Amartya Sen

On December 11 last year, AIT hosted a reception for Professor Amartya Kumar Sen, the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics. After the reception, Professor Sen gave a special lecture on "Empowerment and Poverty". Professor Sen is presently Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Soon after taking up this position, Professor Sen was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics in recognition of his work on welfare economics.

Next year, Professor Sen will return to Harvard University as Lamont University Professor. Lawrence Summers, Harvard President, notes that "Amartya Sen is an incredibly prolific and insightful scholar whose research has forever transformed the way social scientists and others think about a wide range of economic and moral issues."

AIT Newsletter is reprinting a short article by Professor Sen to commemorate his visit to AIT.

Nobody Need Starve

How do famines relate to food supply? Some see the connection as almost definitional: famine is, in this view, synonymous with a country being short of food. When Mr Malone, the rich Irish-American in Shaw's Man and Superman, refers to the Irish famine of the 1840s, he refuses to describe it as one. He explains that 'when a country is full o food and exporting it, there can be no famine.' There is some distinctive use of language here. Malone mentions that his father 'died of starvation in the black 47'. Since more than a million other Irishmen did the same in the 1840s, it is hard not to see a 'famine' there, as the term is understood.

Malone's definitional point about famines really raises a different and extremely important causal question: why did the Irish starve, given the fact that Ireland had food enough to export some to England? That question remains tragically relevant. No recorded famine has killed a higher proportion of the population than the Irish famine. This applies to the much publicized recent famines in Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, and even to the terrible starvation in China during 1958-61, where the absolute number killed was much larger (perhaps between twenty-three and thirty million), but where the fatality as a proportion of the total population was still smaller than in the privation that overwhelmed Ireland 150 years ago.

Recent empirical work has demolished the view that famines and starvation can occur only when food supply declines. Indeed, in different countries in the world, many large famines have taken place despite moderate-to-good food availability, and without any appreciable decline in food output or supply. And some-like the Bangladesh famine of 1974-have actually occurred in years of peak food availability. A famine develops when a sizeable number of people - who often belong to a particular occupation group - lose the economic means of acquiring food. This can result from unemployment, or from a sharp drop in earnings compared with food prices, even when there is no fall in food output or supply. And conversely, there have also been many cases of severe decline in food production and availability which have not resulted in a famine. Food can be purchased from abroad if the economic means exist, and also the available food supply, even when short, can be so distributed as to avoid extreme destitution. Giving a destitute person an income, perhaps through employment in a temporary public project, is a quick way of giving potential famine victims the ability to compete with others in buying food.

So there is no fixed relation between food and famine. Famines can occur with or without substantial declines in food output. To recognize this does not require us to deny that some famines have happened along with-and to some extent been caused by - a sharp decline in food supply in a particular region. Indeed, the Irish famine, or 'the starvation' (as Mr Malone preferred to describe it to Violet, his English daughter-in-law), was actually accompanied by a large fall in Irish food production, related to a series of potato blights. Since the economies of Ireland and Britain were integrated, we could still say that there was no great decline in food production for the economy as a whole; the Irish, if they had the economic means, could buy food from England. They did not buy it - because they did not have the means.

The question that arises is this: why was Ireland, with so little food, exporting food to England, which had so much? The answer lies in the way the market worked. Market-based movements of food are related to demand and purchasing power, and the English could offer higher prices than the economically devastated Irish consumer could manage. It was not surprising that ship after ship sailed down the Shannon bound for England laden with wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter. Such 'countermovements' of food out of famine-stricken areas have been observed in modern famines as well: for example, in the Ethiopian famine of 1973, food was moved out of the famine-affected province of Wollo to the more prosperous purchasers in Addis Ababa and elsewhere. Those who starve because they cannot afford to buy food have no means of keeping within their borders the food that is there.

Were the English rulers responsible for the famine? Was Malone right to think 'My father was starved dead'? The British government did not set out deliberately to starve the Irish. Britain did not blockade Ireland, or foment the potato blights, or undertake public policies aimed at weakening the Irish economy. But we know from studies of famines and averted famines across the world that they are easy to prevent when the government decides to act. It is not hard to regenerate the normal purchasing power of the new destitutes by methods, including public employment, that have been used successfully in many parts of the world. This way of stopping famines by replacing lost incomes does not even need an inordinate share of the national income since the victims are normally poor in the first place, and the share of the population affected is relatively small. The proportion affected in Ireland was large on that island itself, but it was still a relatively small share of the population of the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was then a political and economic part.

So the real question is: why were these steps not taken in Ireland? More generally, why isn't every famine stopped by the respective government, since it is so easily halted? This is where political alienation - of the governors from the governed - is important. The direct penalties of a famine are borne by one group of people and political decisions are taken by another. The rulers never starve. But when a government is accountable to the local populace, it too has good reasons to do its best to eradicate famines. Democracy, via electoral politics, passes on the price of famines to the rulers as well.

It is not surprising that in the gruesome history of famines there is hardly any case in which a famine has occurred in a country that is independent and democratic, regardless of whether it is rich or poor. In India, famines continued to occur right up to independence: the last British Indian famine, the Bengal famine of 1943 in which between two and three million people died, happened only four years before the British withdrew. And then, with independence, famines abruptly stopped. With a democratic political system in a self-governed territory, a relatively free news media and active opposition parties that are eager to jump on the government for its failure to prevent starvation, the government is under extreme pressure to take quick and effective action whenever famines threaten.

The irresponsibility that results in famine can be further fuelled by cultural alienation. The estrangement of the rulers from the ruled did, of course, take a very special form in the case of the Irish famines, given the long tradition of English scepticism towards the Irish, Ireland paid the penalty of being governed by a not particularly sympathetic ruling class, and cultural depreciation added force to political asymmetry.

The roots of the Irish famines can, in this sense, be traced far back - even perhaps to the sixteenth century, to such writings as Spenser's Faerie Queene. The temptation to blame the victim, plentifully present in the Faerie Queene itself, survived through the famines of the 1840s. The Irish taste for the potato was added to the list of calamities which the natives had, in the English view, brought on themselves. Charles Edward Trevelyan, the head of the Treasury during the famines, who saw not much wrong with British policies in Ireland, of which he was a major architect, took the opportunity to remark: 'There is scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland whose culinary art exceeds the boiling of a potato.' The remark is interesting not just because it is rare for an Englishman to find a suitable opportunity for an international criticism of culinary art, but also because pointing the accusing finger at the Irish peasant diet vividly illustrates the inclination to fault some characteristic of the victim, rather than the conduct of the rulers.

Winston Churchill's famous remark about the 1943 Bengal famine - that it was caused by the tendency of the people to breed like rabbits - belongs to this general tradition of blaming the colonial subject. This attitude had a crucial role in delaying famine relief. As a nine-year-old boy, I witnessed this famine myself, and I remember the sight of unbelievably emaciated people dying in the streets from April onwards, but very few government relief centres opened until late October.

The lack of democracy and the censoring of Indian newspapers weakened the political incentive of the Raj to do anything much about the famine. Also, Pace Churchill, had not the famine victims brought this cataclysm on themselves? A British-owned newspaper, the Statesman of Calcutta, which was particularly influential in London, toed the official line for a long time, but after six months of famine, it broke ranks under the courageous editorship of Ian Stephens and began publishing reports on the extent both of the disaster and of the government's culpability. It was only then that the British government at last paid attention and asked the Raj's officials to expand relief operations. The policy of non-intervention ceased to be politically viable once one of the strongest voices of the Raj was itself in revolt.

The absence of food that causes hunger and illness and makes millions perish can reflect, at once, economic destitution, political subservience and cultural denigration. That combination has to be borne in mind in understanding the causation of famines which continue to ravage many poor countries in the world.

In analysing what causes famines, it is important to take into account not just the rise and fall of food production, but the general prevalence of poverty in the country or region, and to examine its causes. The economic roots of the Irish famines have to be sought in the general weakness of the Irish economy - not just in the difficulties with food production. Groups that are not only very poor but also especially vulnerable to economic changes (to shifts in, for example, relative prices or employment) are of particular importance. It is the general defencelessness of the vulnerable poor, combined with additional misfortunes created by economic variation, that produces the victims of drastic starvation. Social divisions are central to famines, and the economic analyses of the causation of famines have to identify the factors that lead to the specific destitution of particular sections of the generally deprived.

While the economic progress of any country depends on its public policies, particularly on its ability to promote economic expansion and distributional equity, the government has a special role in protecting the vulnerable when something goes wrong and a lot of people lose the means of commanding food in the market. Whether the government works towards regenerating the lost purchasing power of the destitute depends on political incentives to intervene and help. This is where democracy and political independence come into their own. The ruling groups have to pay the price of their negligence when they can be forcefully criticized by opposition parties and the news media, and when they have to face elections on a systematic basis.

The Chinese government could keep its failed policies of the Great Leap Forward unchanged through the 1958-61 famine, while many millions died each year, because it had no opposition parties to face, and no criticism from the government-controlled media. When things are going well enough, the corrective power of democracy may not be badly missed, but when something goes seriously wrong (through design or bungling), democracy can deliver things that no other system can. Even in the famine-stricken continent of Africa, the lack of famines in democratic Botswana and Zimbabwe contrasts with the persistent famine experience of Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique and the Sahel countries. Of course, even a non-democratic country can be lucky and not experience the economic circumstances that lead to famine; and a sympathetic dictator may, should a famine occur, intervene just as effectively as a popularly elected government. But, in general, democracy guarantees protection in a way that no form of authoritarian rule can, whether it is an old-fashioned colonial administration, or a modern political or military dictatorship.

Famines are, in fact, extremely easy to prevent. It is amazing that they actually take place, because they require a severe indifference on the part of the government. Here political asymmetry joins hands with social and cultural alienation. The sense of distance between the ruler and the ruled-between 'us' and 'them' - is a crucial feature of famines. It is as true in Sudan and Somalia today as it was in Ireland and India in the last century.

(This article is reprinted with the kind permission of Granta magazine, in which it was first published in 1995, and of Professor Amartya Sen himself).

Amartya Sen's autobiography: