Famine: A Short History
By Cormac Ó Gráda
(Princeton University Press, 327 pp., $27.95)
The earliest recorded famines, according to Cormac Ó Gráda in his brief but masterful book, are mentioned on Egyptian stelae from the third millennium B.C.E. In that time--and to an extent, even today, above the Aswan dam in Sudan--farmers along the Nile were dependent on the river flooding to irrigate their fields. But one flood out of five, Ó Gráda tells us, was either too high or too low. The result was often starvation. The stelae commemorate the philanthropy of the aristocracy in providing food to the hungry. Other records of famine in the ancient world can be found in texts as various as Gilgamesh, the Joseph narrative in Genesis, Nehemiah, Cicero, and the Book of Revelation, in which the figure of famine is the third of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Leave Gilgamesh out of it. We now know enough about the history of famine for Ó Gráda to state confidently that the common denominator in most of the worst famines on record has been rain--too much of it or too little of it; while in some instances the cause seems to have been volcanic eruptions. The great famine that afflicted most of northern Europe between 1315 and 1322, from Ireland through Wales, England, and France, to Scandinavia and western Poland, was the result of heavy rains, flooding, and abnormally cold weather--the beginning of what is now known as the “Little Ice Age” in medieval Europe. The historian William Chester Jordan, who has written the definitive book on the subject, cautions that estimates of how many people died are hard to assess, but it seems that somewhere between one-third and one-fifth of the population perished of either hunger or disease.
A century earlier, in 1229, the Kangi famine in Japan--the result, it is generally thought, of volcanic activity and unseasonably damp weather--killed 20 percent of the population in many districts. More than a century later, in 1454, sixty-five years before Cortés’s arrival, the so-called “famine of One Rabbit” in Mexico (“One Rabbit” being the name of the first year of the fifty-two-year Aztec calendar cycle) took place after a severe drought. And while Ó Gráda is guardedly skeptical of the claim made first by Thomas Malthus in his Essay on Population (and seconded, in the scholarship of our time, by Fernand Braudel and his followers) that famines were a common occurrence in history, the first table in his book, which sets out estimated death tolls from what he refers to as “selected famines,” gives a very grim picture of the frequency of this disaster and its consequences. It lists an excess mortality of 1.5 million, and a death rate of 7 percent, for France in 1693 and 1694; 300,000 dead, and a 13 percent death rate, for Ireland in 1740 and 1741 (more than one hundred years before the potato famine); and nine and a half to thirteen million dead and a 3 percent death rate for China between 1877 and 1879. Elsewhere he speaks of the Brazilian Grande Seca of the same year causing half a million deaths, and of literally dozens of other famines occurring century in and century out, throughout the world.
Ó Gráda has a deeper quarrel with Malthus, which is to challenge the father of modern demography’s fundamental claim that famine “seems to be the last, most dreadful resource of nature,” and that “the power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to provide subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” This may seem to make intuitive sense, and doubtless the survival of the Malthusian paradigm owes much to this impression. The problem is that Malthus was wrong. As Ó Gráda notes with characteristic understatement, “elementary demographic arithmetic argues against famines being as severe a demographic corrective as Malthus and others have suggested.” If famines had really been as frequent as Malthus and his inheritors argued, it would have been impossible to sustain populations, let alone for them to grow. He is suitably cautious about how far the historical record before the seventeenth century can be trusted, but still Ó Gráda is willing to put his money on famines having been “less common in the past than claimed by Malthus or Braudel.”
This is not to say that Ó Gráda is trying to prettify the long picture, and to underestimate how central, and how convulsive, famine has been to the human experience. Based on his account, it is hard not to conclude that, in terms of proportion of population killed, famine has taken the lives of many more people throughout most of recorded history than war. The two are catastrophically interrelated, of course--as closely linked to humanity’s detriment as, in Amartya Sen’s seminal insight, democracy is linked to the avoidance of famine, even in periods of failed harvests. But wrong as Malthus may have been--at least so far--about whether population growth must inevitably outstrip the availability of the food needed for human survival, he had sound reasons, in 1798, to treat famine as principally a natural phenomenon linked to weather, rather than as a calamity fundamentally caused by war and ideology--a political calamity. Ó Gráda, with his typical fair-mindedness, goes to some lengths to demonstrate that Malthus may have under-emphasized the latter connection, but he certainly did not deny it.
O Gráda begins to emphasize the centrality of famine’s political dimension once his discussion moves away from pre-nineteenthcentury famines to what might be called modern famines. The former, he insists, were mainly linked either to “extraordinary ‘natural events’” or to “ecological shocks.” In the latter, by contrast, the natural dimension more often than not played a subaltern role. As a result, while it seems doubtful that it was Ó Gráda’s intention to defend Malthus, his account of “pre-modern” famines nonetheless seems to offer at least tacit support for some of Malthus’s assumptions--as when, in a chapter called “Markets and Famines,” Ó Gráda points out that Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (which was published in 1776, twenty-two years before Malthus’s Essay on Population) got it wrong when, writing of the terrible famine in Bengal and Bihar in 1770, he attributed the cause principally to mistakes made by the East India Company. In reality the root cause was drought.
Famine is by no means Ó Gráda’s only interest. Much of his writing has been on Irish economic history, including, in great depth, its twentieth-century history, not least as the author of the Oxford New Economic History of Ireland. His great book on the so-called potato famine--Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory--is a model of care and skepticism about sentimentalizing the past or indulging in nationalist cant, even as it is a harrowing account of an event that, as Ó Gráda puts it, “was much more murderous, relatively speaking, than most historical and most modern famines.” In his conclusion to that book, Ó Gráda refers dismissively to “a continued desire in Ireland ‘to remember things we never knew’ and an eagerness in some quarters further afield, particularly in the United States, to invoke the famine as a means of stoking up old resentments.” That said, the memory of the famine--Ó Gráda is absolutely right to emphasize that element in Black ’47--played an important role in the shaping of Irish nationalism, just as the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 did in defining, if only dialectically, Indian nationalism. (The historian Jill Bender has even argued that there is a link between the earlier Indian famine of 1873–1874 and the development of nineteenth-century Irish parliamentary nationalism.)
Given the stance he took in this earlier book, it is hardly surprising that when Ó Gráda turns to the ideological and political dimensions of the cause of the famines, he is unwilling to endorse a reductive account that assigns the complete responsibility for nineteenthcentury famines to imperial policy. This view has its defenders, and has been expressed in subtle scholarly work by the geographer Michael Watts in his study of northern Nigeria. More recently, it has gained a currency it hardly deserves in Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis, the self-described Marxistenvironmentalist who teaches creative writing at UC Riverside, and whose general approach might be summarized as Wallerstein for Dummies. Davis’s basic argument is that the deliberate strategy of the British empire was to turn droughts into famines in order to drag the colonies into the world economic system. As Davis puts it, “the great Victorian famines were forcing houses and accelerators of the very socio-economic forces that ensured their occurrence in the first place.”
This is progressive tripe, and woefully consistent with Davis’s previous work, which has been remarkable for its blend of sentimentality about peasant arcadia, conspiracy mongering, and fantasies about the emancipatory potential of various urban jacqueries. (In his work on Los Angeles, Davis saw proto-revolutionary potential in the Crips and the Bloods.) Davis is emblematic of an influential strain in environmentalist thinking about agriculture, which insists, against most of the evidence and against common sense, that before the advent of modernity, imperial or otherwise, peasants possessed both the wisdom and the means to stave off famine. Before the dystopian advent of industrial agriculture, this argument runs, peasants had sustainable and effective systems of crop diversification and water-harvesting, and it was only when they were deprived of the capacity to deploy this knowledge that famine and misery became rampant. It is this arcadian fantasy that is as much at the heart of much of the current opposition to genetically engineered seeds as the entirely justifiable fear of agricultural multinationals owning patents to foods, the possibility that safeguards against health risks are insufficient, and the problem of whether poor farmers can ever sustainably afford GE seeds. People such as Davis write as if there were no famines before imperialism. They have misunderstood the history of famine, or chosen to misunderstand it.
The reality is that if there was a malign side to British imperial famine policy--and, though you wouldn’t know it from Niall Ferguson and Adam Roberts and others, God knows there was!--it was a Malthusian malignity: the view that, as Malthus himself wrote, “gigantic inevitable famine ... with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.” Malthusianism provided a pseudo-scientific pretext--the great famine specialist Alex de Waal has called it “one of the most monstrous intellectual aberrations of all time”--for the British authorities to fail to aid the poor. But it was most emphatically not a charter to foment famine, as Davis claims.
What is true is that Malthusianism exerted a tremendous and pernicious influence on Victorian thinking in terms of its moral complacency about the suffering of the poor and of its mistaken analysis of why famines actually occur. In 1805, the East India Company appointed Malthus professor of political economy at the college that it maintained in Haileybury. His views, based less on his actual writings and more on what de Waal calls the “oral tradition” of Malthusianism, persisted until at least the early 1880s. Yet there was no conspiracy and no master plan, and by the 1870s British imperial policy was swinging strongly toward what de Waal, who is hardly known for his admiration for imperialism, calls in Famine Crimes--an essential book--“a commitment to employing the destitute and hungry.” This changed analysis of the nature of famine and the responsibilities of government led first to the appointment of a Famine Commission and then to the Famine Codes of imperial India. As Sen has pointed out, these codes, modified and improved in a series of “Scarcity Manuals” issued after independence, remain at the root of the methodology currently being used effectively by the government of India to prevent famine.
De Waal actually goes further, arguing that “ceding an anti-famine political contract was the price paid by Britain for maintaining imperial rule in India.” And he speculates that the failure of the colonial government to live up to this contract during the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 contributed powerfully to the further mobilization of anti-colonial sentiment in India. As de Waal puts it, “this was a vindication of the Famine Commissioners’ insight that effective famine prevention would put a brake on anti-British sentiment.”
O Gráda hardly holds European domination blameless. His general view seems to be that, to the extent we are in a position to know, pre-nineteenth-century famines were principally the result of natural phenomena, but that subsequently, even though natural factors were almost always part of the explanation, the most important causes have been policy failures, wars, or what he calls “the violence of governments.” Ó Gráda looks at the three major famines that took place, and one that was averted, in Bengal since the mid-eighteenth century, and concludes (tentatively, because of the deficits in the data) that 1769–1770, which allegedly killed one third of the affected population, was the result of drought, and that 1873–1874 was prevented because of sound public policy, and that 1896–1897 took place despite it, and that the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 was due mainly to World War II, and partly to policy failure, and only slightly to a food shortfall.
The account in Ó Gráda’s book of the link between colonialism and famine is admirably nuanced. “On balance,” he writes, “the initial impact of colonial conquest and ‘pacification’ was almost certainly to increase famine mortality.” Some of the examples he cites are Mexico in the 1520s, Ireland in the 1580s and 1650s, Namibia and Angola before 1920, the Xhosa lands in South Africa in the 1850s, and northern Nigeria in the second decade of the twentieth century.
That is the case for the anti-imperialist prosecution. In mitigation, Ó Gráda insists that colonialism’s subsequent impact was less clear. “In the longer run,” he writes, “although colonial rule may have eliminated or weakened traditional coping mechanisms, it meant better communications, integrated markets, and more effective public action, which together probably reduced famine mortality.” And Ó Gráda points out that while “colonial exactions during World War I produced famine in several parts of Africa ... famines were almost certainly much fewer between the 1920s and the end of the colonial era than they had been before the post-1880s ‘scramble for Africa.’”
Alex de Waal has significantly observed that, contrary to our present view, which firmly associates famine with sub-Saharan Africa, until the early 1970s famine was “virtually synonymous with one or other Asian country,” and that “most modern famine theory and practice originate there.” While Ó Gráda’s scope is global, and he treats the Great Irish Famine and a number of African famines at length and in some detail, inevitably the historical material in his book is centered on China and India. For Ó Gráda, the Bengal Famine of 1943 is the “paradigmatic disaster.” He can say this so confidently less because of its magnitude (while it killed around two million people by most estimates, its toll was proportionally lower than the Irish famine of 1847, and lower in absolute numbers than the famines in the Soviet Union in both 1921–1922 and 1932–1933, and far lower than the 1959–1961 famine in China during the so-called Great Leap Forward) than because the study of the Great Bengal Famine fundamentally transformed the way we now think about famines, and about how to relieve or prevent them.
As Ó Gráda generously insists, this was due almost single-handedly to the work of Amartya Sen, who, as he puts it, “refocused” famine studies, reorienting it “from a Malthusian toward a distributionist perspective.” Sen emphasized that a famine caused by a failure, or even just a serious shortfall, in the harvest would rapidly engender a devaluation of all non-food possessions--what famine specialists call “entitlements,” so that the poorest people basically lose the purchasing power they need to ensure their own survival. Looking at the data without Malthusian prejudice, Sen demonstrated that it was simply not the case that food shortfalls were necessarily greater in periods of famine than they were in times when there was no threat of famine--and that, conversely, there were many periods, not only in Bengal but globally, in which the availability of food had actually declined and no famine had ensued.
To state it simply, if a bit reductively: Sen’s work put an end, once and for all, to the false belief, derived from Malthus, that famines are primarily the result of food shortages and overpopulation. This may seem counter-intuitive, since overpopulation can be a factor and food shortfalls are a common proximate cause of famines. But whatever modifications Sen has made to his analysis in the three decades since he published his magisterial work Poverty and Famines, his fundamental idea that the principle cause of famine is not food availability within a given area but access to food--that is, whether people have the means of getting enough to eat, is now beyond question. Sen’s other fundamental notion, developed in these pages, that democracy, or civil and political rights and press freedom, offer practical protection from famine, is somewhat more intuitive, and, in contrast to his theory of entitlements--a person’s “ability to command enough food,” as Sen put it--seems in need of complication. This is not because it is wrong, but because, as de Waal has pointed out, other preconditions such as administrative capacity have to exist for even democratic governments in poor countries to combat famine. As the example of China from the late 1960s demonstrates, it is also true that non-democratic governments may succeed in stamping out famine.
It is now absolutely clear that while many factors contributed to the Great Bengal Famine, an overall absence of food grains was not one of them. For Sen, the famine was principally the result of bureaucratic bungling by the British authorities and the consequent market failure. Ó Gráda demurs slightly, arguing that it was “largely due to the failure of the British authorities, for war-strategic reasons, to make good a genuine food deficit.” Mars, he says, played a greater role than Malthus. Ó Gráda is unsparing, and his understatement is far more damning than the reckless speculations of Mike Davis, who is piously convinced that the British intentionally caused the deaths by starvation of millions of Bengalis. (“Wartime priorities,” Ó Gráda writes, “deprived the Bengali poor of the food they so badly needed, disrupted food markets [to some extent], inhibited free speech, and delayed the public proclamation of famine conditions. The conclusion seems inescapable: the two million and more who perished in Bengal were mainly unwilling, colonial casualties of a struggle not of their own making--that against fascism.”)
But if, in reality, the Great Bengal Famine was the last major unintended famine in Asia, all too many twentieth-century famines have been, as Ó Gráda writes, “deliberately engineered to kill.” Had Davis really been looking for ‘holocausts’, he need have looked no further than the famine created by Lenin’s government in 1920, by Stalin’s in 1932, and by Mao’s in 1959. Those catastrophes--ideologically inconvenient to the radical anti-imperialist left--really do fit his template of deliberately engineered acts of mass murder. It is these events, and their successors (above all in two other soi-disant Marxist regimes, Ethiopia in 1984–1985 and North Korea in 1995–1996), to which Ó Gráda turns in the last narrative chapter of his book.
Ó Gráda does not mince his words, and they are worth quoting at length. “It is a great irony,” he writes,
that the most deadly famines of the last century--including the worst ever in terms of sheer numbers--occurred under regimes committed, at least on paper, to the eradication of poverty. The history of the USSR (1917–1989) is pockmarked by famine. Post-1949 China’s remarkable record of achievements in terms of life expectancy and material progress will always be marred by the Great Leap Forward famine of 1959-61, resulting in the deaths of millions of people. Today, the people of the Democratic Republic of North Korea struggle to survive in the wake of a smaller famine.
While the degree to which the famine of 1920–1922 was actually orchestrated by Lenin’s government may be impossible to establish, what Ó Gráda calls military “requisitions” for the revolutionary war effort--a policy that does not seem to have been very different from what the British did in Bengal in 1943--clearly played an important role. About the Soviet famine in 1932, sometimes called (though not by Ó Gráda) Stalin’s “terror famine” and chronicled by Robert Conquest in his great prosecutor’s brief Harvest of Sorrow, there is less doubt. While Ó Gráda is adamant that Conquest’s argument that the famine was deliberately engineered and politically motivated, particularly against Ukrainians, and compounded by the famine deaths occasioned by what Ó Gráda calls “forced migration to the Gulag,” needs to be revised, he certainly does not repudiate what he refers to as “the traditional verdict.” The most that he is willing to say is that one must also see the famine as “the outcome of a political struggle between a ruthless regime, bent on industrialization at breakneck speed, and an exploited and uncooperative peasantry.”
About the famine of 1959 in China, which is often referred to as the worst man-made famine in history, Ó Gráda is equally judicious. The truth about the famine, he writes (adding, typically, “insofar as it can be inferred from the fallible sources available”), is that it “was due to a combination of natural and man-made causes”--“three parts nature and seven parts man,” in the words that he quotes from Liu Sha-ch’i, the nominal head of the Chinese state between 1959 and his death under torture at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1969. The point is an important one. It is too common for discussions of the causes of famine that take place in the aftermath of Sen’s pathbreaking work to give the impression that natural factors have no role whatsoever in famines, and that only political malevolence, economic inequality, or bureaucratic bungling are to blame. This is certainly not what Sen meant to imply. It is certainly not Ó Gráda’s view. But whatever the role of natural causes, the role of the state in these great famines has been incontrovertibly terrible.
Ó Gráda is equally cautious in offering a view as to whether the famines in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and North Korea in the mid-1990s fit "the same category” as those in the Soviet Union or the China of the Great Leap Forward. His caution does him credit, but while he is right to insist that we know too little about what took place in North Korea (he cites a CIA report, for example, that casts doubt on the commonplace journalistic assertion that famine killed up to three million people in the DPRK in the 1990s), he is perhaps overly cautious with regard to the Ethiopian famine. He is right to say that the war waged by the Ethiopian government against secessionist movements in the northern provinces of Wollo and Tigre was “a more important contributory factor [to the famine] than its ill-advised economic policies.” But for once Ó Gráda’s scholarly caution seems excessive.
In the words of the late François Jean, a leading figure in Doctors Without Borders and a man who knew the Ethiopian situation intimately, famine came to be used by the government in Addis Ababa as “a trump card to weaken opposition movements and control populations.” Like Soviet Russia in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution and like China in the Great Leap Forward, Ethiopia was a country where, as Jean put it, “a revolutionary rhetoric [coincided] with the actual execution of a radical project of social restructuring.” And as in Russia and China before, what occurred was “the logical product of a system that seeks to lead an entire society on a forced march towards an absolute, compulsory Good.”
Still, Ó Gráda is absolutely correct in saying that, globally speaking, “the scope ... to produce cataclysmic famine even in peacetime” is much reduced compared with what it has been in the past. In this, he explicitly endorses de Waal’s argument that famine is now conquerable, and Sen’s view that if the political will exists, then famines are not hard to prevent. De Waal actually puts the claim even more strongly in Famine Crimes, arguing that “for more than a century there has been no excuse for famine.” And while he is unwilling (or perhaps temperamentally averse) to write so categorically, Ó Gráda’s analysis does seem to concur. As he notes, even in the case of Niger in 2005, probably the most serious case of famine in this decade, “a combination of public action, market forces, and food aid [has tended] to mitigate mortality.” Put another way, even where famines do occur--above all in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, which Ó Gráda dubs “the last redoubts of famine”--they are less deadly.
This African exception is not difficult to explain. “Only in sub-Saharan Africa,” Ó Gráda remarks, “has the food output failed to keep pace with the population.” And while Ó Gráda is at pains to underline the point that the link between the aggregate food supply and famine is “looser nowadays than it was in Malthus’ time,” the combination of the steady desertification of the Sahel since 1970 and the essential fact that only in parts of sub-Saharan Africa has the so-called demographic transition to lower fertility rates even begun to take place (unlike in China, India, Mexico, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and elsewhere) means, in Ó Gráda’s words, that African agriculture "has been running in order to stand still.”
This does not mean that the situation is hopeless, even in the world’s most illfavored countries, such as Niger. The U.N.’s World Food Programme, whose food aid now is the difference between life and death for starving people in the global hunger zones, is increasingly studying strategies for pre-empting famines and periods of acute malnutrition, rather than responding to them once they have already begun. Even longtime critics of the WFP, both among nongovernmental relief agencies and relief specialists, believe that under its current director, Josette Sheeran, the agency is performing more effectively than ever, and in conditions that have rarely been more difficult. Another reason for cautious optimism about the fate of contemporary famine may be culled from Sen’s argument that civil and political rights are in themselves prophylactics against famine, and that the more democratic a society becomes, the less famine-prone it is likely to be. In my view, Ó Gráda somewhat overstates the advance of democracy in Africa, but there can be no question that substantial progress has been made over the last twenty years.
The final chapter of Ó Gráda’s book is called “An End to Famine?” It is a question, not an assertion. He is right to put it that way. What is far less certain is whether his claim that “as much as anything else, the slow, onward march of accountable government will rid the world’s last vulnerable regions of the scourge of famine,” and, more broadly, that “the prospect of a famine-free world hinges on improved governance and peace,” is not overly sanguine. Ó Gráda knows that while famine may now be preventable, there is no good reason to believe the same of war--and war between and within nations is for him what may usher in a new age of famine.
But war is not the only threat. Climate change, which by most projections will disproportionately damage rural Africa, but may well also cause great damage in parts of Asia from which famine has now been banished, surely poses a graver threat of famine than war does. Some wars can be prevented or halted, but it is unlikely, given the pressing nature of the climate emergency and the apparent unwillingness or incapacity of the principal polluters--the United States, the EU, Japan, China, India--to do anything serious to mitigate it, that the same can be said about global warming. Ó Gráda touches on climate change, but gives it less emphasis than its importance warrants--a signal failing in an otherwise magnificent book.
No one looking for sensible rather than sentimental or ideological reasons to believe in the possibility of human progress need look any further than the fact that, for the first time in human history, it is possible to imagine the end of famine. When Ó Gráda writes that “at present, only the poorest regions of Africa remain at risk, and prolonged famine anywhere is conceivable only in contexts of endemic warfare or blockade,” he is saying something that could never have been said before. To be sure, there are also many other things to say, other questions to ask--most notably why, if we are now so competent at dealing with famine, we are so incompetent at dealing with chronic malnutrition, which is getting no better, and in some cases is actually getting worse, even in democratic countries such as India that seem to have banished famine. The other three horsemen of the apocalypse will likely always be with us. But the possibility that we have seen the fourth horseman off for good is a reason for the most profound thankfulness.
David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.