Mass Starvation
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Mass Starvation

The History and Future of Famine

Alex de Waal

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Mass Starvation

The History and Future of Famine

Alex de Waal

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The world almost conquered famine. Until the 1980s, this scourge killed ten million people every decade, but by early 2000s mass starvation had all but disappeared. Today, famines are resurgent, driven by war, blockade, hostility to humanitarian principles and a volatile global economy. In Mass Starvation, world-renowned expert on humanitarian crisis and response Alex de Waal provides an authoritative history of modern famines: their causes, dimensions and why they ended. He analyses starvation as a crime, and breaks new ground in examining forced starvation as an instrument of genocide and war. Refuting the enduring but erroneous view that attributes famine to overpopulation and natural disaster, he shows how political decision or political failing is an essential element in every famine, while the spread of democracy and human rights, and the ending of wars, were major factors in the near-ending of this devastating phenomenon. Hard-hitting and deeply informed, Mass Starvation explains why man-made famine and the political decisions that could end it for good must once again become a top priority for the international community.

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Part I
Perspectives on Famine and Starvation

An Unacknowledged Achievement

The Biggest Picture

Something remarkable happened over the last thirty years. The risk of dying in famine has become much, much smaller than at any time in history. Calamitous famines – episodes of mass starvation that kill a million people or more – have vanished. Great famines that kill 100,000 people still occur, but they are rarer and less lethal. At least one hundred million people died in great and calamitous famines in the 140 years from 1870 to 2010, and almost all of them died before 1980 (see Figure 1.1).
Figure 1.1 Mortality in great and calamitous famines by decade, 1870–2010
Source: World Peace Foundation
The main purpose of this book is to explain why this happened. It is written in a spirit of sceptical optimism: today is the best time to be alive, but we also have reason to be fearful. I hope to explain the huge and under-celebrated success of nearly eliminating mass starvation from the world, with the aim of encouraging us not to casually abandon that achievement, but rather to appreciate and consolidate it – and take forward the eminently achievable goal of definitively ending famines.
This is a story of disastrous and exceptional episodes of famine and mass starvation. It is not about overall world hunger and under-nutrition, although the two stories will occasionally intersect. Nor is it a story of global food supplies, though food markets play an important part. These problems are complex and persistent, but over the last century have become less relevant to the question of famine. Rather, this book is the story of how massive outbreaks of starvation used to be a persistent feature of our world, how they became less so over the last generation, and why we should be worried that they could yet recur.
Great famines resulted from the actions of imperial conquistadors and ideological fanatics. Starving people to death was hard work. The near-eclipse of famine in the last three decades is the result partly of the positive efforts of humanitarians and others concerned with human welfare and development, but much more so of the decline of megalomania and of political attitudes that regard people as dispensable. To overcome famine in the modern era, our main adversary has been political leaders, not the weather or the poor state of the roads. In other words, we must include forced mass starvation in definitions of famine and regard it as a variant of mass atrocities. The word ‘starvation’ is not intended to imply that everyone who dies in a famine dies directly of hunger – the biggest killers are in fact communicable diseases. But the verb ‘to starve’ should be understood primarily in its transitive sense to indicate that some (powerful) people have starved other (powerless) people, leaving them to die – from hunger, disease, exhaustion or violence. Mass starvation ranges from the outcome of recklessness (pursuing actions regardless of the known dangers) through persecution to murder and genocide.
This book concludes with a warning that in so far as we see a resurgence of ideologies and practices that reduce people to instruments or impediments to other political ends, or exclude them from our political communities, we need to be deeply worried that mass starvation will return: we will not see a demise but an eclipse of famines. To explain this concern, and the career-long research on which my argument is based, I turn to my own encounter with famine.

Encounters with Famines

I travelled to Darfur, the westernmost region of Sudan, to begin my field research in September 1985. It was a traumatic time for the people of Darfur, in the depths of the most lethal episode of acute hunger for seventy years. But there were some blessings that I didn't appreciate at the time. At that time, Darfur was peaceful, and over the next two years I travelled the length and breadth of the region in complete safety, welcomed with whatever gracious hospitality that people could muster in every village or nomadic encampment.
I had originally intended to study refugees, drawing on the pioneering Sudanese researchers in that field. More than thirty years on, it is salutary to recall that the flow of intellectual capital was from the University of Khartoum to the University of Oxford (where I was registered for my doctorate), not the other way around. Ahmed Karadawi, my host and guide at the Commissioner of Refugees, advised me to go to study the Chadians in Darfur, as almost no one had done any research on them. He then changed his advice: the Chadian refugees were submerged within the wider problem of mass displacement due to the famine, so I should study the famine.
My first day of fieldwork was spent in a camp for displaced people on the fringes of the regional capital al-Fashir. Desperately hungry people had sought food in the city and had congregated in the abandoned camel market, making makeshift shelters out of branches and plastic sheets. People who were utterly destitute chose the place because it was close to the airport, where sacks of American sorghum were unloaded from aircraft onto waiting lorries. Every now and then, a sack would spill or burst, and the labourers would scoop up grain to give to the hungry sitting next to the perimeter fence. One of the drawbacks of the place, which had been a thriving camel market until just a few months earlier, was that big, ravenous camel fleas still infested the ground. During one interview, with a woman who said she was forty years old but looked much, much older, my translator and I were continually slapping our calves and thighs whenever we felt their bites. ‘How can you live in this place?’ I asked her, ‘Don't they eat you?’ She replied, ‘No, we eat them.’
The people who suffer and survive famine have a sense of humour, and more importantly, their own agency. I learned more from the people of Darfur than I could have learned from all the textbooks on famine. There was no theory or framework in the academic literature, which I had scoured so thoroughly in fourteen different libraries in Oxford, which explained the reality I found. Almost everything I had assumed about famine turned out to be wrong.
To begin with, I discovered that predictions of mortality were enormously exaggerated. Journalists who got news of the catastrophic harvest failure wrote that two million of the three million people who lived in Darfur at that time would soon be dead. That didn't happen: although food aid arrived only late, my estimate of famine mortality was 105,000.1 Death rates peaked at 40 per 1,000 in 1985, with the great majority of those who died being children. This was bad, but far, far fewer than the predicted millions. In my first book, I tried to explain why. Part of the reason was ‘disaster tourism’ and the selective exposure of outsiders to the worst, which led to exaggerated forecasts. The other part was people's own impressive resilience and capacity to cope.
I chose a short poem by Bertolt Brecht as the literary frontispiece for my book on that famine:
I have seen people
Who were remarkable –
Highly deserving of your admiration
For the fact that they
Were alive at all.
What I missed was the extent to which the famine caused a huge loss of social and economic capital in Darfur, helping set in motion the disaster of twenty years later. The short-term resilience shown by Darfurians came at a high price.
I completed my fieldwork in Darfur in early 1987. A year later, in the summer of 1988, reports came through of starvation on the southern borderlands of Darfur and the neighbouring region of Kordofan. The figures we heard showed death rates that were at their peak one hundred times greater than in Darfur during the worst of the drought-famine in 1985. The victims were displaced southern Sudanese, driven from their homes by war – specifically by raiding and pillaging by militiamen known as Murahaliin (forerunners of the notorious Janjawiid of the Darfur war), and crowded into displaced camps in the territory of their tormentors. Had the camp populations not been replenished by new arrivals from the war zones, they would simply have become graveyards within a few months. The Sudanese government was bankrupt and it ran its counter-insurgency on the cheap, declaring southern Sudan and its inhabitants an ethics-free zone in which the irregular militiamen and army officers could loot, burn and kill at will, and didn't need to report back.2 The southern Sudanese were first robbed of all their possessions and then, when they trekked northwards to find food or work, the militiamen confined them to camps where they prevented them from gathering wild foods or working for money. The militia and army also blocked relief railway wagons filled with food aid stood untouched in sidings just a few miles away.3 Deborah Scoggins, the first foreign journalist to visit those camps, wrote, ‘These are places so sad the mind goes queasy trying to understand th...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Mass Starvation
APA 6 Citation
Waal, A. (2017). Mass Starvation (1st ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Waal, Alex. (2017) 2017. Mass Starvation. 1st ed. Wiley.
Harvard Citation
Waal, A. (2017) Mass Starvation. 1st edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Waal, Alex. Mass Starvation. 1st ed. Wiley, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.