about $0.5 per thousand liters. It’s hard to get good recent data on water consumption, but it seems to have been 4000 cubic kilometers per year in 2003. Let’s guess it’s around 4500 cubic kilometers nowadays (about 70% of this is agricultural). It would cost about 2 trillion dollars to produce this water from desalination. (source)

Compare this to total military spending: $1.6 trillion in 2010. Eminently doable given the right priorities.

Food

[I]t should be possible to produce yield increases that are large enough to meet some of the predictions of world food needs, even without having to devote more land to arable agriculture. (source)

There’s a huge margin for growth in food production:

Food production in Africa is vastly less than the region’s known potential, and that is why so many millions are going hungry there. African farmers still use almost no fertilizer; only 4 percent of cropland has been improved with irrigation; and most of the continent’s cropped area is not planted with seeds improved through scientific plant breeding, so cereal yields are only a fraction of what they could be. (source, source)

In fact, the arable land is underused even on a global level:

Most countries are only using a bare fraction of their available agricultural land. The United States, for example – one of the world’s top producers – is using only 5.5 percent of its available agricultural land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 5.6 percent of the world’s arable and permanent cropland and permanent pasture is under irrigation. (source)

World agricultural production has grown 2.5 to 3 times over the last 50 years but the cultivated area grew only by 12%. So it’s not like we’re running out of land on our “tiny” planet. Africa has around 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, about 60% of global total.

And then there’s waste: up to 40% of the world’s food ends up in the garbage bin, because of deficiencies in the food-chain infrastructure, in transportation and in storage. Farmers produce more than they can sell because they receive financial penalties from wholesalers when they can’t deliver fixed quantities throughout the year irrespective of climate conditions. Add to this excessive quality selection (shops throw away perfectly edible food because it’s not visually appealing, and apply overly zealous use-by dates) and consumer waste, and you have mountain ranges of wasted food that could be used to feed many more billions of people.

The enormously expensive and resource intensive production of meat could soon be a thing of the past. In vitro production of meat is becoming a real possibility. That will in turn reduce water usage, deforestation and other environmental catastrophes. Not to mention the consequences for the wellbeing of animals.

Energy

Briefly:

[W]e could replace our energy sources with solar panels, at current prices, while spending only a tiny bit more [on energy] than we currently do. (source)

More on overpopulation here. More posts in this series here.

Economic Human Rights (40): How Do Poor People Live?

The poor tend to become a number, a statistic, an undifferentiated mass, especially here on this blog. Talk of the “bottom billion” and the one-dollar-a-day people only makes things worse. Of course, it’s important to know the numbers, if only to see how well we are doing in the struggle against poverty. But to actually know what we have to do, we need to know what poverty actually means to poor people. How do these people live? Which problems do they face? Who are they? None of this can be captured in numbers or statistics. Pure quantitative analysis doesn’t help. We need qualitative stories here, and these stories will necessarily differentiate between groups of people because poverty means different things to different people.

Keeping in mind the caveat that poverty is “multidimensional” and that it varies with the circumstances, is it possible to give a more or less general impression of the “lives of the poor”? There’s an interesting attempt here. Banerjee and Duflo analyzed survey data from 13 countries in order to distill a picture of the way people live on less than one dollar a day, of the choices they have and the limits and challenges they face.

The countries are Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, and Timor Leste. Obviously, the lives of the poor are very different in these different countries, and vary even for different groups within each country. Still, some general information can be extracted:

  • The number of adults (i.e. those over 18) living in a family ranges from about 2.5 to about 5, with a median of about 3, which suggests a family structure where it is common for adults to live with people they are not conjugally related to (parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, etc.). When every penny counts, it helps to spread the fixed costs of living (like housing) over a larger number of people. Poverty has consequences for family structure, and vice versa.
  • Poor families have more children living with them. The fact that there are a large number of children in these families does not necessarily imply high levels of fertility, as families often have multiple adult women.
  • The poor of the world are very young on average. Older people tend to be richer simply because they have had more time to accumulate resources.
  • Food typically represents from 56 to 78 percent of consumption expenses among rural households, and 56 to 74 percent in urban areas.
  • The poor consume on average slightly less than 1400 calories a day. This is about half of what the Indian government recommends for a man with moderate activity, or a woman with heavy physical activity. As a result, health is definitely a reason for concern. Among the poor adults in Udaipur, the average “body mass index” (that is, weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) is 17.8. Sixty-five percent of poor adult men and 40 percent of adult women have a body mass index below 18.5, the standard cutoff for being underweight. Eating more would improve their BMI and their health, and yet they choose to spend relatively large amounts on entertainment. Which just shows that the poor have the same desires as anyone else and choose their priorities accordingly.
  • The poor see themselves as having a significant amount of choice, and choose not to exercise it in the direction of spending more on food. The typical poor household in Udaipur could spend up to 30 percent more on food than it actually does, just based on what it spends on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Indeed, in most of the surveys the share spent on food is about the same for the poor and the extremely poor, suggesting that the extremely poor do not feel the need to purchase more calories. This conclusion echoes an old finding in the literature on nutrition: Even the extremely poor do not seem to be as hungry for additional calories as one might expect.
  • Tap water and electricity are extremely rare among the poor.
  • Many poor households have multiple occupations. They may operate their own one-man business, sometimes more than one, but do so with almost no productive assets. They also have jobs as laborers, often in agriculture. And they cultivate a piece of land they own. Yet, agriculture is not the mainstay of most of these households. Where do they find non-agricultural work? They migrate. The businesses they operate are very small, lacking economies of scale and without employment opportunities for people outside the family. That’s a vicious circle because it means that few people can find a job and are forced to start petty businesses themselves. This circle makes economies of scale very difficult.
  • The poor tend not to become too specialized, which has its costs. As short-term migrants, they have little chance of learning their jobs better, ending up in a job that suits their specific talents or being promoted. Even the non-agricultural businesses that the poor operate typically require relatively little specific skills. The reason for this lack of specialization is probably risk spreading. If the weather is bad and crop yields are low, people can move to another occupation.
  • The poor don’t save a lot, unsurprisingly. Some of it has to do with inadequate access to credit and insurance markets. Banks and insurers are unwilling to give access to the poor and saving at home is hard to do; it’s unsafe and the presence of money at home increases the temptation to spend (that’s true for all of us by the way).
  • In 12 of the 13 countries in the sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. Schooling doesn’t take a large bite from the family budget of the poor because children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee.

Measuring Human Rights (25): Measuring Hunger

First, and for those in doubt: hunger is a human rights violations (see article 25 of the Universal Declaration). Second, before we discuss ways to measure this violation, we have to know what it is that we want to measure. It’s surprisingly difficult to define hunger.

Definition of hunger

The word “hunger” in this context does not refer to the subjective sensation that we have when lunch is late. We’re talking here about a chronic lack of food or a sudden and catastrophic lack of food (as in the case of a famine). We measure a lack of food by measuring dietary energy deficiency, which in turn is computed based on average daily calorie intake. The FAO estimates that the average minimum energy requirement per person is 1800 kcal per day. The global average per capita daily calorie intake is currently about 2800 kcal. This average obviously masks extreme differences between the obese and the chronically undernourished.

The FAO minimum energy requirement per person of 1800 kcal is also an average. The minimum calorie need depends on many things: age, climate, health, height, occupation etc.

Usually, the concept of “hunger” as it is defined here is different from “malnutrition“. Hunger is a lack of food defined as a lack of calorie intake. Malnutrition is a lack of quality food, of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and of a divers diet. Hence, people may have access to sufficient quantities of food and still be malnourished.

Hunger and famine are also different concepts. Hunger is a chronic and creeping lack of food, while a famine results from the sudden collapse of food stocks. A famine implies widespread starvation during a limited period. It can’t go on forever because it must stop when everyone has died or when food supplies are restored. Chronic hunger on the other hand can go on forever because it doesn’t imply widespread starvation. Of course, people do die of chronic hunger, and on a global level hunger kills more people than famines do. But whereas in the case of famine people die of starvation, the victims of chronic hunger usually don’t starve to death. When we say that hunger kills someone every 3.6 seconds we usually mean that this person dies from an infectious disease brought on by hunger. Hunger increases people’s vulnerability to diseases which are otherwise nonfatal (e.g. diarrhea, pneumonia etc.). In fact, most hunger related deaths do not occur during famines. Chronic hunger is much more deadly – it’s just not as noticeable as a famine. When and where famines occur, they are more deadly and catastrophic. But they occur, thank God, only exceptionally. Hunger on the other hand is a permanent fixture of the lives of millions and ubiquitous in many countries.

Measurement of hunger

Given this definition, how do we go about and measure the extent of chronic hunger? (The measurement of famine is a separate problem, discussed here). There are different possible methods:

  • So-called food intake surveys (FIS) estimate dietary intake and try to relate this to energy needs determined by physical activity. Calorie intake below a minimum level means hunger. The problem here is that minimum calorie intake thresholds are somewhat arbitrary and do not always take people’s different calorie requirements into account. Even for a single individual, this threshold can vary over time (depending on the climate, the individual’s age, occupation and health etc.). Moreover, when trying to measure calorie intake, you’re faced with the problem of hunger due to imperfect absorption: it’s not because someone in a sample buys and consumes x number of calories that he or she actually absorbs those calories. The widespread incidence of diarrhea and other health problems often mean that only a fraction of calories eaten are absorbed by the body.
  • In order to bypass this, some propose a measurement method based on revealed preferences. The greater the share of calories people receive from the cheapest foods available to them, the hungrier they are; and, conversely, the more they buy expensive sources of calories, the less hungry they are. Their choice of foods reveals whether they have enough calories. This method therefore eliminates the threshold and absorption problems.

Our approach derives from the fact that when a person is below their nutrition threshold, there is a large utility penalty due to the physical discomfort associated with the body’s physiological and biochemical reaction to insufficient nutrition. At this stage, the marginal utility of calories is extremely high, so a utility-maximizing consumer will largely choose foods that are the cheapest available source of calories, typically a staple like cassava, rice or wheat. However, once they have passed subsistence, the marginal utility of calories declines significantly and they will begin to substitute towards foods that are more expensive sources of calories but that have higher levels of non-nutritional attributes such as taste. Thus, though any individual’s actual subsistence threshold is unobservable, their choice to switch away from the cheapest source of calories reveals that their marginal utility of calories is low and that they have surpassed subsistence. Accordingly, the percent of calories consumed from the staple food source, or the staple calorie share (SCS), can be used as an indicator for nutritional sufficiency. (source, source)

  • Still another method consists of measuring hunger’s physical effects on growth and thinness. Instead of measuring calorie intake, hunger or revealed preferences, you measure people’s length, their stunted growth and their body mass index. However, this is very approximative since length and weight may be determined by lots of factors, many of them unrelated to hunger.
  • And finally there are subjective approaches. The WFP does surveys asking people how often they ate in the last week and what they ate, how often they skip meals, how far they are away from markets, if their hunger is temporary or chronic etc. Gallup does something similar.

More on hunger here. And more posts in this series here.

Economic Human Rights (38): A Silly Argument Against the Right to Food

The right to food (art. 25 of the Universal Declaration i.a.) doesn’t get a good press. Only a handful believe that it’s comparable in importance to rights such as free speech or freedom of religion. This disdain surprises me. And it’s not just that it shows a failure to understand the interdependence of rights – none of our rights make any sense on an empty stomach. If you know that 6 million children under the age of five die of hunger every year there is at least a prima facie reason – although not a sufficient reason, I admit – to claim that there should be a human right to food.

The counter argument goes as follows: if we grant people a right to food, they will stop working and just watch television all day while the government gives them food. That will destroy both the economy and people’s character.

I think that’s really silly. Let’s make an analogy with an uncontroversial right, the right to free movement. This right doesn’t mean that the government should “give people movement”. That doesn’t make sense. People claiming that right don’t ask for the government to move them. What they ask is

  1. that the government doesn’t hinder their free movement (hence a legal prohibition on internal border controls, restricted zones etc.); and
  2. that the government helps people to acquire the capability to move freely if they don’t have that capability (hence assistance to people with disabilities and the construction of public highways).

The same is true for the right to food. This right doesn’t tell the government to give people food. All it demands is that the government doesn’t take away people’s food or people’s ability to acquire food (as it did in the case of Ukraine’s Holodomor), and that it helps people acquire the ability to get food. The latter may imply temporary food provision (or giving cash for food) to those in dire need, but this provision is aimed at capacity building, and should stop when people’s capabilities are restored.

A closely related discussion is the one about positive and negative rights. See here.

The Causes of Poverty (48): Overpopulation

It looks like we’re about to have another large famine, and so – right on cue – we’re hearing the familiar chorus of overpopulation. Equally predictable, I promised myself that this will be the last time that I drag my feet towards yet another rebuke of the Malthusians whose visions of the human flood always seem to cloud their perception of the facts.

The world’s population is estimated to continue its current growth path and to reach 9 billion in 2050, after which stabilization and even decline are likely. Those worrying about overpopulation claim that we can’t possible feed all those new people and that a decline in the numbers, if it will come, will come too late. A Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable without strong measures to reduce the number of human beings. However, that turns out to be a very simplistic assumption. There’s no good reason why humanity can’t feed one or two billion more members:

So long as plant breeding efforts are not hampered and modern agricultural technology continues to be available to farmers, it should be possible to produce yield increases that are large enough to meet some of the predictions of world food needs, even without having to devote more land to arable agriculture. (source)

The latter point also debunks the myth that population growth will inevitably mean increased deforestation and desertification.

Likewise, an excess number of people in a certain area isn’t the cause of current food shortages, and neither was it the cause of historic famines. A combination of climate factors, bad governance and infrastructure, the failure or inability to adopt modern farming technologies and panic hoarding produced those shortages. (Read also the work of Amartya Sen if you haven’t already done so).

If food production can keep up with expected population growth, maybe the problem is water. There’s indeed a water crisis in many parts of the world, but again it’s not population numbers that create the problem, but inefficient irrigation, excessive meat consumption and careless use. Rather than trying to limit the world’s population – which is very difficult anyway because it seems to require dictatorial government and has unexpected harmful consequences – one should tackle inefficiency and waste and focus on the development and improvement of fresh water production. Those objectives are eminently doable.

So, if water and food will be OK – notwithstanding the odd local famine that is likely to occur with any given number of human beings populating the earth – maybe a general increase of the world’s population will lead to pressures on poor countries’ healthcare systems? More children without extended healthcare systems means increased child and maternal mortality. However, current population increases go hand in hand with radical improvements in child and maternal mortality rates, so why would future increases be any different?

And don’t get me started on migration flows. The supposed harm done by migration is one of the biggest lies out there, on a par with overpopulation rhetoric.

More on overpopulation here.

Measuring Poverty (4): The Problem of the Definition of Poverty

Before you can start to measure poverty, you first have to decide what you actually want to measure. What is poverty? That’s not just a philosophical problem because depending on the definition of poverty you use, your measurements will be radically different (even with an identical definition, measurements will be different because of different measurement methods).

Among people who measure poverty, roughly 6 different definitions of poverty are used:

  • insufficient income
  • insufficient consumption spending
  • insufficient calorie intake
  • food consumption spending above a certain share of total spending
  • certain health indicators such as stunting, malnutrition, infant mortality rates or life expectancy
  • certain education indicators such as illiteracy.

None of these definitions is ideal, although the first and second on the list are the most widely used. A few words about the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Income

Advantages:

In developed countries, income is a common definition because it’s easy to measure. Most people in developed countries earn a salary or get their income from sources that are easy to estimate (interest payments, the value of houses, stock market returns etc.). They don’t depend for their income on the climate, crop yields etc. Moreover, developed countries have good tax data which can be used to calculate incomes.

Disadvantages:

In developing countries, however, income data tend to be underestimated because it’s difficult to value the income of farmers and shepherds. Farmers’ incomes fluctuate heavily with climate conditions, crop yields etc. If you ask them one day what their income is, there’s no guarantee that this is a good estimate of their yearly income.

Another disadvantage is that people are generally reluctant to disclose their full income. Some income may have been hidden from the tax administration or may have been earned from illegal activity such as corruption, smuggling, drug trade, prostitution, theft etc. For this reason, using income to estimate poverty means overestimating it.

And, finally, some income may be difficult to calculate (e.g. rising value of livestock).

Consumption

Advantages:

The main advantage of using consumption rather than income to measure poverty is that consumption is much more stable over the year and over a lifetime (see above). Hence, if you ask people about the level of their consumption, they can just tell you about their current situation, without having to go back in time or to predict the future – which they would have to do if you asked them about income. Their current consumption is likely to be representative of their long term consumption, which isn’t the case for income. This is even more true in the case of farmers who depend on the weather for their income and hence have a more volatile income. If you know that farmers are often relatively poor, then this issue is all the more salient for poverty measurement.

Another advantage of using consumption is that people aren’t as reticent to talk about it as they are about certain parts of their income. It’s also appears that people tend to remember their spending better than their income.

Disadvantages:

If you want to measure how much people consume, you have to include durable goods and housing. And consumption of those goods is difficult to measure because it’s difficult to value them. For example, if a household owns a house, you have to estimate what it would cost to rent that particular house and add this to the total consumption of that household, at least if you want to compare their consumption to the consumption of the household next door who has to rent its house. And you can’t make poverty statistics if you don’t make such comparisons. Then you have to do the same for cars etc.

Another difficulty in measuring consumption, is that in developing countries households consume a lot of what they themselves produce on the family farm. This as well is often difficult to value correctly.

And finally, different people have different consumption needs, depending of their age, health, work etc. It’s not clear to me how these different needs are taken into account when consumption is measured and used as an indicator of poverty.

Other definitions

Calorie intake: the problem with this is that different people need different amounts of calories (depending on their type of work, their age, health etc.), and that it isn’t very easy to measure how many calories people actually consume.

Food spending as a fraction of total spending: if you say people who spend more than x % of their total spending on food are considered poor, you still have to factor in relative food prices.

Stunting as an indicator of malnutrition and hence of poverty: stunting (height for age) is a notoriously difficult thing to measure.

Other issues

Some aspects of life tend to be excluded from poverty measurement, even though they have a huge impact on people’s wellbeing. The amount of leisure time people have is perhaps a good indicator of poverty, in certain circumstances (excluding CEOs and US Presidents), but it’s hardly ever counted in poverty measurements.

Another thing: people may have comparable incomes or even consumption patterns, but they may face very different social or environmental conditions: an annual income of $500 may be adequate for people living in a rural environment with a temperate climate where housing is cheap, heating isn’t necessary and subsistence farming is relatively easy. But the same income can mean deep poverty for a family living in a crowded city on the edge of a desert. The presence or absence of public goods such as quality schools, roads, running water and electricity also makes a lot of difference, but poverty measurement usually doesn’t take these goods into account.

The Causes of Poverty (31): Overpopulation and Food Shortages

I think overpopulation is a silly and simplistic explanation of the world’s problems, hysterical at best and damaging when it inspires public policy. I don’t deny that it can cause problems when we look at local areas: there can be too many people in a certain area compared to the locally available stocks of food and water. But the problems there aren’t caused by “overpopulation” but by inadequate distribution of goods, wasteful use of goods etc. But if you think all this is BS,  do go and read my previous posts for a more thoughtful discussion of the issues.

How is overpopulation a human rights issue? Well, if you believe overpopulation is a problem, you will probably have some of the following reasons for your beliefs:

  • Overpopulation may cause poverty, hunger and water shortages. And poverty, hunger and water are human rights issues.
  • Overpopulation may cause violence and war. No need to argue the link with human rights I believe.
  • Overpopulation may cause refugee flows. Immigration can cause a wide variety of human rights issues, going from xenophobia and discrimination to poverty and exclusion.

Personally, I think that all of those problems are real, but that they have other more important causes. Take food shortages for instance:

[F]ood availability can be significantly increased, at minimal cost, by simply reducing agricultural waste … As an engineer, I regularly travel to sort out post-harvest problems and I am convinced that there is little benefit to be gained from merely increasing farm production without making considerable improvements to post-harvest systems and facilities.

The majority of grain and vegetable stores in east Europe date back to the 1930s, in design if not in construction, and they are truly and hopelessly insufficient, amounting to losses of some 15m-25m tonnes of grain annually. India loses 40m tonnes of fruits and vegetables as well as 21m tonnes of wheat a year because of inadequate storage and distribution. To put that in perspective, India’s wheat wastage each year is almost equal to Australia’s entire production of wheat.

In South-East Asia 37% of rice is lost between field and table; in China the figure is up to 45% and in Vietnam it can be as high as 80%. This loss of 150m tonnes of rice each year represents a waste of resources on a truly massive and unsustainable scale.

In America and Britain the buying habits of the big supermarkets actually encourage waste. They impose draconian penalties on suppliers for failing to deliver agreed quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables during the year, which force farmers to grow a much bigger crop than they need as a form of insurance against poor weather and other factors that may reduce their yield.

Even worse, 30% of what is harvested never reaches the supermarket shelf owing to trimming, quality selection, etc. Of the food that does reach the supermarket, up to half is thrown away by the consumer. David Williams (source)

Overpopulation isn’t the cause of food shortages, and population control measures, such as sterilization, offspring limitation etc. aren’t the solutions. And if you don’t believe me, read the work of Amartya Sen on the link (or better the absence of a link) between food supplies, population and famines (see also here):

Amartya Sen convincingly refuted the claim that either food supply or population had anything to do with famine.  Famines regularly occurred at times and places where food was plentiful, and in the most thinly populated places, like Darfur. Nick Cullather (source)

The Environment and Human Rights (3): Water and Human Rights

We obviously need water to survive, and no human rights without survival. Inadequate water supplies also cause diseases, violating our right to health. We need water – and clean water – to drink, but also to eat. Or rather, to produce our food. And we need a lot. People drink on average just a few liters a day, but they consume thousands of liters a day if we count the water required to produce their food. And evidently we should count it. Many areas of the world face already now face water shortages. A fifth of the world’s population already lives in areas short of water. A global water crisis waits around the corner, and one likely consequence is famine, another human rights violation.

If we want to do something about the water crisis, we should be aware of the effect of food production on water shortages. Especially the production of meat requires huge amounts of water, compared to the production of grains or even rice. People in the West eat a lot a meat, and therefore contribute substantially to water shortages. As incomes in the developing world increase, people there will consume more meat. Hence, global water consumption will also increase. Combine this future increase with the fact that there are already shortages and that these shortages will get worse with global warming, desertification etc., and you get a real crisis.

What are the solutions? Or how can we prevent things from getting worse?

  • Jokingly we could ask people to become vegetarians. That would also be better for greenhouse gas emissions, by the way.
  • More realistically: food production, and especially agriculture and farming, represent 70% of global water consumption. That number could be cut down significantly with better irrigation; “more crop per drop”. There’s incredible waste going on there. 70% of irrigation water is lost in the process. One reason: farmers rarely pay their water bills at market prices, hence no incentives to cut waste. Unfortunately, pricing water at market prices would drive up food prices, pushing many consumers into poverty. And many poor farmers already can’t pay for expensive irrigation systems. More expensive water surely wouldn’t help them. Moreover, market prices may mean the privatization of water, and that’s dangerous. You might as well privatize oxygen.
  • Other solutions: cut waste in households and industries. Here, everyone can help. Also more recycling efforts are needed. Desalination, although expensive, is an option. As are better water storage facilities, especially for poor families in developing countries. All these efforts will not only reduce the risk of a major global water crisis, but will also improve crop yields, thereby reducing the price of food and hence the risk of poverty and famine.

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.

Inequality

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)

Information

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.

Economic Human Rights (14): Health

Health is a human rights issue in two respects. First, people have a right to health care and health insurance. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration states that

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is more specific. Article 7 guarantees the rights to safe and healthy working conditions. Article 10 deals with child labor:

The employment of children in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law.

Article 12 states:

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. 2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for: (a) The provision for the reduction of the stillbirth-rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child; (b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene; (c) The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases; (d) The creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.

The second way in which health is a human rights issue is the fact that good health is a precondition for the enjoyment of all human rights. In this way, bad health is similar to poverty. You have to be healthy and without pain in order to be able to use freedom rights and political rights. A sick, suffering or toiling person is thrown back upon himself and unable to relate to the outside world, just as a person who concentrates exclusively on his or her body for pleasurable reasons. Intense bodily sensations of any kind – positive and negative – shut us off from the world, because they make it impossible to perceive anything except our own body. In other words, they make the use of our classical rights impossible or undesirable.