How does Sen’s approach to famine differ from the Malthusian approach?

“The most starling aspect of the World’s food problem is not the statistics, though the United Nations say that more than 400 million people are underfed; nor the prognosis, though the World’s population will double in the next 30 years, and the production is often failing to keep apace. It is that we are perfectly able, technically, to feed all the people well for at least the foreseeable future: we even have the necessary good will; and yet we pursue policies and encourage techniques that will make our real but man-made crisis worse” (Colin Tudge 1977)

This is an important question to answer, because unfortunately famine is still a threat to a lot of people in this World. In the words of Stephen Devereux “[F]amine is not a matter for historians; it has yet to be defeated”1. Why is this?

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To answer this question I am going to concentrate on two of the most famous theories of famine; Thomas Malthus’s population approach and Sen’s Entitlement approach. I will explain both theories and then compare them. I will then conclude by explaining the policy recommendations Sen puts forward with his Entitlement approach.

“[T]homas Malthus, a British political economist, concluded in 1798 that famine was a natural means by which population was held in balance with food supply”2. In other words Malthus believed famines were caused by the relationship between population growth and food supply. Malthus was worried that the population could not continue to grow indefinitely in a World of fixed natural resources. In simple terms, the population would get so great that we could not feed everyone, some people would therefore starve. Famine was a product of over population. Famine for Malthus was the natural way of keeping the population under control. “[E]ventually famine would act as a natural check on population growth, equilibrating the demand for food with food supply”3. Malthus believed you have to be cruel to be kind; you are not suppose to help the starving because helping them will only encourage them to breed more rapidly – increasing the problem4.

Lester Brown is a Neo-Malthusian and believes that Malthus’s famine is just around the corner. In his book, Who will feed China? he explains it’s because in his view food production is ‘tailing off’ and the population is ‘soaring’5.

After studying certain famines people started to question Malthus’s approach; were famines caused by overpopulation, or are other factors important? Is it feasible to label famine ‘natural’? Is it ethical to believe that doing nothing is better than doing something to help?

These questions brought light on the problems with Malthusian theory. Stephen Devereux states in his article, Famine in the 20th Century, “[e]ven the worst famines have conspicuously failed to stop or even slow down population growth in the affected countries”6. Professor Don E Dumond summarized his belief that population adapts to conditions, in Science7. Dumond has come to the conclusion that human beings do not, necessarily breed to the limits of their environment, like Malthus has us believe. Dumond gives the example of the Kung bushmen of the Dobe area of Botswana. Dumond analyses that the bushmen do breed quickly if their numbers are reduced by epidemic but their total population is far smaller than the environment could support. There is also no “[s]ign of mass starvation among superfluous infants, as Malthusian theory would have us expect”8.

“[I]t may seem paradoxical to breed when you are poor; it is not if you are really poor, within a poor society, when children are your sole possession, and your sole insurance for your old age”9. The truth is that having a bigger family creates a greater chance of increasing your income and increasing your food supply. “[I]f you apply Malthusian speculation to the present Third World population explosion, you conclude, in common with many politicians, that people are now producing more children than they can support simply because modern medicine is allowing more and more infants to live. That is a fact. But modern evidence from population data, as opposed to Malthus’s opinion, suggests that this high birth rate is primary an adaptation”10. Firstly it’s an adoption to agrarian life, because farming communities without modern technology, need lots of people to do the work. Secondly, it’s an adaption to poverty and in some cases to political or social oppression.

“[A]cceptance of famine as a necessary state and inevitable fate of the weak and the poor had led to actions which create famines and perpetuate famines. Many famines which have occurred might have been prevented or reduced in intensity by human efforts had decision-makers understood the meaning of the word famine and the causes of famine”11. So if Malthus’s theory of famine is problematic what theory explains why famines occur?

“[A]martya Sen (1981) investigated famines and argued that the primary cause of famine was the shift in the distribution of income and not, as we conventionally thought, a failure in crops”12 . Sen has studied many famines but concentrates on Bengal (1943-44), Ethiopia (1972-74), Sahel (1968-1973) and Bangladesh (1974). Through studying these famines Sen has concluded that there are four ways in which people can obtain food13: by growing it (production based entitlement), buying it (trade based entitlement), work for it (own labour entitlement) and been given it (transfer entitlement). Sen believes that individuals face starvation if their “[e]ntitlement set does not provide them with adequate food”.

Entitlement failure can occur in two ways, by a direct entitlement decline (Food Availability Decline or FAD) and by an exchange entitlement decline (a reflection of market forces). Sen therefore believes that people can starve when markets are well stocked and prices are low, so-called ‘boom famines’. In the words of Sen “[H]unger is associated with poverty in that people who are not poor are not hungry”14. The problem for Sen is that people see the cause of famine as not poverty but a failure of food supply relative to the population. “[F]amine is construed by Sen as an event, rather than a process….’a process’ concerns the means by which a phenomenon progresses in a specific context, ‘an event’ concerns only in the fact of it having happened”.15

For Sen the main focus point of famines is not as Malthus believed, the relationship between population and food supply, but it’s the relationship between poverty and famine itself. For Sen, famine is a product of underdevelopment and therefore famine reduction is linked to the development process. What matters to Sen is the equality of opportunity16, what people are able to do rather than what they could purchase with their income. For Sen, democracy is very important; democracies do not have famines because the government is held accountable for its actions. With democracy comes ‘free press’, which is an important factor in combating famine.

Sen believes that the people have to be actively involved in the development process, “[T]hey have to be given the opportunity to shape their own destiny”. 17 If ‘the people’ get involved in the development process then they will get what they want. Sen believes the word development goes hand in hand with democracy. With democracy citizens get rights, and one of the most basic rights is the right not to starve.

The policy recommendations that are needed to be adopted are covered by Sen’s five types of freedoms18. Political freedom – opportunities for participation and dissent, Economic facilities – opportunities to have the use of economic resources for the purpose of consumption, production, or exchange, Social opportunities – the arrangements that society makes for health care and education which influences people’s ability to live better, Transparency guarantees – involving the freedom to deal with another under certainties of disclosure and lucidity, preventing corruption, financial irresponsibility and fraudulent activity, and, Protective security – the need to provide a social safety net when vulnerable people suffer adverse circumstances. Having all five present will lead to the State being more democratic, lead to development and therefore reduce the risk of famine.

The fundamental difference between the Malthusian approach to famine and Sen’s entitlement approach is that Famine is not seen as a natural disaster that is always going to happen and there is nothing we can do about it. Sen sees famine in a different light to Malthus. Sen’s explanation maybe a little more complex than Malthus’s but there is a way to prevent famine and the suffering of people. For Sen it is not the problem of population that causes famine but it’s the problem of poverty. Poverty is now seen as a major cause of famine; only certain people are affected by famines and these are the poorest people living, most of the time, off the land. Those who rely upon production or labour based entitlements. I therefore believe that it is understandable that the global problem of famine can be combated through development processes as proposed by Sen.

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