Thursday, October 21, 2010

The UN and Famine

Check out this amazing anecdote, from one of John Derbyshire's readers:
A little acknowledged fact is that there was no famine in Somalia prior to the U.N.’s arrival. To be sure, there were localized food shortages and hunger, but no widespread famine.
The famine began when the U.N. arrived and began giving away food. With free food available, farmers cold not sell their crops and so they stopped farming; the U.N. became the major source of food.
Once U.N. aid convoys were the only viable source of food, it was easy for the warlords to seize the unarmed convoys and food warehouses and monopolize the food supply. Presto, instant famine.

This sounds exactly right to me (and not just because of my strong presumption about the UN's tendency to increase corruption and misery). One of the surprising parts of Amartya Sen's research into famines was that, contrary to what everyone presumed, many famines had little to do with underlying shortages of food. Instead they arise from complex interactions to do with price. The Bengal famine of 1943 happened (as Sen showed) during the middle of an economic boom. As Jeffrey Sachs explains:

"Sen demonstrated that the Bengal famine was caused by an urban economic boom that raised food prices, thereby causing millions of rural workers to starve to death when their wages did not keep up.
And why didn't the government react by dispensing emergency food relief? Sen's answer was enlightening. Because colonial India was not a democracy, he said, the British rulers had little interest in listening to the poor, even in the midst of famine.
This political observation gave rise to what might be called Sen's Law: shortfalls in food supply do not cause widespread deaths in a democracy because vote-seeking politicians will undertake relief efforts; but even modest food shortfalls can create deadly famines in authoritarian societies."
So it seems the Somalian famine wasn't the classic Sen case of rising food prices causing people to not be able to afford food. But it still demonstrates the centrality of prices in understanding famines, and how lowering the price of food to zero is a great way to eliminate all food production. It fits in with Sen's idea broader of the 'failure of exchange entitlements' - the disruption in prices undermines the normal ways that people exchange services (farmers stop farming because the disruption causes them to be uncertain of whether their crops will be worth anything, even though they were eventually highly sought after). It's also consistent with the ultimate Sen punchline that modern famines almost always occur in part due to authoritarian governments.

Via Ace of Spades

No comments:

Post a Comment