Feuding over Food: The Politics of Insecurity, Shortage and Famine

Famine conjures up disconcerting images of emaciated people and wasting, languid children. Witnessing it comes as a visceral shock – the slow and silent extenuating of social structures, family and then the human body itself. The Russian sociologist Pitrim Sorokin, survivor of the famine of the early 1920s, wrote in his 1946 work Man and Society in Calamity of starvation reducing man to "a naked animal upon the naked earth". His experience was of a communist famine, in which professors and peasants starved as peers. More common is famine that singles out the poor. The Nobel-prize winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, who lived through the 1943 Bengal famine as the young child of prominent parents who fed the destitute, opened his seminal 1981 book Poverty and Famines with the observation that famine is the phenomenon of “some people not having enough food to eat, not of there not being enough food to eat”. When initially articulated, and probably believed in throughout the pre-technological age, the maxim that every person should have food on his table looked more like a pious wish than an achievable objective. Pertinent today is the existence of a set of effective global institutions, that are capable of making these political commitments viable. This is achieved by soliciting food contributions and delivering emergency assistance to populations facing tangible distress from disasters and dislocation. With effective institutions and adequate physical supplies, the occurrence of famine increasingly signals not the lack of actual food or institutional capacity, but some fundamental political or governance failure. Natural conditions are no longer our primary adversaries: humans are.

Confronted with the devastating realities of the impact of inadequate caloric intake on the human body, one’s reasonable impulse is to think of famine in terms of tangible, physical shortages of food supplies. Famines are indeed often thought of as being irreversible, unavoidable geographical phenomena that are bound to happen to some countries, sometimes. In contemporary times, however, the sources of food insecurity can increasingly be traced not to natural causes but to human ones (Sen 78). Today, there is no reason for anyone to starve as a result of weather conditions, food shortages, or distributional failures. Global food supplies are adequate. Effective early warning systems which portend potential shortfalls and crises exist since information on weather patterns and crop conditions is now readily available. (De Waal 105). Global markets for basic grains are well developed and highly integrated, and the international community has developed a well-institutionalized system of humanitarian assistance (De Waal 106). Indeed, upon closer inspection, famines have more do with the structures and failures of domestic or regional political institutions than unpredictable weather patterns or droughts. This essay will discuss the politics of famine and food scarcity in the context of certain international case studies, explore differing opinions on possible courses of action and consider the ethics and viability behind them.

Once known as the food basket of southern Africa, the once thriving country of Zimbabwe is now an emaciated, destitute nation. The nation is now in a state of an extreme economic crisis, and its people have gained the attention of the international community. Since the inception of modern Zimbabwe in 1980, food security has been steadily declining⎯ due to the halting and obstreperous implementation of land reform laws, desperately poor agricultural planning, and politically biased allocation of resources. Severe instances of famine, widespread food shortages and endemic malnutrition have overrun the government in Harare. Zimbabwe is not alone.  In their paper “Food as an Instrument of War in Contemporary African Famines: a review of the evidence”, Joanna Macrae and Anthony B. Zwi argue that “in each of the six country studies, famine was not simply a consequence of conflict, but represented its goal” (Macrae 301). They also point out that “it is suggested that the use of food as a political weapon of omission, commission and provision has contributed to the creation of famine in Zimbabwe in recent decades” (Macrae 302). The food that is indeed available is used for political purposes by regional associations and parties. Food resources, whether directly to citizens or indirectly through subsidies on grains and agriculture, are used as rewards for districts voting in certain ways and are withheld from families and voters who do not comply (Macrae 311). Resource questions have historically caused many conflicts, but the current causal link between environmental change and violence must be understood within a wider political framework. Access to, and control over, resources is the key to the maintenance of a particular way of life, including cultural and political identity. In a state like Zimbabwe, where the ability to grow food and to obtain food from regional or international bodies is still viable, one can draw the understanding that the food shortage is rather an enforced one, as governments seek to protect particular economic and political interests.

Credit: IPS News

Credit: IPS News

Even looking beyond the African continent, historical examples of Ireland and Brazil as well as more contemporary examples of North Korea and India, show similar linkages between political decisions, or the lack thereof, leading either intentionally or accidentally to famines.

The case of North Korea, where a chronic and well-avoidable food emergency is well into its third decade, offers a poignant example of this phenomenon. Although estimates vary widely, famine in the mid-1990s killed as many as one million North Koreans, or roughly five percent of the population (Noland 4). Millions more were left to contend with broken lives and personal misery. Long-term effects have been even more worrisome, such as those on the human development of infants and children. North Korea’s situation today is only mildly less tenuous than during the worst of the famine, thanks in part to humanitarian assistance from the world community (Noland 46). Despite this millions of North Koreans remain food insecure, and the largest cause of this is an entirely inefficient and indifferent political system. When the food crisis began, access to food came through a public distribution system controlled by the regime and entitlements were partly a function of political status. As the socialist economy crumbled and the beginning of some semblance of markets developed in response to the state’s inability to fulfil its obligations under the old social compact, the character of the crisis changed (Natsios 103). Current shortages bear closer resemblance to emergencies in market and transition economies, where access to food is determined by one’s capacity to command resources in the marketplace. This type of emergency is no less severe, but poses different challenges to outside donors. A centralised political model has meant that food donations go almost entirely to a government that has shown a particular penchant to use forced starvation as a political message and as leverage for more aid (Natsios 322).

Even in democratic countries like India, similar problems persist. Sen remarked in ‘Democracy as Freedom’ that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy” (Sen 60). This, he explained, is because democratic governments ''have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentives to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes” (Sen 60). This proposition, advanced in a host of books and articles, shaped the thinking of a generation of policy makers, scholars and relief workers who deal with famine. Yet modern India stands as a stunning counterpoint to this belief, despite India having been the main focus of Sen's original research. Dan Banik, in ‘Growth and Hunger in India’, argues that in the immediate post-Independence period, India faced the dual challenges of the threat of famine due to low agricultural production and the lack of proper food-distribution systems and infrastructures (Banik 8). The earlier mentioned rapid economic growth largely took care of the agricultural production, and successive Indian governments have intervened in private food markets in order to control and stabilize prices and supplies, and to prevent food shortages. Now, the country is awash in grain, with the government sitting on a surplus of more than 50 million tons, and spending US$815 million in implementing a National Food Security Act that aims to increase grain security (Banik 21).

Yet, there are growing reports of starvation across the subcontinent. In drought-ravaged states like Rajasthan in the west and Orissa in the east, many families have been reduced to eating bark and grass to stay alive. This is occurring against a backdrop of endemic hunger and malnutrition, with about 350 million of India's one billion people going to bed hungry every night, and half of all Indian children raised malnourished. Recent evidence shows that India continues to top world hunger charts and that rapid economic growth has barely helped to reduce undernutrition, despite more than two decades of concerted efforts by civil society organizations and much-celebrated judicial activism on behalf of the right to food (Banik 90). Worse still, acute forms of hunger, or “starvation deaths,” routinely occur in many parts of the country. With less than a fifth of the global child population, India has 40 percent of the world’s malnourished children. In the worldwide public imagination, sub-Saharan Africa is home to the world’s malnourished children and adults, but all available data clearly show that the worst affected region is South Asia, when one includes the data from Bangladesh and Pakistan (Sobhan 30).

Credit: Nasnivet.org

Credit: Nasnivet.org

The New York Times described the situation in 2003 best as “such want amid such plenty has generated public protests, critical editorials and an appeal to India's Supreme Court to force the government to use its surpluses to feed the hungry”. Sen has, however, identified that his thesis still remains valid, despite it being misunderstood. He instead argues in “An Uncertain Glory: The Contradictions of Modern India”, co-authored by long-time collaborator Jean Dreze, that India's huge food stocks reflect the power of the farm lobby, and that it would be a misapprehension to believe that democracy in and of itself solves the problem of hunger (Dreze 9). This farm lobby, Sen believes, has pressed the government to buy grain at ever higher prices, making bread and other staples more and more expensive. To help the hungry, the government has a national network of ration shops, but they have been undermined by widespread corruption and distribution bottlenecks. Simultaneously the government, under pressure from the World Bank and other institutions, has reduced its once-generous food subsidies. Sen also draws a distinction between actual famine, and the side effects of bad food management, by highlighting how poorly India has done in meeting basic social needs, arguing that “we must distinguish between the role of democracy in preventing famine and the comparative ineffectiveness of democracy in preventing regular undernourishment” (Dreze 49). With the low visibility of actual starvation to the extent that certain sub-Saharan countries face, and an increasingly aggressive establishment that wants to portray the idea of a “transformed India”, local food concerns are ignored as the glossy politics of discourse overcome the pains of hunger.

Most of the international community has responded to these tragedies with considerable generosity, yet political concerns continue to persist in the realm of the international response to food issues. Despite its strained political relations with North Korea, the United States has been the largest donor of humanitarian assistance since 1995, contributing over $600 million in food aid, equivalent to over 2 million metric tons of grain. Yet a host of tensions and competing demands have contributed to fatigue among donors, including both the United States and Japan (Natsios 26). These include diplomatic conflicts over the North Korean nuclear program, Japanese abductees, the apparent lack of progress in addressing the country’s underlying economic problems, concerns about the transparency and effectiveness of the humanitarian relief program and its potential role in propping up a totalitarian regime. A variety of other humanitarian disasters, from the Horn of Africa to the countries affected by the tsunami of 2005, have placed strains on the humanitarian system, and forced a reevaluation of where aid will be most effectively deployed. The Kim administration in North Korea is not high on the list of places likely to effectively use resources and consequently U.S food aid to the hermit kingdom has severely dropped. The nation’s food problems pose a distinctive set of challenges for the international community. In many humanitarian crises, the international community faces failed states or conflict settings that make it difficult to provide assistance. In North Korea, by contrast, the international community faces a “hard” state that has repeatedly shown a willingness to allow its population to suffer extreme deprivation.

This situation raises ethical quandaries for private donors as well as international governments. Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland, in their seminal work “Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform”, identify certain key ones, such as “should the international community provide assistance even if it means prolonging the life of a despotic regime?”, “does aid prolong the very policies that led to the famine in the first place?” and “should donors provide assistance even if some portion of that assistance is diverted to undeserving groups, including the military and party cadre?” (Haggard 6). No answers are offered by the two authors, a symbol of the fact that these concerns persist in the way foreign policy is conceived by administrations all around to world. However, one could argue that it is impossible in such a setting to guarantee that all aid is being used appropriately; that is precisely why humanitarian aid to North Korea poses policy and moral dilemmas. The response to this quandary is often to conclude that concerns over the human rights violations in the country and and the humanitarian impulse to help provide food stand diametrically opposed. Perhaps Haggard and Nolan’s concluding remarks offer a staunchly upright yet pragmatic enough compromise: “given that human rights are meaningless in the absence of the basic sustenance required to maintain life itself, the humanitarian imperative necessarily trumps human rights concerns and requires continued engagement even where basic rights are denied.”

Credit: Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images)

Credit: Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images)

Over the longer-run, Haggard and Noland argue that meeting basic economic needs provides the foundation for subsequent political development, including the granting of human and political rights. North Korea’s tragedy thus has many roots, but a famine of this magnitude could only have occurred in a system in which the political leadership was insulated from events on the ground and lacking in accountability to its people. Sen’s thesis is definitely valid in this circumstance, since the failure of the North Korean government to guarantee adequate supplies of food to its population is inextricably linked to the government’s denial of a battery of rights to its citizens, and the absence of usual democratic institutions: to confront public officials with their shortcomings; to publicize information that allows government officials to know the extent of distress; and to organize collectively in the face of injustice and deprivation (Haggard 46). If these rights were present, North Korea might well have faced food shortages, but it is highly doubtful that a great famine would have occurred or that the government would be presiding over an economy characterized by chronic shortages of food.

Yet in other cases, international response has been decidedly muted or largely limited due to political concerns. From 1992 to 2002, approximately 65 percent of the annual U.S. foreign assistance funding for India was dedicated to food aid, but aid to India stopped in 2011 due to the international perception that New Delhi has the situation under control. Jenny Edkins, in “Whose Hunger?: Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid”, argues that this is an often seen result of aid programs to developing countries, who are seen to “be able to hold their own after high-impact economic growth” (Edkins 4). This is not necessarily true, as argued earlier, and India’s social statistics still display similar metrics to other countries that still receive large amounts of international aid. This perception of political development does not align with the situation on the ground, but, with the aggressively independent Indian polity, world leaders are stuck in their offers of aid between trying to help and not offending a major power’s government (Edkins 9). In Zimbabwe’s case, the United Nations in 2009 halved the food ration to millions of citizens, bringing it to what a The Guardian opinion called “well below what will keep an adult alive” as the numbers of people dependent on aid rises sharply and donations from foreign governments fall well short of demand. The UN said it had to cut the ration to meet increased demand and cope with a shortfall in donations.

Even considering this, these are all problems which are face by major international countries whose voices are commonly heard in the mainstream geopolitical discourse. The worst case scenarios are often to be found in countries which are less talked about, such as Burkina Faso, where starvation wiped out 400,000 between 1991 and 2011. Instead of a sustained international commitment to long-term policies that would reduce vulnerability to hunger, the global political-administrative response is typically short-term, ad hoc, populist, and clientelistic in character, prioritising Western conceptions of human rights and governmental duty over the practical lives and pains of citizens on the ground. Such interventions are often launched at the very last stage of a protracted process of deprivation, as there is a widespread belief among officials that, while undernutrition can be tolerated, as in the case of India, starvation deaths must be avoided at all costs. On the domestic front, the politics of perception and polling triumph actual human concerns, and help paint the naïve picture that food shortages happen in the fields rather than on the plates. On the comparative, it is eminently apparent that politics have more to do with food shortages and famines that changing geographies and climates. It is invariably important that domestic political reforms accompany a responsible and supportive international framework of aid, regardless of ethical certainty or egotistical concerns.


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