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date: 09 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

There are continuing developments in the analysis of hunger and famines, and the results of theoretical and empirical studies of hunger and food insecurity highlight cases where hunger intensifies sufficiently to be identified as famine. The varying ability of those affected to cope with the shocks and stresses imposed on them are central to the development of food insecurity and the emergence of famine conditions and to explaining the complex interrelationships between agriculture, famine, and economics.

There are a number of approaches to understanding how famines develop. The Malthusian approach, which sees population growth as the primary source of hunger and famine, can be contrasted with the free market or Smithian approach, which regards freely operating markets as an essential prerequisite for ensuring that famine can be overcome. A major debate has centered on whether famines primarily emerge from a decline in the availability of food or are a result of failure by households to access sufficient food for consumption, seeking to distinguish between famine as a problem related to food production and availability and famine as a problem of declining income and food consumption among certain groups in the population. These declines arise from the interaction between food markets, labor markets and markets for livestock and other productive farm resources when poor people try to cope with reduced food consumption. Further revisions to famine analysis were introduced from the mid-1990s by authors who interpreted the emergence of famines not as a failure in markets and the economic system, but more as a failure in political accountability and humanitarian response.

These approaches have the common characteristic that they seek to narrow the focus of investigation to one or a few key characteristics. Yet most of those involved in famine analysis or famine relief would stress the multi-faceted and broad-based nature of the perceived causes of famine and the mechanisms through which they emerge. In contrast to these approaches, the famine systems approach takes a broader view, exploring insights from systems theory to understand how famines develop and especially how this development might be halted, reversed, or prevented.

Economists have contributed to and informed different perspectives on famine analysis while acknowledging key contributions from moral philosophy as well as from biological and physical sciences and from political and social sciences. Malthus, Smith, and John Stuart Mill contributed substantially to early thinking on famine causation and appropriate famine interventions. Increased emphasis on famine prevention and a focus on food production and productivity led to the unarguable success of the Green Revolution. An important shift in thinking in the 1980s was motivated by Amartya Sen’s work on food entitlements and on markets for food and agricultural resources. On the other hand, the famine systems approach considers famine as a process governed by complex relationships and seeks to integrate contributions from economists and other scientists while promoting a systems approach to famine analysis.

Keywords: famine economics, famine coping strategies, famine systems, food entitlements, food insecurity, hunger, destitution, Malthusian approach, political accountability approach

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