Has there ever been a famine in a functioning democracy?
June 22, 2022 12:17 PM   Subscribe

In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen claimed that "no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy". What do historians, social scientists, and others make of this claim? Was he right? Are there counterexamples? Has anything changed since the book was published in 2000?

I'd like to find a scholarly evaluation of Sen's claim. Recent articles are preferred to older ones; thorough discussions are better than brief ones.

I realise that both "democracy" and "famine" are vague and contested terms!

(I’m slightly embarrassed that I’ve been unable to find the answer to this question through Google or Google Scholar. It's not my field, and it’s hard to find discussion of this claim in particular amid the vast literature … )

Thanks in advance.
posted by HoraceH to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This NYT article from 2003 directly addresses Sen's claim. While this article is actually critical of Sen, paradoxically it actually provides empirical substantiation for Sen's claim, in that the counterexamples offered do not meet the definition of famine. It's really interesting:
Mr. Sen's views about famine and hunger have recently been put to the test by Dan Banik, an Indian-born political scientist at the University of Oslo. Mr. Banik has spent much of the last several years in India, studying the parched, desperate Kalahandi region of Orissa. In that area alone, Mr. Banik said by phone from India, he found 300 starvation deaths in six months. And they are hardly unique. ''I have collected newspaper reports on starvation for six years in Indian newspapers,'' he said, ''and there's not a state where it hasn't happened. Starvation is widespread in India.''
He quickly added, however, that the toll was nowhere near the hundreds of thousands that constitute a famine.
Stephen Devereux, an economist at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University who specializes in food security in Africa, faulted Mr. Sen for not dealing with the ''big political questions.'' ... Currently, Mr. Devereux said, more than a half-dozen countries in Africa face a famine threat, including such democracies as Ethiopia.

There, he said, conditions are ''as bad as in 1984,'' when famine deaths were estimated at one million. Ethiopia was then ruled by a Marxist dictator. Today it is democratically governed, but as many as six million people remain dependent on food aid from abroad.
So it seems even NYT didn't find examples of famine in democracies. If only to the extent that democracies are able to maintain good enough international relations and open enough borders to access food aid, democracy seems to prevents famine.
posted by MiraK at 12:29 PM on June 22 [10 favorites]

...and if some democracy somewhere failed to do that, it would be super easy just to no-true-Scotsman it as not being a functioning democracy on exactly that basis.

I think this is yet another example of a claim that sounds big and profound but doesn't actually say much.

I could equally well argue that no functioning democracy would allow any of its citizens to go unhoused or to be bankrupted by necessary medical procedures.
posted by flabdablet at 12:33 PM on June 22 [22 favorites]

Canada starved Indigenous people.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:35 PM on June 22 [18 favorites]

Hmm, the example that comes to mind is the Potato Famine, which happened after Britain is regarded as becoming a parliamentary democracy, and when Ireland was still part of it. Of course, it played a huge role in Ireland not wanting to be part of Britain - I suppose one could say this was a case of democracy not functioning well.
posted by coffeecat at 1:15 PM on June 22 [11 favorites]

It's a commonplace here that the world is going to hell— but for the 80% of human beings who don't live in the First World, it's entirely the opposite. This article on global hunger provides details. Undernourishment in developing countries has gone from 35% in 1970 to 13% in 2015.

Correlation is not causation, but the developing world has become much more democratic— it was pretty bleak, democracy-wise, in the 1960s.

You can nitpick about the quality of democracy, but Sen's overall point is and should be obvious: colonial regimes were undemocratic and prone to famines, and so were Cold War dictatorships on both sides.
posted by zompist at 1:36 PM on June 22 [8 favorites]

The 2009 article The Merits of Democracy in Famine Protection – Fact or Fallacy? "calls into question the strength of the link between democracy and famine protection." (Citation found in an obscure site called Wikipedia.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:36 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]

The statement seems like a tautology because many people would probably take famine as a sign that the democracy isn’t functioning very well…?

Content warning - Indigenous genocide
Like in the case of Canada deliberately starving Indigenous people in the 1800s, Canada wasn’t a democracy then since Indigenous people weren’t allowed to vote. And I’d say it’s still not a functional democracy when dozens of Indigenous communities still don’t have clean water today.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 2:12 PM on June 22 [6 favorites]

I'm reading a very interesting book by Thomas Keneally called Three Famines that examines how famines work in their political context.

As already pointed out, it's entirely possible for a famine to occur in a democracy - provided your definition allows the deliberate starvation of certain subsets of the population. As already mentioned, starvation is a tool of genocide. The Irish Potato Famine's been brought up, but it's really worth hammering home that Ireland is a colony, and the starvation of the Irish was as deliberate an act of genocide as the starvation of the Indigenous peoples in Canada and other parts of the British Empire.
posted by Jilder at 2:59 PM on June 22 [10 favorites]

I read this ages ago and have talked about it with various people since, which usually leads to a discussion much like the one here. There isn't a solid counterexample, or someone could point to it. There are a lot of borderline cases, and the "no true Scotsman" suggestion has some legs.

To be clear, Sen is using the term "famine" to mean mass starvation and death, not a bad harvest and hardships. His point was that famines are the result of distributional choices in a time of shortages. The prime example is repeated famines under the British, notably including millions dead in the Bengal famine at the tail end of foreign rule, contrasted with the Maharashtra drought--something several Indians I talked to about this brought up, but that was a famine that didn't kill anyone. (The Bihar famine killed several thousand, though.)

So this ends up not really being super cut-and-dry and is more "how do you want to define things" than a factual question. Personally, I think there's a little too much in the counterexamples to really quote it as a fact the way I used to, but it really is striking how much better even very poor self-ruled democratic nations seem to handle food crises in terms of alleviating death.

Hmm, the example that comes to mind is the Potato Famine, which happened after Britain is regarded as becoming a parliamentary democracy, and when Ireland was still part of it.

Ireland was not a part of any British democracy, ever, but certainly not in 1848. It was a colonial possession. Part of the problem was it was that the representation "it" had in Parliament was basically Anglican landholders selected, who were not starving and in fact kept exporting food throughout the crisis.

Pre-famine Ireland made up about 30% of the total population of the British Isles; if had remotely proportionate influence the famine would have been taken seriously in London. Sen specifically takes this as an example in support of his thesis.
posted by mark k at 9:43 PM on June 22 [6 favorites]

The US had the Dust Bowl. I'm not sure about starvation deaths, but a lot of people fled the area as the only means of survival.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:05 AM on June 23 [2 favorites]

Sweden had a famine in 1917. And as in many comments above, you can then discuss wether the country was a functioning democracy back then.
posted by mumimor at 7:38 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]

Sen's main point is simple, yet powerful. Famine is political. In other words: famine isn't just caused by food shortages, it's caused by political decisions. (And if you think this is 'a claim that sounds big and profound but doesn't actually say much' then I would respectfully suggest you need to think again.)

The pull quote about famines and democracies makes more sense if you put it in context. Here's the full passage:
Authoritarian rulers, who are themselves rarely affected by famines (or other such economic calamities), tend to lack the incentive to take timely preventative measures. Democratic governments, in contrast, have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentives to undertake measures to avert famines and other such catastrophes. It is not surprising that no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy -- be it economically rich (as in contemporary Western Europe or North America) or relatively poor (as in postindependence India, or Botswana, or Zimbabwe). Famines have tended to occur in colonial territories governed by rulers from elsewhere (as in British India or in an Ireland administered by alienated English rulers), or in one-party states (as in the [sic] Ukraine in the 1930s, or China during 1958-1961, or Cambodia in the 1970s), or in military dictatorships (as in Ethiopia, or Somalia, or some of the Sahel countries in the near past). Indeed, as this book goes to press [= 1999], the two countries that seem to be leading the "famine league" in the world are North Korea and Sudan -- both eminent examples of dictatorial rule.
The counter-examples mentioned in this thread -- i.e. the forced starvation of indigenous peoples in Canada, and the Great Famine in Ireland -- actually go a long way to support Sen's thesis. These are textbook examples of man-made disasters: subsistence crises caused or exacerbated by political decisions. Indeed, Sen specifically references the Irish Famine in the passage just quoted.

Yes, we can argue endlessly about the definition of famine or the definition of democracy. But this is to miss the point. Famine is political. And that means that in the vast majority of cases, famine is avoidable. Sen's challenge to us is to think of famines not as natural disasters or acts of God, but as tragedies that can be prevented if we have the political will to do so.

Arguably, the definitive disproof of Sen's thesis would be a famine triggered by runaway climate change that overwhelms even the best efforts of the best functioning democracies. But one could also see that as the definitive proof of Sen's thesis: a catastrophic disaster caused by a catastrophic failure of political will. Either way, I hope I never live to see Sen's thesis put to such a test.
posted by verstegan at 12:34 PM on June 23 [9 favorites]

See also Mike Davis Late Victorian Holocausts which has a similar point.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:08 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

Famine is political.

Now there's a claim with heft.

And it's not just famine, either. When it comes right down to it, shortages of pretty much anything are political, arising from a structural decoupling of decision-making power from answerability to those whom the decisions affect.

This is a principle that applies to all levels of organization, not just democratic vs dictatorial nation states. The Enron blackouts are an example that immediately springs to mind.
posted by flabdablet at 1:52 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone!
posted by HoraceH at 11:35 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

A little sidelight about the mechanism of famines going on in non-democracies, from Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky volume 5; Dostoevsky is editing the conservative Prince Meshchersky's weekly The Citizen when the following occurs (even though Meshchersky was an intimate with the family of the Tsar):
'A widespread famine afflicted several Russian provinces during 1873-1874, and [Dostoevsky] allowed himself to print several articles highly critical of the government’s handling of the situation, especially in the province of Samaria. No effective central organization had been set up to take charge of the distribution of food, and one article suggested that members of the local zemstvos (district councils that were democratically elected) should be enlisted to participate in such a central consultative body. This article, as well as other reproving remarks in the same issue, brought down the wrath of the guardians of the press. Punishment came in the form of a ban on the sale of individual copies of The Citizen. Only subscribers could receive the weekly, and this resulted in a considerable loss of revenue. Dostoevsky wrote a fulsomely supplicating letter to a high press official, asking this dignitary to intercede with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the ban was lifted a month later. From this time on, he took considerable care to tread very carefully with regard to the famines. A letter in January 1874 to Orest Miller, a professor at the University of St. Petersburg and a well-known moderate Slavophil scholar and critic (he was later to write half of the first biography of Dostoevsky), indicates his embarrassment: “To my very great regret, I can no longer now venture to publish your article [on the famines] and, of course, against my wishes. As an editor I was summoned to the Censorship Committee a few days ago and it was impressed on me that although one may in fact write and publish reported facts about the famine, it must be without tendentiousness in a certain direction and in such a way that there is nothing ‘alarming.’ I’m informing you of this reprimand in secret.” Apparently, he had rashly given Miller his assurance that the article would be printed, and Miller replied stiffly that he had been “stupid” to accept such a promise, even going so far as to spread the word “that The Citizen in this way puts all our ‘liberals’ to shame.” No doubt Dostoevsky would dearly have wished The Citizen to acquire the reputation of being more critically outspoken than “the liberals.” '
posted by diodotos at 11:04 AM on June 25

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