Sen on Famine (and a Reflection on Hunger)

In a situation of direct entitlement failure, food availability in shops may not go down very much even when total food availability sharply goes down. When during the Irish famine in late 1846, people were starving, Major Parker, the local Relief Inspector sent the following report on December 21st from Skibbereen: “On Saturday, notwithstanding all this distress, there was a market plentifully supplied with meat, bread, fish, in short everything. Similar reports from all over Ireland made Trevelyan insist that all the “resources” of the country should be, as he put it, “drawn out.” In fact, however, the apparently paradoxical situation had arisen from a decline in entitlement in excess of the supply of food. That situation is, in fact, quite a common occurrence in famines. What has to be guaranteed to prevent starvation is not food availability but food entitlement.

That’s 1998 Nobel laureate for economics Amartya Sen, in an 1980 essay in World Development titled “Famines,” which I assigned as a reading in my food policy seminar.

The emphasis is mine, and it gets to the core of a question I have been wondering about for some time now: Why is it that we worry so much about the possible hunger of a possible additional two billion people in the world in 2050 when about one billion people are hungry today?

Much of the discourse surrounding hunger in the media and elsewhere mostly revolves around needing enough food to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Why worry so much about future hunger at the expense of those who presently go to bed hungry?

To paraphrase Sen, what we need to worry about might not so much be future food availability but current food entitlement.

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2 comments

  1. Natalie

    I think the discourse centers around food availability because food access is much more difficult/unpleasant to conceptualize. Do you think this will be at least partially addressed by a post-MDG focus on equity?

  2. Marc F. Bellemare

    Thanks for your comment, Natalie. I think you are entirely right that availability is an easier conversation to have than accessibility. I’d go further, though: I think increasing yields and agricultural output generates “sexier” policy prescription than improving food access. Building roads, guaranteeing that those roads are safe, maintaining them, preventing panic buying and hoarding behavior, etc. probably don’t generate as much donor dollars. And unfortunately, I don’t think the post-MDG focus will address that. But however ill-designed the MDGs were, MDG1 at least directly addressed reducing hunger by half, which presumably meant hunger right now instead of in 2050.