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Ceramic Set



Why do famines occur and what needs to be done to prevent them?

Not easy questions to answer. And by extension, these are questions that will not require easy answers.


In an attempt to unpack these complex questions, I will begin by discussing what famines are, why they occur, and will end with two key recommendations regarding what can be done to prevent them. This will involve a discussion of certain development strategies to frame the strengths and limitations of applying them to famine prevention. The list of recommendations drawn from this discussion will be neither exhaustive nor conclusive, but rather act as a starting point towards further famine prevention and hopefully inspire more initiatives to follow. 

Famine will be understood in this essay as a phenomenon that affects specific groups of people “whose vulnerability is defined by their shared relationship to food” (Devereux 2009: 26). The way famine impacts these specific groups of people is through the widespread scarcity of food where there is not enough to survive. Famine is therefore different to hunger, which is instead a phenomenon where people are undernourished and have enough food to survive but not enough to live a healthy life (The Difference between Hunger and Famine 2012). The ’catastrophic’ famines – those that reach over 1 million deaths – of the 20thcentury devastating the Soviet Union, China, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and North Korea are all considered famines because they were periods where there was not enough food to survive evidenced in the multitude of deaths (Devereux 2009). The 20th century was not however completely painted with devastation as this period also saw – a temporary – eradication of famine as there has been “no famine in Europe since the 1940s, in East Asia since the 1960s, or in South Asia since the 1970s" (Ibid: 25). This eradication of famine is often attributed to a change in the technical and institutional capacity to prevent them including, “famine early warning systems and the international humanitarian relief system, to United Nations declarations on the ‘right to food’" (Ibid: 26). Devereux is however reluctant to affirm that famine has completely been eradicated because even after the technical and institutional capacity was established to prevent them – which worked in Europe and Asia – famine persisted in Africa. As the world turned into the 21st Century, three devastating famines in Ethiopia, Malawi and Niger claimed the lives of a few hundred thousand people. 


Why then do famines still occur when the capacity to prevent them has supposedly been established? In theories of famine, causation has been distinguished into two key schools of thought. The first is technical and regards food availability decline, also known as FAD theory, “which explain famines in terms of sudden disruptions to food supplies” (Ibid). This view has however been massively criticised by economists, where a key thinker in disproving FAD theory as the sole cause of famine has been Indian economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen. Prior to Sen, FAD theories dominated understandings of famine causation, however Sen’s (1981) work instigated a shift in the discourse of famine causation to a focus on ‘entitlement’ decline. The entitlement approach is the second school of thought in understanding why famines occur and has a much more political angle. This approach suggests that famines are more to do with the lack of command over food rather than there being an issue with availability itself. Entitlement theory links the causes of famine to issues of distribution failure, precarious employment and the distribution of wealth, alongside other social and political systems and conditions that guide both food and wealth distribution. This shift in thinking manifested in Sen’s book, ‘Poverty and Famine’, that showcased how famines often occur even when there is enough food at either national or local level. Sen argues that all legal sources of food can be boiled down to three categories; production, exchange and, transfers, however a person’s entitlement to these sources depends on both their endowments and exchange possibilities. Sen uses this to suggest that “famines are unknown in countries with a free press and competitive elections” (de Waal 1996: 194), arguing that famines do not happen in democracies because political leaders are motivated to keep their population from going hungry as an incentive for votes. 


Sen’s argument about democracy has however been heavily critiqued by de Waal (1996), who highlights how famines have still been seen to occur in democracies and that Sen’s theory applies specifically to India. De Waal points to the holes in Sen’s theory by first examining how it is problematic to take India and China as counter examples, where India prevented famine because it was democratic, and China did not because of its dictatorial and secretive political system. De Waal argues that this is problematic because it paints a static picture of why and how famines occur and is also not entirely correct, emphasised in the case of Sudan. Even when Sudan did have free press and competitive elections, the country still experienced a severe famine in the south. A democratic state is therefore not a prerequisite for an absence of famine. Consequentially, in recent years, famine theory has made yet another shift towards ‘response failure’, which focuses on "the failure of governments and agencies to intervene to protect household food security following supply and/or demand failures” (Devereux 2009: 26). Devereux’s work then becomes so influential because it acknowledges wider social and political factors involved in famine causation and does not take on a one-dimensional explanation, which has too often offered an incomplete explanation for how and why famines occur. Devereux uses the famines of Ethiopia (1999-2000), Malawi (2000-2001) and Niger (2004-2005) to highlight that all three famines were attributed to the "simultaneous or sequential failures of food supply, demand for food, and humanitarian responses" (Devereux 2009: 25). These three casual factors link to the three major theories in famine causation discussed above: production failure, exchange failure and, response failure. A one-factor approach that suggests food availability decline alone causes famine is merely too simplistic as it is precisely the ‘simultaneous or sequential failures’ of all three legal sources of food that better explains the full reality behind famine. 


This is brought to life ethnographically in Devereux’s work on Ethiopia, Malawi, and Niger where in all three countries food availability decline played a minor role in causing famine. For context, Ethiopia did experience a drought leading to livestock deaths, Malawi had erratic weather during farming season impacting the maize harvest and Niger had a locust invasion and a drought that ruined crop production. However, while weather conditions impacting production may appear to support FAD theory this would serve as a majorly inadequate explanation. This is because these weather conditions initiated the sequence of events that led to famine, implying that production failure is not the definitive account of why these famines took place. The decline in the availability of food went on to spark an ‘exchange entitlement’ collapse in these three countries, which rose the prices of food due to reduced supplies and a surge in market demand. Devereux describes this period as characterised by ‘distress sales’ of assets to finance food purchases, causing a major fall in asset prices. The rural poor in these nations rely on subsistence-oriented rain-fed agriculture in a country where private and public investment in agriculture is low and food shortages are regular and are therefore naturally very exposed to harsh fluctuations in harvest and food prices. This highlights the way in which famines do impact specific groups of people and why food availability decline cannot wholly explain famine causation. 


Food availability decline that led to exchange failure was followed by massively ineffective responses that became the final contributor in allowing these famines to ensue. Ineffective response is then the third and crucial strand in the web of failures that allowed famine to persist, which Devereux breaks down into four facets: information failure, ineffective interventions, government-donor relations, and democratic deficits. In Ethiopia, national early warning systems were sounded by NGOs but were ignored. When aid did arrive it was too little, too late, with the government’s power base of Tigray receiving more food aid than required therefore permitting the Somali Region’s continuous marginalisation within Ethiopia. Similarly in Niger, NGOs predicted that famine would be caused by a persistent rise in starvation deaths but were also ignored. The government did eventually reach out for aid, however requested too little and could not prevent the famine. In Malawi the issues lay in inaccurate data and ineffective advice from the IMF. The dependent relationship these countries have on donors and international financial institutions create a power imbalance and threaten democratic accountability of these governments in their consequentially diminished allocation of power. Deveraux argues that famines could have been prevented in all three contexts; however humanitarian response was unfortunately riddled with too many faults. All three factors – food availability decline, entitlement failure and ineffective response – contributed to the famines in these regions affirming how a single factor approach does not suffice in explaining famine. Famine must be understood as being caused by interlinking disruptions in access to all legal sources of food. 


This next section will explore how the understanding of famine causation can be used to suggest strategies for prevention. This will then lead on to two recommendations for implementation. A particular development strategy whose relationship to famine prevention must be analysed is an entrepreneurial approach by Prahalad and Hammond (2002). This is because for decades, faith is development has receded inspiring the birth of an entrepreneurialism, ‘inclusive capitalism’ trend for bottom-up development initiatives. This approach takes on the view that development can and should entice multi-national companies (MNC) to invest in poor, low-income, developing countries referred to as ‘bottom of the pyramid’ (BOP) economies. Theorists frame this development initiative as one that simultaneously benefits both BOP economies and MNCs through the establishment of entrepreneurial enterprises. Prahalad and Hammond discuss a surplus of reasons as to why MNCs would want to invest in BOP economies, identifying how companies can tackle saturated markets and rigid growth rates, involve in cost-saving opportunities, and tap into an untapped pool of innovation. Prahalad and Hammond’s essential argument is that "prosperity can come to the poorest regions only through direct and sustained involvement of multinational companies" (2002: 49). Could this be a way to prevent famine? On paper, this strategy appears unquestionably appealing and a way for areas vulnerable to famine to engage in entrepreneurialism to enable a less dependent relationship on agricultural production. As discussed, while food production decline does not wholly explain famine it is often the initial stage in events that lead to famine, so starting at the root seems to be an effective strategy in its prevention. 


However, this initiative does not come without limitations as highlighted in Dolan and Rajak’s ethnography on the ‘Catalyst’ entrepreneurial opportunity in Nairobi. The Catalyst program focused on addressing issues raised by President Kenyatta in 2014 regarding the “unrestrained, ‘idle, frustrated youth’ threatening the legitimacy and sanctity of the state” (Dolan and Rajak 2018: 233). This program intended to transform Nairobi’s youth into entrepreneurs and fed them an idea of prosperity and what their life could be like. The issue with this program however was that while it may have temporarily addressed high unemployment in young people and removed them from gangs and crime, it fell short on the promises it made. The prosperous lifestyle promised was complicated by the dependence on how much entrepreneurs could sell in the slums which ended up creating an unsteady income prone to fluctuations in the market. This unsteady income was coupled with a lack of social security that a ‘formal’ job would offer and ironically led to a continuation of precarity. Dolan and Rajak’s ethnography also brings light to how many youths in Nairobi felt almost exploited through a removal of freedom despite the entrepreneurial context. The entrepreneurialism approach also cannot solve all economic ills which Prahalad and Hammond have highlighted by emphasising that BOP countries will still require both financial aid from the developed world and improvements in their own governance. Suggesting that prosperity can be achieved "only through direct and sustained involvement of multinational companies" is consequentially misleading and false. 


If entrepreneurialism is not the right response, then what is? I argue that effective development in preventing famine will require two things: strong ethnographically specific understandings on the areas of focus and a renewed approach to measuring progress. Justice’s (1987) work on the delivery of primary health care programs in Nepal contextualises the importance of the first requirement as she argues that despite an abundance of cultural knowledge, this information is rarely included in development initiatives. The knowledge obtained by social scientists can create more culturally appropriate development models, however the delivery of development is often heavily influenced by bureaucratic structures, reflecting “the perspective and needs of the health bureaucracies involved rather than those of the local villages receiving services" (Justice 1987: 1301). This ideology applies to Nairobi as international programs intending on delivering effective development similarly did so with a lack of strong cultural understanding that led to the program’s demise. Nairobi’s youth became frustrated and exploited by the pressures of entrepreneurial achievement, which could have been more effectively implemented with a greater context-specific cultural understanding.


The first on the ground recommendation is therefore the introduction of anthropologically supervised self-help programs. This program will target poorer, rural communities who are often the groups most vulnerable to famine due to their heavy dependence on agriculture and consequential increased susceptibility to livelihood crises (Devereux 2009). Inspired by Tabitha Foundation UK, self-help programs will last five to seven years centring around the establishment of self-sufficiency and self-built confidence promoted through schemes that focus on “savings, counselling, and goal setting” (About Tabitha Cambodia: 2020). A savings program will allow families to increase their income to mitigate the potential of exchange failure and therefore allowing families to better handle periods of food availability decline – may they arise. This idea therefore appears similar to entrepreneurialism, however, has two key nuances. Firstly, self-help programs do not introduce a massively stark change in lifestyle the way that entrepreneurialism does. Already involved in agriculture, families are encouraged through these self-help programs to grow their income in an industry they already part of. The program does this by collecting savings from families each week, which are then returned on the tenth week where they will then be able to buy larger amounts of livestock and essential goods through the increase of their own useable income. This growth of income will allow rural families to change their vulnerable relationship to exchange challenges and after the program is complete hopefully minimise dependence on humanitarian aid. The second nuance of this program is that it will be assisted by anthropologists. Anthropological involvement in the program will ensure a strong culturally specific understanding of how these programs will need to adapt in different contexts. Anthropologists will help ensure that the program will be flexible as development cannot thrive unless it is prepared to be remodeled according to context and culture.


The second recommendation for famine prevention is much more ideological and will serve to supplement the self-help programs by urging a shift in assessments of progress and success. Devereux hints at an interesting question; "so if contemporary famines affect fewer countries and kill fewer people than past famines, this surely represents some sort of progress" (2009: 26), however goes on to say that despite this the fact is that famines are still happening. This implies a complicated relationship between famine and the measuring of progress which is crucial to consider because a massive part of development is the evaluation of how well strategies perform in the context of each global issue they are deployed for. For example, in Starrs’ work analysing the progress made on maternal survival 20 years after the Safe Motherhood Initiative in Nairobi in 1987, she reveals that despite a minimal change in number of maternal deaths the initiative has still been successful. The conference created a greater opportunity for understanding this multifaceted issue evidenced in the fact that by 1994, "every region of the world had held a safe motherhood conference, and safe motherhood was firmly ensconced as a core component of reproductive health" (Starrs 2006: 1130). As with maternal survival, famine is a multi-faceted issue whose line to solution will not be completely linear and will require a more perceptive view on the progress it makes. The anthropology of development should therefore consider several crucial questions, starting firstly with: even if the recommendations suggested above are taken into action, how long should these strategies take to fully eradicate famines globally? Further, it must also be asked how long the world can go without a famine for prevention strategies to be viewed as successful? If for example, the world is rid of famine for ten years and then experiences one after that period, is it fair to say that famine prevention has made no progress? Through ethnography, the anthropology of development can move away from relying solely on numerical measures of success, which have often focused on the success of famine prevention strategies in terms of numbers of death. This numerical assessment of famine prevention must be supplemented with ethnographic research because numbers without a situated ethnographic context do not always tell us enough about the actuality of experience. 


These recommendations do however have limitations. For example, after the program ends, families may not continue to save, or may find a self-help program of this nature to be intrusive. Famine prevention may also still require effective humanitarian aid in certain contexts, as anthropological self-help programs work to specifically address risks to failures in exchange. It is important to recognise that every development initiative will have drawbacks, and this essay is therefore not suggesting that anthropologically guided self-help programs and a re-evaluation of measuring success will completely eradicate famine. However, these recommendations do serve as fundamental steppingstones in the journey to make decrease the presence of famine from our world’s reality.  

Works Cited

About Tabitha Cambodia 2020. (available on-line:, accessed 11 March 2022).


Devereux, S. 2009. Why does famine persist in Africa?. Food Security 1, 25-35.


Dolan, C. & D. Rajak 2018. Speculative futures at the bottom of the pyramid. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 24, 233-255.


Justice, J. 1987. The bureaucratic context of international health: A social scientist's view. Social Science & Medicine 25, 1301-1306.


Mosse, D. 2004. Is Good Policy Unimplementable? Reflections on the Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. Development and Change 35, 639-671.


Pigg, S. 1992. Inventing Social Categories Through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal. Comparative Studies in Society and History 34, 491-513.


Prahalad CK, Hammond A. 2002. Serving the world's poor, profitably. Harvard Business Review80(9), 48-57, 124. 


Sen, A. 1981. Poverty and Famines: an Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. 


Starrs, A. 2006. Safe motherhood initiative: 20 years and counting. The Lancet 368, 1130-1132.


The Difference between Hunger and Famine 2012. Hunger Math (available on-line:, accessed 20 March 2022).


Waal, A. 1996. Social Contract and Deterring Famine: First Thoughts. Disasters 20, 194-205.

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