Amartya Sen on democracy and famine

I was taught as a boy that famines in countries such as India and China were caused by overpopulation.  But there are more than twice as many people in both countries now than there were then, and yet they are better fed—perhaps I should say less malnourished.

I learned from Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics, that the true cause of famine in modern times is poverty and autocracy.

No rich person in India or China ever starved to death, nor did any governmental official.  People went hungry because they lacked the means to buy food, and they lacked a political voice to make government respond to their distress.

Here’s how Amartya Sen put it in a 2011 interview.

… Famines have actually not occurred in functioning democracies and … … there was a good reason for it. My first book on the subject, Poverty and Famines, came out in 1981, and by then I understood something about how famines operate and how easy it is to prevent them. You can’’t prevent undernourishment so easily, but famines you can stop with half an effort.  Then the question was why don’t the governments stop them?

The first answer is that the government servants and the leaders are upper class.  They never starve.  They never suffer from famine, and therefore they don’’t have a personal incentive to stop it. 

Second, if the government is vulnerable to public opinion, then famines are a dreadfully bad thing to have.  You can’’t win many elections after a famine, and you don’t like being criticized by newspapers, opposition parties in parliament, and so on.  Democracy gives the government an immediate political incentive to act.

Famines occur under a colonial administration, like the British Raj in India or for that matter in Ireland, or under military dictators in one country after another, like Somalia and Ethiopia, or in one-party states like the Soviet Union and China.

The Chinese had the failure of the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine between 1958 and 1961 in which nearly thirty million people died. While tens of millions were dying, the disastrous policies of the government were not revised. This would be unthinkable in a democracy. 

Similarly, while the famine was going on, there was also a starving of information.  This is an additional factor, the informational connection as opposed to the political incentive connection. People in each collective obviously saw that they were not doing very well themselves but they read in the papers that everything was fine in the rest of the country.  That’’s what censorship does.  They all came to the conclusion respectively that they alone were failing. 

So rather than admitting failure, they cooked the numbers.  When Beijing added these up at the height of the famine, they thought they had a hundred million more metric tons of rice than they actually had.  So the censorship of the press, which often goes with the lack of a democratic system, had the effect of hoodwinking not only the public but ultimately hoodwinking the state.

Something similar happened in the Soviet Union.  They were partly deluded and partly theoretically arrogant.  Of course, in the case of the famine in the Ukraine, there was also a dislike of one group, the Kulaks.  But on top of that, the lack of political incentives that goes with the absence of democracy and the lack of information added to the story.

via Amartya Sen | The Progressive.

I agree that world’s population cannot continue to grow indefinitely, and that it is important that people have access to knowledge and means of contraception.  But this is not why people go hungry today.  They go hungry not because of a lack of food, but because of a lack of access to the food there is.

I recommend Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom.  I also recommend Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis, which is about why famine was more common in the 19th century than it is now.


Amartya Sen interviewed by David Barsamian for The Progressive.

Amartya Sen: What India Can Learn From China, an interview by Nathan Gardels for WorldPost.

Democracy? Prosperous and Never a Famine by R.J. Rummel


Note: I inserted the long quote seven hours after I made the original post.

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One Response to “Amartya Sen on democracy and famine”

  1. ajaykohli Says:

    Population is a factor no doubt ,but poor policies ,aggregation of money with few , lack of knowledge ,and poor infrastructure do add to famine


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