Can hunger be abolished? Today’s hunger disasters have political causes, claims professor Alex De Waal. He believes famine must be criminalized and that political leaders must be brought to court.

Andrew Kroglund
Andrew Kroglund
Kroglund is a critic and writer.
Published date: March 5, 2018

Mass Starvation. The History and future of famine

Alex De Waal

Polity Press. UK


If we analyse the global development of famine over the past 150 years, we learn that nearly 100 million people have died. About 95 per cent of them died in the period before 1980. This means that the world has become a much better place to live during the last four decades. Still, it seems like we are about to take a step backwards – politically forced hunger is on the rise. For more than 30 years, professor Alex De Waal has been writing about hunger as a phenomenon. He has been studying it and he has seen it up close through working in different fields as an aid worker, activist and an academic. In his new book, he claims that we are still living in the Malthusian illusion thinking that famine occurs as a result of overpopulation – and that nature shows its revenge by giving us bad growth and failing crops.

According to De Waal, this has not been the case for a long time. In collaboration with the World Peace Foundation (WPF), the foundation he is also the director of, De Waal has catalogued all the most significant situations of starvation over the last 150 years, followed by classifying them by size: total, very extensive or major disasters. The categorization and classification are in themselves an interesting read and a good enough reason to buy his book.

Three catastrophic waves

The main hunger disasters that the world have seen can be divided into three «waves»: the first one during the era of imperialism, from 1870 to 1914, the other one in the period De Waal calls «the enlarged world war» – 1915-50 – and the last one during the postcolonial totalitarianism from year 1950 to 1985. The period from 1870 until the First World War is commonly referred to as «The Late Victorian Holocaust» – a term introduced by author and historian Mike Davis.

Dublin Famine memorial by Rowan Gillespie

Similar to other colonial powers, Britain maintained a strict political and social attitude in India, China and parts of South-America and Africa. India had a viable textile industry at the time when the British Empire began its expansion into Asia during the late 1700s. Two hundred years later, the industry was gone –  destroyed by the British tariffs on textile production. Raw cotton was shipped to England, which gave the British textile industry a monopoly. Millions of Indians lost their jobs and starved to death.

«Der Hungerplan»

The second wave arrived in the early 20th century, and mass extinctions were carried out by totalitarian regimes. The Nazis executed six million Jews. In addition to that, they had their own «Hunger Plan» («Der Hungerplan»). The plan was to let 30 million people in Eastern Europe starve to death – that included the countries Poland, Ukraine and the Soviet Union. Hitler wanted to get rid of those he referred to as «useless food drains›: Germany wanted Lebensraum – or «living space». Besides, they needed the food to feed their own. According to De Waal, the Germans did not succeed with their extensive hunger plan: it became too complicated and «only» 6 million of the planned 30 million died.

«Hunger crime is as serious as genocide.»

The last and most destructive category of hunger disasters before 1980, consists of those that happened internally in communist countries such as the Soviet Union and China. The worst of these disasters lasted from 1958 until 1962. The famine was a result of Mao Zedong’s bad leadership and the plan he called «the big leap». This became a leap into the abyss. 25 million people starved to death.

Alex de Waal, author, academic and head of the World Peace Foundation.

A lot of this information is already known to us from before, at least to those who are interested in such thematic. Still, this does of course not mean that new descriptions of human madness cannot provide refreshing perspectives. I would also like to think that the details of the German hunger plan are relatively unknown to many people. Moreover, De Waal is a good writer and his own field experiences give him great credibility.

The Waals analysis shows that 70 per cent of all hunger disasters in the past 150 years can be connected to political choices and human responsibility. 18 per cent of the deaths were caused due to the fact that the authorities failed to cope with the food shortage caused by climatic conditions (drought, flooding, et cetera). These deaths could have been avoided with the use of emergency aid. One example happened during the early 1980s: the President of Sudan, Gaafar Nimeiry, overlooked advice and clear signs of drought and refused to ask for international assistance. 200 000 people lost their lives.

«De Waal wants to do more than just retelling the story.»

Only 12 per cent of the deaths in the 150-year period were caused by external factors that the government did not have the prerequisites for handling. Most of these people died in the distant past, De Waal writes – such as during various hunger disasters in India and China in the 1870s.

We are able to make a change

De Waal wants to do more than just retelling the story. He wants us to maintain a deeper understanding of what’s actually happening. And here, we return to the British priest and researcher Thomas Malthus, who De Waal believes is still being given too much importance. De Waal claims that all previous experience indicates that we are able to produce enough food for a growing world.

“Yemen is the greatest famine atrocity of our lifetimes,” said Alex de Waal. Here, Yemenis present documents to receive food rations in Sanaa in April 2017. Photo: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

He gives us a thorough run through of what was happening during «the Green Revolution» – which led to a remarkable increase in agricultural income, due to new seed sales and increased use of artificial fertilizers, insecticides and irrigation. He does not underestimate that this agricultural revolution has led to challenges, but in total, it has ensured that most people have enough food in their stomachs.

De Waal uses Ethiopia as an example of a country that has managed to work its way out of the shadows of hunger. Who would believe that? The country has political leaders who have placed the hunger problem at the top of their agenda, despite the many other issues they also need to solve.

Climate change – not that bad?                

De Waal also looks at different climate change scenarios and believes that there is no scientific research-based basis for saying that climate change will lead to direct conflict or more war – ergo hunger. Climate change will be one of several variables that has an impact when an area experiences increased social tensions.

Young girls line up at a feeding centre in Mogadishu, Somalia, on March 9, 2017. Somalia is currently experiencing a severe drought, and may be on the brink of famine unless urgent humanitarian action is taken soon. UN Photo/Tobin Jones

There are generally fewer hunger disasters now, and aid organisations are highly competent. The more we open up for the doomsday scenarios about the climate hell of the future, the more the «land-grabbing» in Africa will develop, according to De Waal. This is the point where the Malthusian way of thinking kicks in: it’s them or us.

De Waal says that Hitler was, in fact, a fan of Malthus and that he is sceptical of the zero-minded thinking behind it. It’s legitimate to be concerned about how climate change can affect food production, he writes, but we know enough about how we can increase productivity. Therefore, we should avoid starting new colonialist measures such as land grabbing.

As a consequence, De Waal believed that we could eradicate the hunger problem in the coming years when he began writing the book at the end of 2015. But things have changed along the way. Famine as a phenomenon returned in 2017.

Famine again on the rise

Syria, Somalia, Northern Nigeria and Yemen are all experiencing real-life situations – situations that we might have thought were not going to happen again. De Waal analyses the current situation in all four countries, concluding that hunger is unnecessary: someone must be held responsible for it.

As for Yemen, Saudi Arabia and their allies are responsible, says De Waal. They must be brought to court. Hunger crime is as serious as genocide. It is a form of genocide. Should we, in 2018, allow certain leaders to view people only as a surplus product that can be starved to death so that these leaders can achieve their goals? No, says De Waal. We all have to agitate for a new court system, where such leaders can be held responsible for what they have done. Therefore, it is everyone´s responsibility to keep track of what is happening in the countries mentioned.








Famine as a phenomenon returned in 2017.

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