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Famine has historically claimed more lives than war, but author and scholar Alex de Waal says the size and frequency of famines has been decreasing in recent years, and that overcoming world hunger may be within our reach

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. The topic of famine and starvation is dark and distressing. It is often difficult to measure how many lives are claimed by famine, because the victims may die of many related causes, such as infections, or in the course of taking great risks trying to obtain food. Nevertheless, famine has historically claimed more lives than any war or disease. In his book on this topic, titled ‘Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine,’ Alex de Waal engages with this dark topic, but find a reason for hope. He finds a clear trend towards the frequency and size of famine and a turning point in 1980, indicating that perhaps overcoming world hunger may be within reach in our current generation.
On to talk about this with me is Professor Alex de Waal. He is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He’s also written over 20 books, and the latest of which is ‘Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine,’ by Quality Press. I thank you so much for joining us today, Alex.
ALEX DE WAAL: It’s a pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alex, you talk about the difference between famine and starvation in your book, and it’s important to understand the difference before we can have a meaningful discussion, so could you explain?
ALEX DE WAAL: Famines are those big events, time-bound events, in which hundreds of thousands or millions of people die, not just from hunger, not just from starvation as such, but also from related causes like outbreaks of disease and other forms of human suffering. Starvation actually has two meanings. One meaning is when someone simply shrivels and suffers and actually dies through lack of food. But also, starvation is one person actively starving another person, and one of the main findings from the study of the history of famine is that most cases of starvation come about not through natural causes but through human agency. When someone is starving, somebody else has actually done something politically, militarily, economically to starve that person.
SHARMINI PERIES: What difference is it to a victim of famine in terms of whether you are starved due to natural causes and disasters or because they are being deliberately starved by an aggressor as you explain here?
ALEX DE WAAL: The great majority of cases of starvation or famine in the modern world, and almost all that are occurring today — one could take, for example, Yemen or South Sudan or Syria as examples — have come about through human agency. They are man-made, and actually that gender-insensitive language is deliberate; they are made by men, not women — as part of war, as part of totalitarian political experiments. And it matters a lot, because that is how they get stopped, through political action, not so much through charity. The humanitarian, the charitable activity can be very, very effective at blunting the effects of a crisis, but it’s much less effective actually at stopping that crisis from happening in the first place.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, let’s take a deeper look at this issue of people that are being starved through, say, wars, like in Syria and many parts of the world. In fact, the United Nations recently declared that there’s over 65 million people who are refugees and displaced people around the world, who are, of course, experiencing in many places starvation. Explain the magnitude of the problem to us.
ALEX DE WAAL: Over the last 50 years, the problem of famine has actually hugely diminished in scale. In the hundred years from the 1870s, when we began to have decent records, until the 1970s, every decade about 10 million people would die in these terrible famines. Since then, the number of famines has decreased, but much more importantly, the numbers of people who die in these famines has decreased to about 5% of the previous level, so that as of a couple of years ago, in fact when I started writing this book, one could make a very optimistic prediction that actually famine is on its way out. It hasn’t quite worked out like that. In the last year, we’ve seen a return of famine, the most terrible example being Yemen, but also in Nigeria, in South Sudan, in Somalia, in Syria, and to some extent even in Myanmar, where the Rohingya crisis is also a crisis of starvation.
I think what this overall history tells us is two things. Number one, there is a tremendous achievement over the last generation, something that was very precious, that should be protected, and that is the success of humanitarian activities in preventing a lot of this mass starvation, and also of political activities in making it unacceptable to forcibly starve people on the scale that had happened before. And another point about that is that we seem to be at the threshold of throwing out that achievement, with our politics turning inward, saying we don’t care about the rest of the world, actually undoing this great achievement and casting aside the possibility of ending famine once and for all.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alex, there was a point at which, at least in the southern countries, a Green Revolution that was supposed to have dealt with at least people starving because they didn’t have access to food. Has that situation changed?
ALEX DE WAAL: The Green Revolution and other improvements in farming technology and nutrition have been very, very important in reducing overall levels of everyday hunger in countries in South Asia, etc. They’ve been less significant in reducing famine, because the famines have been caused not by productive factors, although that’s been one background factor in some of them. Much more so, deliberate political act. So for example, in Cambodia in the 1970s, Green Revolution technology was irrelevant in the face of the totalitarian genocidal onslaught of the Khmer Rouge. Similarly, in Yemen or in Nigeria today, it doesn’t matter how capable people are at producing food if military action is actually preventing them from cultivating their fields or from buying food in the market.
SHARMINI PERIES: Interesting. Another point that you make in your book, Alex, is the controversial issue of whether climate change is responsible, or will it cause famine in the future. Explain your position here, what you state in the book, and also, isn’t desertification and soil poisoning and the toxins we are using and so on causing some of the mutations in terms of the kind of food we produce?
ALEX DE WAAL: There’s no doubt that climate change is a major problem, in fact, possibly even the world’s biggest problem, and the habitability of the planet in future centuries has to one of our major concerns. There’s absolutely no question about that in my mind. However, I don’t think it’s correct to argue from the impact of climate on agricultural production in some of the most marginal areas of the world, which is certainly the case, to famine, because famine is the product not only of drought and the impact on production but much, much more importantly, of our political economic systems. If you look at the overall trends in food production in the world today, they are positive. Hunger is being reduced. Nutritional levels are improving. Disease levels are going down.
And where climate change is going to have an impact is that in the short term, it’s in the margins, in the desert areas where actually very, very few people live. Much more important than that is the politics surrounding this. If we are entering an era in which our political leaders are much more interested in grabbing resources that are available for their own zero-sum political calculations, then we’re much more likely to enter an era of conflict over key resources, of closing borders, of inhumane politics, and that is much more likely to lead to the sorts of famine crises that could kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alex, in your previous books, you have been known as a critic of humanitarian aid, pointing out the failures of humanitarian organizations to address the causes of suffering related to famine and starvation. It is interesting that you take this position, because just earlier in this interview you were saying that the role of NGOs and so on were actually responsible to getting the problem under control before the ’80s. So explain where you’re going with this in terms of the NGOs and the failure of humanitarian organizations.
ALEX DE WAAL: I think there’s one criticism of the humanitarian agencies that I would sustain from my previous work 20 years ago when I was, as you say, much more critical, and that is they’re very poor at addressing the political reasons why these crises occur. However, one thing that I think I underestimated very much in my previous writing was the effectiveness of their technical, their professional intervention, so that today we are far better at treating severely malnourished children. We are far better at providing water and sanitation to people who are in refugee camps and so on. We’re much better at public health measures, for example. And those improvements have hugely cut the numbers of people who die in these famines.
And so I want to commend the humanitarian agencies on that enormous achievement and argue that we must continue to support them and protect that, but there’s still unfinished business in terms of addressing the political reasons why these famines occur, which we’re seeing in the most graphic case today in Yemen, where it’s caused by blockade, by the military action of the Saudi-led coalition, which is unfortunately quietly abetted by our Western powers, including the United States.
SHARMINI PERIES: I like the fact that you put so much emphasis on the political, and the lack of political will to address these problems, and of course, it being caused by politics as well. You have in your book dedicated an entire chapter to Ethiopia, a country which suffered from frequent and severe famines for decades, and you actually use it as an example for overcoming famine as well. So let’s talk about Ethiopia here, and also if you might address this problem in the course of it. Previously in places like India, when they were tackling the issue of food shortages and famine, is that the issue of storage and distribution, transportation, all that was also a huge issue. So in resolving this issue, how did policy address those problems, and then, of course, if you can use Ethiopia, our example, it would be good.
ALEX DE WAAL: In large countries, large countries with large agrarian populations and a great deal of poverty, like India historically, like Ethiopia up to now, food shortages have historically arisen because of regionalized crop failures, and public policy in terms of responding promptly and effectively with food distribution, with public health measures, with support to livestock, with providing employment guarantees so that people’s incomes, etc., don’t collapse, have been extremely effective.
Ethiopia has taken those lessons to heart, so that 18 months ago, when Ethiopia faced its largest-ever food crisis, the government led a very expeditious and very effective response. It bought a lot of food, it provided work, it provided food distribution, it provided water, it provided a public health response, and what could have been the biggest food crisis of the decade anywhere in the world was averted by that.
It’s a tremendous achievement, and of course, one of the things that journalists are very poor at doing is covering crises that don’t happen, so there wasn’t very much coverage of that. Of course, if there had been a famine in Ethiopia, everyone would have descended on the country to cover it, when an averted famine, very few people covered it. The difference, however, between India and Ethiopia is the other factor in India, which is that India had, and indeed still has, a free press and a very lively public sphere in which civil society organizations, trade unions and so on call elected representatives to account. That has been very effective in the Indian case in ensuring that the government and the civil service are up to the job, that they respond effectively.
In Ethiopia, that public sphere, that free media, doesn’t exist, and so Ethiopians rely on the goodwill of the government, and fortunately up to now the government has actually responded in a rapid and effective way, but the Ethiopian response would be far more robust, far more likely to continue in the case of future crises if that public sphere were also opened up for free debate, for free media and so on.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alex, after all of the increases in humanitarian aid and over the last 40 years you show the triumph of overcoming famine in places like Ethiopia, and the global reduction of death due to starvations since 1980, and this is all great, but we also see a resurgence of starvation in places like Syria, and you point to Yemen. A lot of this is politics and policy and government decisions, and people in Congress have the ability to stop this trend and stop Saudi Arabia from inflicting this kind of starvation on the people of Yemen. So what do you think can be done about this problem?
ALEX DE WAAL: I think one of the great gaps in the response to famine over the last hundred years has been the refusal to outlaw clearly acts that create famine. Now, lawyers will argue that in the Geneva Conventions, starvation is prohibited, etc., etc., but actually there’s so many get-out clauses. A military commander can always cite military necessity: “I’m not deliberately starving people, I’m just trying to gain a military advantage, and unfortunately, people are going hungry as a result.”
I think possibly the laws could be strengthened, but most importantly, public opinion could call out and say this is completely unacceptable. And there’s a precedent here. Rape was never lawful, but rape and sexual violence in war was never considered a very serious issue until public opinion about 15, 20 years ago began to demand that military commanders and soldiers who were responsible for rape and other sex crimes during war were called to account. The tribunals in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, at the International Criminal Court have begun to do that.
And I think we could do something similar with starvation. We could say this is simply not acceptable, and governments and commanders who inflict starvation on people should be brought to court, should be called to account for these crimes, and then I believe we would begin to see a major change in the way that governments and military commanders behave.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alex. I thank you for this very important work, which obviously isn’t just one. You’ve been doing this for many decades. I thank you for doing this work, and particularly for putting a spin on the politics and putting the responsibility of this on people who need to take responsibility for it. I thank you so much for joining us today.
ALEX DE WAAL: You’re very welcome.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

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