Famine: A Short History Paperback – 29 Aug 2010
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"This is why Cormac O Grada's latest book is so surprising. He is an optimist. According to him, famines are becoming less common. Even better: they will probably decline in frequency even further. Is it time to declare famine history? O Grada says 'yes'. This is a thesis not to be lightly dismissed. O Grada is a distinguished economic historian. He is the world's foremost authority on the Irish economy, and has written eloquently on the Great Famine of the late 1840s, in which around one million Irish men and women died. Furthermore, this book is packed with facts, all eloquently presented. Although it is a compact little book with generous margins, it is truly global in nature and spans the period from the beginning of written history to the present."--Joanna Bourke, "The Times" (UK)"
"Cormac O Grada's indelible new book "Famine: A Short History" emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between famine and a plethora of other social ills, including crime, slavery, infanticide, and prostitution."--Evan R. Goldstein, "Chronicle of Higher Education""
"Despite its modest title this is an impressive book. . . . Apart from the author's encyclopaedic knowledge, this book is distinguished by its attention to detail, insistence on evidence to back up arguments, and clever structure, which enables the reader to engage easily with cutting-edge arguments about the nature and evolution of famine. It is likely to become the standard academic text on the subject, but its accessible style, clarity and illustrations make it of much wider interest and significance."--Padraig Carmody, "The Irish Times""
"This persuasive argument for global development is intricate enough to satisfy policy wonks but written with a larger audience in mind."--"Publishers Weekly"
"This is an excellent book for any student, researcher, or policy maker interested in famine, food scarcity, or hunger."--"Choice"
"Regarded as Ireland's premier economic historian even before the publication in 1999 of his widely praised "Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory," Cormac O Grada of the University of Dublin created tremors of anticipation with the highly publicized "Famine: A Short History," which establishes him more securely as a scholar in command of the field as a whole."--Harold V. Cordry, "Foreword Magazine""
"Cormac O Grada's book deals with some of the grimmest episodes of human suffering to be recorded. And yes, the author's style is concise and direct. But the book, while always engrossing, is anything but ghoulish or sensationalised and its sociopolitical lessons are relevant to many of the gravest problems facing the world today."--Roy Williams, "The Australian""
"This is an excellent book. Whether you need a quick reference or a textbook on famine or you wish to study a specific aspect, this book is the place to start."--Violetta Hionidou, "BBC Magazine"
"So far, the classic steeds of the Apocalypse--War, Pestilence, Death--gallop apace in the current millennium. The one exception is Famine. In his fascinating, disturbing new book, "Famine: A Short History," economist Cormac O Grada examines the robust evidence that the third horseman is faltering, and considers whether he might indeed be hobbled and consigned to history. . . . O Grada is a nimble and sophisticated thinker."--Karen Long, "The Cleveland Plain Dealer""
"And as O Grada notes in a lengthy case study, even the people of a country prone to famine, Bengalis, were, in one of their worst famines, the 'unwitting, colonial casualties of a struggle not of their making--that against fascism.' And however distant that past may seem as markets grow ever more integrated and crisis response ever more rapid, O Grada warns that without peace and good governance, we will never have a famine free world."--"Zocalo Public Square""
"This book will be of great interest to the general and to the specialist reader and both will find many passages of interest to them. It is well written, easy to read, and provides an excellent introduction to the field. It is especially strong in presenting empirical data from many sources to deal with relevant analytic questions."--L. H. Lumey, "European Journal of Population"
"[O Grada's] work is an extraordinary addition to the famine literature and should be of much interest to both consumers and producers of famine scholarship. O Grada's ability to tackle a very difficult subject in an engaging manner will especially be useful to students and scholars who want a quick but comprehensive overview of famine."--William J. Moon, "Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal""
"The book's greatest and invaluable contribution deals with the demographics of famine. O Grada has vast knowledge and expertise in this field and here provides an indispensable synthesis. . . . This is an extremely significant observation, both for historical understanding and for contemporary policy."--Dana Simmons, "Journal of Modern History""
"Famine . . . has a good mix of detail and overview. As an accessible multidisciplinary survey, it may be useful to specialists--historians, social scientists, development workers, economists--as well as lay readers."--"Danny Reviews"
"It is a must for agricultural economists who work in agencies providing development assistance. And it will inform a much wider audience of agricultural and social scientists who grapple with the technical and ethical dilemmas of malnourishment and periodic starvation that still persist in an affluent world."--Roger Mauldon, "Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics"
One of "Choice"'s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2009
"Gripping stuff."--Tom Jaine, "The Guardian" (UK)
From the Back Cover
"This is a really fine contribution and delivers what it claims: a short account of the long history of famines in the world. O Grada tells a well-integrated story, with excellent analytical content and empirical richness. This is an impeccably chiseled product by one of the world's leading famine analysts."--Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize-winning economist
"O Grada tells an important story of the history of famine from earliest times until the present, and offers prognostications for the future. There is very little to rival this book. "Famine" is the most comprehensive short treatment of the subject available."--William Chester Jordan, author of "The Great Famine"
"This is an important book. Cormac O Grada lays out a history of famine around the world and uses this to extract common themes around the causes, morphology, and consequences of and reactions to famine. "Famine" makes fascinating reading."--Peter Walker, Tufts University
"Original and important. The history of famine has not ended. "Famine" is relevant and timely."--Joachim von Braun, coauthor of "Famine in Africa""See all Product Description
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This book is a timely reminder that famine still stalks the world, although not on the scale of the Chinese famine of 1959-61, or the Bengal famine of 1942-44, which killed tens of millions. Even Europe experienced famines in Holland and Greece during World War 2. Most people, however probably associate famine with Africa, which O Grada nominates as the last region of endemic famine in the world..
Famines are intensely political events. Governments often have a vested interest in down-playing the number of deaths, while opponents at home and abroad often exaggerate them. Deaths claimed in the great Chinese famine of 1959-61 range from zero (the government denied any famine existed and covered up its impact) to 50 million. Credible estimates range from 15 - 25 million.
Famine has also become "feminised." It is often claimed that more women than men die in famines. O Grada discusses compelling data from many famines that show quite the reverse - more men die than women. As one investigator put it "husbands will very generally rather starve than see their wives starve before them." He goes on to discuss the physiological evidence that helps explain the higher famine mortality of men.
It is also widely believed that famine kills predominantly the very young and the elderly. However, a carefully study of the actual data does not justify such an over-generalisation to include every famine.
During the 1959-61Chinese famine, the greatest recorded in history, it is said that starving children gathered at the Yunjing bus station hoping to eat the vomit off the long-distance buses.
In almost all famines crime rose substantially in the desperate struggle for food. People became hardened by their own needs. There is a photo in the book of a man stealing food from a starving child on the ground. In extremis, infanticide and enslavement were practiced.
In the 19th century Malthusian ideas of famine dominated official responses. Famine was simply nature's way (or even God's way) of "checking" population when it had run ahead of the food supply. But towards the end of the19th century famine relief became institutionalised and this trend has continued to the present day.
Now there is a vast array of NGOs involved in famine relief. This has not always been a positive development. Many NGOs have become expensive, self-serving bureaucracies in their own right. They often exaggerate and have used famines as a pretext for soliciting additional aid. O Grada gives numerous examples (with references) in the book.
Modern government food aid is of such a scale that it is often dumping by another name. While it might relieve the poor in the short run, it risks damaging local agriculture and perversely increasing the chances of future famines and undesirable dependence on food handouts.
I have travelled in the poorer regions of Africa and all this resonated with me. Many of the vehicles in such places are dirty and dilapidated. But occasionally one sees a shiny white Toyota Landcruiser flashing by, windows up, aircon full on. Invariably these vehicles belong to some UN or other NGO, cocooning a cosseted official rushing off to some meeting or other.
While great loss of life and human suffering are the obvious characteristics of famine, other inevitable characteristics include crime, corruption and profiteering by officials and privileged classes. O Grada gives many examples, including one that will surprise many readers. A missionary in China used famine relief funds to build a cottage for himself, and was supported by his fellow missionaries when the scandal came to light.
O Grada, one of the world's leading famine analysts, makes the startling claim that "over the past century or so, almost without exception, famines in peacetime have been exacerbated by corrupt and rapacious governing elites." Famine has also been used as an instrument of war.
Apart from some brief remarks in Chapter 1, not enough is said about the role of climate in certain famines. I would have liked to have seen a chapter on this topic. The book focuses on famine itself - how famine develops, its effects and efforts to deal with it.
This book is probably the best popular treatment of the subject available. O Grada writes well and has a gift for the telling example, although parts of the book may be too dry and analytical for some readers.
Most of its conclusions are unremarkable; but some are counter-intuitive and demonstrate the value of letting the data speak truthfully to a skilled researcher like O Grada.
I urge all thoughtful readers to read this book.
Given economic and agricultural improvements, and declining population growth due to demographic transitions, governmental actions and failures loom larger in the genesis of 20th century famines. O Grada discusses a number of interesting and often gruesome case studies. These include the famines associated with Stalinist collectization, the Great Leap Forward famines in China, and the Bengal famine of the mid-1940s. In all these cases, either government neglect or brutal actions towards peasants coincided with poor harvests to produce famines. These detailed accounts are interesting in and of themselves. The horrifying Bengal famine is largely unknown to most readers. O Grada provides some significant revision of the usual accounts of the Great Leap Forward and Stalinist famines. He is skeptical of highest (and most popular) estimates of deaths during the Great Leap Forward famines. He rebuts the popular idea (stemming from the historian Robert Conquest) that the famine was caused deliberately to subdue the Ukrainian peasantry. In a more general revision, he casts doubt on the idea that famines provide a Malthusian "check" on population growth. He argues that population losses due to famines are recovered quickly and that chronic malnutrition is a greater inhibitor of population growth.
O Grada is guardedly optimistic about the future. Given continuing economic growth, declining fertility, and better governance in many parts of the world, famine incidence is likely to decline further. O Grada is not, however, complacent and is quite aware of the fragility of decreased famine incidence. O Grada does not, however, discuss a couple of factors that are worrisome. Investment in agricultural research has been relatively modest over the last generation. Global climate change is likely to be disruptive of agriculture in many regions which already exhibit food insecurity.