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on 19 October 1998
Hunger and poverty are not regional or national issues any more. This book literally changed the way people thought about famines and hunger, according to Robert Solow. Human beings are deprived of food in many ways. Sen points out that food availability dedcline is only one possible cause of occurrence of a famine. Famines can occur even if the food output is sufficient in a region, for example in a situation when certain groups of people become richer and purchase more food leading to a steep rise in the prices, while the poor find the food increasingly unaffordable. Sen conceptualizes these issues in the framework of entitlement and ownership. Obviously, a person gets starved when his 'exchange entitlement set' is a null set, i.e., he owns nothing worth exchanging for bundles of food. A famine occurs when a large number of people in a country or a region suffer from such entitlement failures at a same time. In the second chapter, Sen discusses two alternative methods to measure poverty - the Income method and the Direct method. Both methods essentially represent two alternative conceptions of poverty analysis. The inequality approach to poverty is also found to be very common.
Can poverty analysis be put into a policy framework? Sen answers this question in the negative pointing out its difficulties. Sen says that a policy definition is based on a fundamental confusion. But at the same time, Sen fails to answer the question of how then the problem can be solved. Famine Enquiry Commission of 1945 had argued that the famine was due to cyclones, floods, fungus diseases, loss of Burma rice, etc., etc. The essence of these theses was that the famine was mainly an outcome of a food shortage. Sen in his analysis of the famine contests this. Point by point, with the use of statistics on food production and other parameters, he states that although there was a decline in food output in Bengal in 1943, it cannot be accepted as a prime cause as there was a still higher decline in food output during 1941 which did not cause any famine. The per capita food availability in 1943 was also higher than that in 1941. The major cause of the famine was the inability of the British government to forecast the shortfall in food. Sen uses his own 'entitlement theory' to describe the famine. The major cause of the famine was shrinkage of the E-mappings for individuals resulting from spiraling food prices and the prevailing inequalities among the population. The situation was not different in the case of the Ethiopian famine of 1972-74. There also there was not any evidence of a major shortfall in the food output; in fact Sen argues that there was indeed a slight increase in the food output vis-à-vis the preceding years during the famine years. The overall consumption of food at the peak famine period was actually normal. But the purchasing power of the people was low resulting in inability to command food from outside. As in the Bengal famine, the highest casualities were among the agricultural workers. But in contrast with Bengal famine, the food prices rose only very little in Ethiopia and were not very different from those prevailing during the pre-drought periods. Sen explains this phenomenon by understanding it in terms of the entitlement failures of various sections of the Ethiopian population.
The next case study is that of Sahel famine in Africa during 1968-73. This resulted in the decline of food availability that eventually led to the famine. An analysis of region wise food output revealed that in the regions where the output was low, the effect of the famine was actually lower comparatively. Firstly, it makes the farmer more dependent on the market forces for his basic food requirements. When one has an ability to command food in the market legally, then market approach may work.
Sen's major argument in the whole book is that against the popular feeling that famines are caused only due to the decline in availability of food (the FAD approach). He puts in a number of arguments against it citing specific case studies of the above famines. Arnold (1988) pointed out that there were a number of famines in history which were actually caused by food output decline and thus to project entitlement as the major cause of famines was incorrect. Patnaik says that the entitlement approach, while rejecting the FAD theory, takes an unduly short run view of food availability. While agreeing that during famine periods food availability is a major issue, she argues that the long term trend in per capita food availability is also of utmost importance, which Sen does not consider in his entitlement approach. These trends could set the stage for famines even though famines do not thereby become inevitable. There are arguments following Devereux's words that one can not discuss famines without constantly taking into account the aggregate supply of food (Bowbrick, 1986). There are some other major authors also who have come out against the entitlement approach of Sen for that there is nothing 'new' in Sen's approach (Srinivasan, 1983; Mitra, 1982).
Poverty and Famines have remained to haunt the dreams of many underdeveloped countries. The issues, as the book, still live on. As Castro lamented at Rome - "The bells that are presently tolling for those starving to death everyday will tomorrow be tolling for all mankind if it did not want, or did not know, or if it could not be sufficiently wise, to save itself".
Arnold, D., (1988) Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change, Basil Blackwell, Oxford. Bowbrick, P., (1986) "The Causes of Famines: A Refutation of Prof. Sen's Theory", Food Policy, 11. Mitra, Asok., (1982) "The Meaning of Meaning", Economic and Political Weekly (Reviews), 27 March. Patnaik, Utsa., (1991) "Food Availability Decline and Famines-A Longer View", Journal of Peasant Studies,19. Srinivasan, T.N., (1983) "Review of Sen", American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 65.
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on 12 October 2000
A truly superb book, suggesting reasons for the worst famines of the last century. Feasible ideas backed up by conclusive evidence make this a very interesting read. It is unsurprising this man has won a number of prizes for his works
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