Famine and Democracy – not possible ?

I’ve seen the old chestnut about ‘never been a war between two democracies’ discussed a few times on the board but not this, so I’m wheeling it out to be shot down or confirmed:

As I understand it, the leading light in this field is one Professor Amartya Sen of Cambridge Uni. His first work in this area was published in the early 1970’s but many believe Sen’s ideas finally came together in *‘Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation’ * (1981). At least that was the view of the Royal Swedish Society of Scientists who awarded him the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 saying in their press release-citation thang:

He argues that several observed phenomena cannot in fact be explained by a shortage of food alone, e.g. that famines have occurred even when the supply of food was not significantly lower than during previous years (without famines), or that famine stricken areas have sometimes exported food. Sen shows that a profound understanding of famine requires a thorough analysis of how various social and economic factors influence different groups in society and determine their actual opportunities.

However the citation also says:

Even though a few critics have questioned the validity of some empirical results in Poverty and Famines, the book is undoubtedly a key contribution to development economics.

So, given that (latter) qualification, are there any examples of fully functioning universal suffrage not precluding famine ?

NB. This is obviously not about starvation or poverty. Unfortunately and as we know, democracy isn’t a panacea for all social ills.

Well, first you have to come up with some examples of states with “fully functioning universal suffrage”. U.S., Canada, UK, Oz, the other European countries, I guess. Who else? How are you defining “fully functioning”? There are a number of Third World countries limping along with putative democracies, like the Philippines.

And then you have to define “famine”. How many people have to go how hungry for how long, before it’s officially a “famine”?

My understanding was that “famine” in the 20th and 21st century is generally a problem of supply lines, that the problem isn’t that there isn’t any food, but that there isn’t any way to get food from over here to over there, usually because people are being stupid about politics.

Allow me to suggest to some kind-hearted mod that this thread be allowed to relocate over to Great Debates. :smiley: IMO this is a tougher one than “has there ever been a war between two democracies?”

[sub]it’s got the “E” word–“economics”[/sub]


I’m a little unsure what’s being asked here. Is it being claimed that democracies never have famines, or that democracy cannot survive famine conditions?

I think the premise is that “fully functioning democracies never suffer famines, because people would vote to have the food distributed better, or vote the stooges responsible for the famine out of office”, most famines being a problem of poor food distribution (evil warlords, black marketeers, corrupt or inept government officials, etc.) rather than of actual food shortage.

Maybe you’re right, Goosie, perhaps this is as much a GD as a GQ. I assumed it was more black and white than it perhaps is i.e. that there would, or wouldn’t, be straightforward examples. To belatedly qualify:

  • ‘Fully functioning’: Not manipulated, as in (perhaps) ‘missing ballot boxes’, intimidation at the polls, etc.

  • ‘Famine’: The ability of a nation to feed its people: Example might be somewhere like Zimbabwe where there’s always been a surplus of food production (without democracy) until recently when Mugabe decided to pursue his new radical agenda (under manipulated democracy) – no ‘famine’ yet but reports have it that it’s not too far away.

Another case might be sub-continental Asia where, to my knowledge, there hasn’t been a famine in India since democracy but there has in neighbouring Bangladesh where the term ‘democracy’ is loosely interpreted.

So, to continue the ‘democracies do not go to war with each other’ theme, **the premise here, in broad terms, is ** (as Goosie says):

Famine isn’t the product of people’s inability to feed themselves or extraneous circumstances like, for example, weather, but is rather the exclusive product of non-democratic political interference.

I was looking for examples that contradicted that premise.

I believe that plenty of people went hungry and some actually starved to death during the Great Depression. I base this on anecdotes and I don’t have a cite or any statistics.

Slight nitpick

It’s called the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

I read Sen’s famine work a long time ago and my recollection is that his jumping off point was that the British took and used the information from the existing Indian famine manuals, so a lack of famines in India predates the British occupation of India. The point of this of course is that this is a really startling fact in the light of widespread poverty and malnutrition in a country where crops occasionally failed.

Democracies are - with the exception of India - rich countries, so I suggest London Calling that a more operational version of your question is to ask whether “open societies” have experienced famine. I can’t think of any, but I’m off to have a goosie.

My previous post is a bit unclear. I was suggesting that knowledge of how to prevent famines predated the British occupation of India, not that there were no famines during British rule. There were of course famines in British occupied India. Bengal exported food during the 1943 famine in which about 3 million people perished. Sen’s position appears to be this (although it is not a quote as far as I can tell):

This says there are no exceptions to the relevant opposition + free press = no famine rule.

A Google search for “Great depression starvation” turns up two kinds of hits: first, there are some heavily biased, unsupported statements like this one.


But this kind of Google hit is more common.




This sums it up pretty well.

So yes, there was [air quotes] “starvation” during the American Great Depression, but I think the OP is talking about “mass starvation”, not “occasional incidents”.

I wonder why he says “Northern Ireland”. It is a factual mistake, as there have been no famines since partition, and since the 1845-48 famine (for example) did not particularly affect the area which is now in the political entity of “Northern Ireland”; rather the densely populated rural areas along the western seaboard.

Was there not starvation in the French Republic during and after WWI?

DDG, thank you for the links. I absolutely am going to have to grow up and stop being too dern lazy to do searches.