Locavore

To avoid ‘Fifth Period’ of famine, political action is needed

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The Raft of the Medusa (oil 1818–1819) by Théodore Géricault (1791–1824). The painting currently hangs in the Louvre, in Paris. It depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of today’s Mauritania on July 5, 1816. At least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation and dehydration and practiced cannibalism. Photo by Dennis Jarvis / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

After a twenty-year period in which famine had become all but a distant memory, starving people in several countries around the world began making headlines again over the last year. As reported in Political Geography, if political action doesn’t alter this course the world could be headed into a ‘fifth period’ of famine, warns Elsevier Atlas Award winner Alex de Waal, Executive Director at the World Peace Foundation in Somerville, MA, US. He warns that famine almost always has multiple causes; political factors are chief among them.

The good news is that if people and governments can and do cause famines, then people and political action can also put an end to them, says De Waal. “If we can generate enough public outrage, then I think we can make it politically toxic for leaders to perpetrate these crimes on populations.” Dr. Alex De Waal, Elsevier Atlas Award winner

“We need to drum home the point that ‘to starve’ is a transitive verb,” Dr. De Waal said. “Starvation is something we do to each other. It’s not a natural occurrence.”

To examine trends over the last 150 years, Dr. De Waal established a dataset of all famines around the globe from 1870 to those taking place today that have killed 100,000 or more people. The patterns that emerge are striking.. Dr. De Waal identified and characterized four main historic periods of famine, including European colonialism, the extended World War, post-colonial totalitarianism, and post-Cold War humanitarian emergencies.

Overall, he identified 61 episodes of “great famine” in the last 150 years, which killed more than 100 million people. Almost half of those deaths occurred in China. About a quarter of famine deaths were in Europe and the Soviet Union. Contrary to what’s happened in the most recent generation, only 10 percent of those famine deaths were in Africa.

The decline in famine deaths seen in the past closely followed an increase in global humanitarian assistance budgets, which began to tick upwards in about 1980 and have continued to grow. As famine is again making the news in countries including Yemen, South Sudan, and Syria.

Dr. De Waal warns that this support for international aid is also now at risk, and says it’s time to dismiss the notion that famine is primarily caused by natural disasters and forces beyond human control. As evidence, he says, the world population grew from about 2 billion in the mid-nineteenth century to about 7.5 billion today. Meanwhile, the risk of dying from starvation dropped significantly.

The good news is that if people and governments can and do cause famines, then people and political action can also put an end to them, he says. “If we can generate enough public outrage, then I think we can make it politically toxic for leaders to perpetrate these crimes on populations,” de Waal said.


The full story and interview with the author is available to read on Elsevier Connect.

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