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Understanding Famine: Entitled failure, Food Availability Decline or something else?

Famine is defined in the dictionary as “extreme and general scarcity of food, as in a country or a large geographical area, any extreme and general scarcity, extreme hunger; starvation.” (
Famines happen as a result of things such as Natural Disasters, Lack of rain/drought and not much money. Most droughts happen in the developing countries (Third world countries), which aren't economically successful and also near the equator (latitude), as their climate is very different. Amartya Sen’s paper “Ingredients of famine analysis: availability and entitlements” looks at other approaches of famine. The paper looks more into the command of food and the legal means in society more then the shortages and availability’s of food.

Firstly Amartya Sen looks at the Availability approach: This looks directly into the availability of food. He highlights the main increasing problems with lack of food and confesses his concern on the continuation in famines. Sen seems to question the traditional definition of the Famine “extreme and general scarcity of food….”. Sen believes that starvation is directly as a result of people not having enough food and not the there is not enough food available to eat. If there is enough food available surely means that famine should not exist. Unluckily this is not the case and Sen’s paper continues and looks at the “Entitlement Approach”.

The Entitlement Approach starts with the idea that access and ownership to food is “the most primitive property rights”. It explains that within each society there are certain rules, which maintain this right. The entitlement approach examines that every person is entitled to commodity bundles, food. Sen’s approach believes that starvation is an inability to be entitled to any particular bundle with enough food.
An adequate substitute for money in many developing countries is labor. Many family’s stay alive by working in return for food. But if there is no money or no labor this is where hunger appears in society. This results in food not being available because labor and money are unavailable.

Stephen Devereux’s paper “Sen’s Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques” looks more in debt into my last point on how if labor and money are unavailable results in lack of food. Devereux believes that famine in not necessarily a result of a countries economical status that famine is a result of many influential factors such as economical, political and social. According to Devereux he feels that these factors are based on four limitations: * Choosing to starve * Starvation or Epidemics * Fuzzy Entitlements * Extra Entitlement Transfers *
Devereux believes that in the limitation “Choosing to starve” that people choose to starve. He comments and disagrees with Sen’s belief that “peoples actual food consumption may fall below their entitlements for a variety of other reasons, such as ignorance, fixed foods habits and apathy”. Devereux explains that the people facing the famine crises are made make the difficult decision of starvation. They do not have a choice in the matter. Other choices may be between sacrificing other family members that are weaker. An example of this would be that the more dependent family members such as elders and children are more likely to die during a famine. In contrast to the people who usually earn the income in the family and are stronger health wise, these are more likely to survive the famine. Leaving the decision making process of the lives of a family in the hands of faith. That in certain circumstances who lives and who dies is down to a coincidence.

Devereux’s “Starvation and Epidemics” limitation’s general belief is that mortality during famines would be that the reason of starvation is down to the lack of food consumption. Although this is not the case, starvation is very rare cause of death within famines. It is related diseases cause by hunger that result in many deaths. Diseases such as diarrhea and gastro-enteritis are the cause of so many lives. The lack of nutrients vitamins in the body that are found in food result in these cruel diseases and due to the low immune system the body cannot fight this.

Devereux’s “Fuzzy Entitlements” limitation relates back to Sen’s entitlement approach in my opinion. According to Devereux’s Sen ignored “possibilities for weaker claims over resources, such as access and usufruct rights”. This statement resulted in Devereux to come up with two types of fuzziness which would help explain ones endowments and entitlements.

1. Fuzziness with respect to unit analysis: this differentiates ownership by individuals and ownership by institutions. Devereux uses rural Africa as an example that private individuals, state, communities and families own many natural resources. These Natural Resources-“units”- can easily overlap and cause conflict in ownership, which can lead to war. And war, as we know it is one of the main causes of a famine. 2. Fuzziness with respect to property: four main property resources are private, state, common and open access. Both private and state properties have clear and explicit entitlement meaning that their ownership is owned by individuals or state institutions. Open access allows any individual to take ownership and take advantage of the resource and common property has many separations-ownership, control and access.

Devereux’s final causation is “Extra Entitlement Transfers”. This is one of the two crucial exclusions that Sen left out from the entitlement approach. The other is “deliberate starvation”. Devereux argues that Sen’s studies are primarily economically based. Sen never took in the social aspect to his studies, which is a huge part of the famine. The entitlement approach can only take in “normal” effects on problems such as war and not go into the extras and explain the more social aspects such as food aid. This is why Devereux’s final causation is “Extra Entitlement transfers” as it takes both the social and economical aspects of famine. Sen’s entitlement approach ignores many main aspects of the famine for example he excludes the most modernly we known causes of famine and Devereux corrects these simple flaws.


Cormac Ó Grada paper ““The ripple that drowns? Twentieth Century Famines in China and India” on the other hand concentrates more on famine in two highly populated countries, he talk’s about the major effect a famine can have on such densely populated countries and uses a tsunami as a metaphor to describe how easily a famine can wipe out a nation in such devastation.
“These famines were much more than ripples; a more appropriate metaphor for them would be tsunamis”

The Famine in china named “The Great Leap” was caused by harvesting and crop failure and killed millions. The great leap was known to be the biggest famine in the number of deaths, killing up to a crude 60 million. O ’Grada states that the Chinese leader at the time ignored evidence of the unfolding disaster and ignored any evidence of what was going in within the country.
O’ Grada’s paper touches off the same facts as Devereux when he explains that economical and social aspects come into place in the Great Leap Famine. Leading to war and cannibalism.

“The product of severe drought compounded by civil war, killed up to five million people in Sichuan and led to reports of widespread cannibalism”.

The famine in Bengal, India in 1940 crosses paths with Devereux’s four limitations. The Bengal famine’s causation was mainly over land and conflict of ownership. There was a scarcity of food purchase. Entitlements did not occur and due to this the famine led to millions left starving due to lack of food. Many depended on labor which resulted in food, (relating back to Sen’s “entitlement approach”) but due to the market there was no labor work.

“The shift into agriculture and the buoyant land market predicted by a pure entitlements model did not occur; and the plight of agriculturalists and those combining agriculture and labour”

It is clear to me by reading Sen, Devereux’s and O’ Grada papers that Sen excludes a lot of relevant information such as political and social aspects of the famine. There were overlapping prospects from all three papers and many points that O’Grada mentioned about the Famine in China and Bengal related back to both Devereux and Sen’s points. While Devereux on the other hand, has analysed Sen’s paper and filled those simple gaps. All of Devereux’s four causations of the famine include political social and economical aspects. It is because of these reasons that we see Famines and we see millions of people suffering from starvation across the world.

In addition we also see today that like the Chinese Ruler in the 1960s, Famines are still being ignored and attitudes have not changed.

"Using the f-word gives a very strong message to donors and politicians. It brings in publicity and puts it on the news agenda - without it, the public doesn't know it is happening." Ian Bray, Oxfam.

In 2011 Somalia suffered from the worst drought in more than half a century. Many were left without food, which led to starvation resulting in deaths. The European Commission Joint Research and Oxfam only describe a crises as a famine when the situation on the ground reaches level 5 on the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system, meaning: * At least 20% of the population has access to fewer that 2100 kilocalories of food per day. * Acute malnutrition in more than 30% of children * Two deaths per 10,000 people, or four child deaths per 10,000 children every day. *
Many like to ignore the fact that there is such thing as a “famine”.
If these estimations are what classifies a “famine” then problems like the Somalian drought will be un-helped until it reaches these stats. In my opinion before these statistics become fact it is better to raise awareness and catch the problem before it spread and results in the “F- word”. There are many reasons why famines are caused and by raising awareness this is the only way that they can be helped and understood.


Sen, Amartya. 1981. "Ingredients of Famine Analysis: Availability and Entitlements" Quarterly Journal of Economics, 96:3, pp. 433-64

Devereux, S. 2001. “Sen’s Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques” Oxford Development Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2001

Cormac Ó Grada “The ripple that drowns? Twentieth Century Famines in China and India as economic history Economic History Review, 61, S1 (2008), pp. 5–37

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