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Über dieses Buch

This Brief provides some answers as to why famines continue to torment humankind here in the 21st century despite all our progress in food production, logistics, information dissemination and relief work. Contemporary famines are inherently political, and so the interesting question is not how famines can be prevented, but why they are allowed to develop in the first place; only by understanding the latter, is there hope to eradicate major famines.
The Brief assesses the various analytical approaches to the understanding of famine, from the classical approaches inspired by Thomas Malthus to the newer economic approaches based on Amartya Sen. While all approaches contribute with important insights on famine dynamics, they also struggle to capture the political dimension of contemporary famines. The Brief develops a political approach capable of addressing this important but messy political dimension of contemporary famines. The approach builds on principles of humanitarian accountability (the moral responsibility to alleviate suffering from famine) as well as political accountability (the interests and power relations involved in famine outcomes).



Chapter 1. Introduction

In 1981, two books in particular battled to become the bestselling nonfiction book that year. According to the New York Times, the feud stood between The Beverly Hills Diet by stylish starlet Judy Maze and Never Say Diet by the charismatic and flamboyant Richard Simmons. In the shadow of this clash of dieting giants, a book about deprivation and famine was published; a book which did not make it to the bestseller list. Instead, Poverty and Famines—An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation became one of (if not the) most influential works of famine ever published. The book was written by Indian economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. As a 10-year-old boy, he had experienced the Bengal famine of 1943 first-hand. Despite claiming the lives of more than one million people, Amartya Sen recalls how he knew of no one in his school or among his friends and relations whose family had experienced the slightest problems during the entire famine.

Olivier Rubin

Chapter 2. Understanding Famine

This chapter discusses how famine can be defined and operationalized. While acknowledging the benefits of understanding famine as an ongoing process, the chapter subscribes to an understanding of famine as a discrete event identifiable by an increase in mortality caused by mass starvation and diseases. Such an understanding is necessary, it is argued, to clearly delineated famine analysis from other studies of extreme destitution. Most famine approaches that will be discussed in the Brief are based on an understanding of famine as a discrete event. The chapter also presents the recent advances in the operationalization of famine. These efforts culminated in 2011 with the first ever declaration of famine based on a formal and universally accepted multidimensional system for famine diagnosis.

Olivier Rubin

Chapter 3. Classical Famine Approaches

This chapter discusses three prominent classical famine frameworks that still have an influence on how we understand famine today. The Malthusian approach sees population growth as the main (and virtuous) determinant of famine. The Smithian approach argues that flawed state intervention is the main case of major famines. The FAD-approach understands famine as the result of a lack of food availability. Many contemporary understandings of famines are rooted in issues of overpopulation, ecological degradation, flawed state interventions and lack of food production. However, the three classical approaches are all based on mono-causal hypotheses of famine causation, and this chapter draws into question such analytical approaches to the understanding of famine.

Olivier Rubin

Chapter 4. The Entitlement Approach

Sen’s entitlement approach treats famines as socio-economic problems rather than food availability problems. The approach focuses on the set of alternative commodity bundles that can be acquired through legal channels of acquirement. Entitlement failures occur when it is no longer possible to acquire commodity bundles with enough food to survive. Hence, a famine need not occur because of lack of food but could be caused purely by distributional dynamics such as a rise in food prices, a fall in wages, a termination of state transfers, and so on. While the entitlement approach is a useful tool in a disaggregated impact analysis, several scholars have argued that the entitlement approach devotes insufficient analytical attention to issues of food production, legal structures and socio-political dimensions. The chapter discusses the analytical implications of this criticism, and makes the case for supplementing the entitlement approach with macro-level analyses of political dynamics.

Olivier Rubin

Chapter 5. The Political System

This chapter addresses the relationship between political systems and famine. According to the dominant theory, pluralistic institutions allow the media, the voters and the opposition to mount a pressure on governments to prevent famines. A deterministic interpretation of the theory would argue that famines are simply not possible in democracies while a more probabilistic would just argue that they are less likely to occur, ceteris paribus. The deterministic interpretation is falsified by several concrete cases of famine and democracy coinciding, while the validity of the probabilistic interpretation is found to be more likely although data is inconclusive. Some studies indicate that the political system does have an effect on famine mortality while other studies do not find any impact of the political system on incidents of famine. Theoretically, several explanations are discussed in the chapter that can account for the ambiguous empirical findings. The main argument of the chapter is that we should pursue a more disaggregated and inductive way to include political dynamics in famine analysis.

Olivier Rubin

Chapter 6. The Political Accountability Approach

This chapter develops a political approach to famine. The approach is based on ethical deliberations of humanitarian accountability which support the argument that governments must carry the core responsibility for famines while other key actors should only be assigned contributory responsibilities. Insights into the nature of contemporary famine lead to the recognition that famines are inherently political in much the same manner as genocides or pogroms. Humanitarian acts of philanthropy and redistribution by themselves, therefore, will be insufficient to eradicate contemporary famines. Broadening the analytical scope to include political accountability is necessary. While some existing political approaches are adept at analyzing famines as political failures, a more inductive and explorative approach is warranted to analyze famines as outcomes of political processes. The chapter introduces the political accountability approach that is based on multistage analyses along the dimensions of interest and power. Two examples from India and Somalia are used to illustrate how the political accountability approach can be applied.

Olivier Rubin
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