A simplistic logic is often applied to the ghastly phenomenon of famine: that it usually descends because of an imbalance between population and resources, or in the wake of natural disaster. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, in this scholarly but passionate book, asks us to look at other factors. He takes as his harrowing sample 58 major famines between 1870 and 2010 and, in a distressing number of cases, political beastliness carries much of the responsibility for tragedy.
Previously, de Waal has coined the term ‘famine crime’ and he sees it as analogous to other atrocities which are ‘primarily political projects that consider (some) human lives expendable or worthless.’ Think, for instance, of the starvation provoked by colonialism, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward, or, more recently by conflict in sub-Saharan Africa.
The good news, for de Waal, is that the mechanisms of development and democracy mean that we now have an ‘eminently achievable goal of definitively ending famine.’ The bad news is that we also risk a ‘counter-humanitarian backlash’ in a world simmering with polarised ideologies, wars that drag on for decades, and the added perils of climate change and economic uncertainty.
A veteran of extensive research in Sudan, de Waal is good on the numbers and impressive in his ability to conceptualise such a broad topic. He scolds us for not studying famine in tandem with other kinds of man-made atrocity as often or as closely as we should and he reminds us to, once and for all, put away the convenient Malthusian paradigm (which posits that there will be a forced return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth has outpaced agricultural production) which is ‘comprehensively refuted yet tirelessly comes back to haunt us.’
He also insists that we do not accept the bizarre gaps in the official memory of famines and the ‘huge social, political, legal and scholarly silences around starvation.’