Rethinking the politics of hunger

When it's rational to do nothing in the face of starvation 

In the 20th century alone, as many as 80 million people are thought to have died in famines – from Sudan to North Korea and from Bangladesh to Ethiopia. 

Most observers have assumed that severe famines happen in despotic regimes only, where corrupt or brutal dictators show indifference to the suffering of their people. Indeed, Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen famously argued that large-scale deaths from famine never happen in a democracy because public opinion forces the government to act. 

But this hypothesis is now being challenged by research, which suggests that even democratic governments can find it in their interest to do nothing when famine strikes the country. The study by Professor Eric Neumayer of LSE's Geography and Environment Department and Professor Thomas Plümper from the University Of Essex , is based on a political theory of famine mortality and underpinned by an empirical analysis of famines in 130 developing countries between 1972 and 2000. 

The authors discover that while deaths from famine are likely to be lower in a democracy than an autocracy, they are still possible. For example, a drought in the Indian province of Bihar during 1967 coincided with a rise in deaths of at least 50,000 (according to official figures). 

image of a boyElected politicians were slow to act to help the province's starving population - the provincial government refused to declare a state of famine until elections had passed while the national government failed to re-direct food from other provinces unaffected by famine, waiting for international aid in the form of grain shipments. 

But sometimes democracies don't just fail to intervene in famines – they can intensify and exploit them for political control, as was the case in Sudan's short-lived democracy during the late 1980s. Here the government encouraged the army and militia groups to carry out raids on the economically better-off Dinkas in southern Sudan – using the famine as part of its war strategy and blocking relief efforts. One estimate suggests 250,000 people died from the effects of the famine. 

How could this happen in a democratic country? Neumayer and Plümper's answer is: 'While there were representatives from the South in the parliament in Khartoum, which raised the famine issue in parliament, it was unable to mobilize public opinion and unite the democratic opposition for its cause….The government was extremely concerned to keep food prices low in the North and in and around Khartoum in particular so as not to upset its voters. In a country marked by ethnic strife, the South simply had no political clout in the North.' 

The authors develop a political theory of famine mortality in which inactivity in the face of a famine threat can be a government's optimal strategy. Drawing on a model of political response known as the 'selectorate' theory, they suggest that a government depends for its political survival on a minimum level of support from both the elite and the non-elite general population 

The more democratic a country is, the more important the support of the non-elite majority will become - whereas autocracies can afford to largely ignore the majority provided that they placate the elite on whom their power depends. As a consequence, autocracies are more likely to use targeted private transfers to bail out affected members of the elite, whereas democracies are more likely to use policies that benefit all people affected by famine rather than merely an influential small elite. 

However, because famines normally hit only parts of a country, even democratic politicians will face a choice between diverting resources to the affected regions at the expense of those unaffected (for instance through higher food prices, tax increases, or land re-distribution) and, on the other hand, opting to maintain the support of those unaffected voters who do not care strongly about the starving. 

This choice can also affect the distribution of international food aid intended to save lives since a democratic government may decide to channel most of the food to voters who are not in famine-hit areas, in order to keep their political support. 

Nevertheless, the study does find that democracies are much more likely to make good use of international food aid for famine relief than autocratic governments – such as the North Korean one which abandoned whole regions to their fate during the famines of the late 1990s and early 2000s, diverted food aid to government officials and the military and obstructed international relief efforts – with the result that as many as 3.5 million people may have died. 

The authors draw two major policy conclusions from their research. First that international food aid is valuable even when a nation suffering famine has enough food in the country as a whole (since the government may direct existing resources to shore up political support). And second, that democracies react 'more elastically' to international food aid than autocracies for any given share of their population being affected by famine. This does not mean, say the authors, that food aid should necessarily go only to democracies but that international donors must find ways of ensuring their help benefits everyone affected and not only the elite. 

The difficulty of that task, they argue, underlines the importance of further study in this field.


Useful links

Famine mortality, rational political inactivity, and international food aid  |[PDF] by Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper was published in the academic journal World Development (Vol. 37, Issue 1, 2009).  

For full details of Professor Eric Neumayer's research and publications, see his profile in the LSE Experts Directory: Professor Eric Neumayer|

Department of Geography and Environment|