‘Famines’ or ‘mass starvations’: victims, beneficiaries and perpetrators
by Jenny Edkins, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, UK July 2004

There have been many attempts to establish what is meant by famine and to determine what its causes might be. Many writers see the search for an adequate definition as an essential preliminary to analysis and action. Donors cannot be motivated to act unless they are convinced that what is taking place is actually a famine. Analysts cannot begin to study the causes of famine until they know what it is they are looking at. Yet the meaning of ‘famine’ has remained elusive.

Sen and entitlements theory

Historically, famines were understood largely in Malthusian terms: as natural disasters that occur when a failure of food production, through drought for example, leads to conditions of scarcity. The land can no longer support the population that relies upon it. By the early 1980s, this view was being challenged by Amartya Sen. Sen argued that a decline in what he called ‘food availability’ was not necessary for a famine to occur. It did not matter what the total food supply per head in any area was; what was crucial was whether particular individuals or households had access to sufficient food. Sen’s work emphasised not quantities of food but questions of entitlements, or the assets a person owned that could be traded for or converted into food. This stressed the need to examine each famine in its own particularity. Second, it looked not at ‘populations’ in the Malthusian mode, but specific ‘persons’ or households. Finally, it focused attention on ownership and other forms of entitlement relations within a society.

Technologised responses and their limitations

Sen’s work was potentially radical, and could have produced a new approach to famine studies. However it did not, for two reasons. First, although Sen moved away from the notion of famine as a failure of food production, he retained the idea of breakdown or collapse, this time of a person’s entitlements. Sen did not consider the possibility that famines could be a product of the social or economic system; famines are still unexpected ‘emergencies’.

When something is identified as a failure, it appears as a technical or managerial problem. An otherwise benign system has collapsed and needs putting right. The appropriate response is to identify what went wrong and then to intervene to correct it. So, for example, once Sen’s notion of entitlements was accepted, plans could be developed to replace lost entitlements. These responses, like the responses based on Malthus, are depoliticised and technologised. They are implemented by experts, without consultation with those involved.

The second reason why the radical potential of Sen’s approach was blunted lies in his limited view of what politics is. Sen sees politics as separable from economics, and the state as ultimately benign and non-violent. His entitlements approach excludes instances of deliberate starvation and what he calls ‘non-entitlement transfers’, which are those that fall outside the legal system of the society concerned. Both routinely occur during famines. In addition, Sen does not question the way in which the legitimate violence of the state is used to uphold the ownership rights of certain sections of the community, while others starve. During a famine some people are denied access to food by force, whether it is the police protecting food shops while people on the streets starve, or, as happened in Ethiopia in 1984, the diversion of food from its intended beneficiaries to others.

Repoliticising mass starvations

Sen retained a definition of famine which, like others current in the mid-1980s, focused on demographic and biological factors, and which saw famine as a breakdown. His definition of famine was: ‘A particularly virulent manifestation of starvation causing widespread death’.

Amrita Rangasami questions this definition. First, she argues that mortality is not a necessary condition of famine but only its biological culmination. Famine should be seen as a protracted political, social and economic process of oppression comprising three stages: dearth, ‘famishment’ and mortality. The culmination of the process comes well before the final stage of disease and death. If the process is halted before people die, it is nonetheless still a famine. Second, famine cannot be defined solely with reference to the victims. The process is one in which ‘benefits accrue to one section of the community while losses flow to the other’. To study only the responses or coping strategies of victims, while paying no attention to the actions (or inaction) of the rest of the community, is to miss what is going on.

Since Rangasami’s work, writers such as Alex de Waal have developed the notion of famine as a process, and examined the coping strategies that those suffering from famine employ at different stages. Only one writer – David Keen – has directly examined the strategies of the beneficiaries of famine: its perpetrators and its bystanders. In his study of famine in Sudan, Keen asks: ‘What use is famine, what functions does it assure, in what strategies is it integrated?’.

Such questions reinstate mass starvations as a political process, involving relationships of power between people and between groups (not just between people and commodities, as in entitlements theory). Social relations are inevitably power relations. However, power is not centralised and possessed, but dispersed. Power relations are produced on a day-to-day basis through the small-scale actions and interactions of individual people.

To study mass starvations in this way is to examine how they come about, what small actions or inactions make them happen, and who exactly the beneficiaries and the victims are. It requires close investigation rather than grand general theory. It means addressing minutiae or details. The historian of the Nazi genocides, Raul Hilberg, adopts precisely this approach: ‘In all my work I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up with small answers … I look at the process … as a series of minute steps’.

Attributing responsibility

If it is accepted that mass starvation is the result of a series of small acts, at least some of them deliberate and some carried out with the intention of producing precisely this outcome, then it is possible to begin to explore the question of responsibility. Alex de Waal has used the phrase ‘famine crimes’, and has suggested that a possible solution would be ‘anti-famine contracts’ between rulers and people. If such a political contract is in place, ‘famine is a political scandal. Famine is deterred’.

Such political contracts may seem more likely in democratic political regimes than in authoritarian ones. However, it is important to avoid concluding that democracy prevents famine, since this risks reinstating a grand theory of famine. It is also important to avoid framing anti-famine contracts as simply measures against governments that fail to respond quickly enough to an emerging crisis: to say this would be to return to the language of failure, breakdown and disaster.

Once mass starvations are considered crimes, parallels can be made with other crimes like genocide or war crimes. This changes the vocabulary. When genocide is discussed, it is not so much a question of causes and solutions, but one of responsibility, criminal liability, perpetrators, bystanders, victims and survivors. Using the language of genocide, appropriate questions become: who committed the famine?; how, and why?; who were the victims?; who was involved?. If mass starvation is a crime, the appropriate language should be used. Crimes do not happen, they are committed. Crime is not ‘ended’: criminals are deterred, detained and prosecuted.

No one has yet been prosecuted for committing mass starvation, but there are prospects that this may happen with the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Rome Statute that forms the basis of the ICC explicitly includes mass starvation under three headings. It is a war crime if it is used as a weapon of war; a crime against humanity, if it is the deliberate extermination of a civilian population by the deprivation of food; and a genocide, if it is carried out with the intention of destroying in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Article 8 of the Statute defines as a war crime ‘Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions’. At present, this applies only when starvation takes place in international conflict. Article 7 defines ‘extermination’ as a crime against humanity ‘when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population’ where ‘“extermination” includes the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population’. Genocide is defined in Article 6, and includes ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’. The term ‘conditions of life’ is further defined as including ‘deliberate deprivation of resources indispensable for survival, such as food or medical services, or systematic expulsion from homes’.


Any definition of famine which sees it as a failure of some sort is missing the point. Whether famine is seen as a failure of food supply, a breakdown in the food distribution system, or a multi-faceted livelihoods crisis, the outcome is the same. These definitions or concepts blind us to the fact that famines, and the deaths, migrations or impoverishments that they produce, are enormously beneficial to the perpetrators: they are a success not a failure, a normal output of the current economic and political system, not an aberration.

This article suggests that it might be useful to replace the notion of famine with the phrase ‘mass starvations’. This might help to get away from the idea of scarcity as a cause and famines as a breakdown or failure. To talk of mass starvations is to evoke the parallel of mass killings and genocides. Famines, though clearly distinct from genocides, share more with these acts than they do with natural disasters. In many cases they are the result of deliberate actions by people who can see what the consequences will be. In Ethiopia, for example, there is little doubt that the damaging effects that some of the tactics of the war have had on food production and distribution could have been predicted, and may have been intended. If famines are not produced deliberately, then they are often allowed to progress beyond the stage of ‘famishment’ to ‘morbidity’.

Famines are not caused by abstractions, such as food supply or entitlement failure – they are brought about through the acts or omissions of people or groups of people. These people are responsible for famine and mass starvation – and they should be held accountable. There is already an embryonic provision in international law which allows for the prosecution of those responsible for mass starvations. Rather than assuming goodwill and unanimity in the project of ending famine, it might be as well to consider campaigning to improve these provisions and to remove impunity from those who, nationally or internationally, commit famine crimes or the crime of mass starvation. This would take place alongside action to establish robust anti-starvation political contracts locally.

Jenny Edkins is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. She is the author of Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). A longer version of this article appeared as ‘Mass Starvations and the Limitations of Famine Theorising’, IDS Bulletin, vol. 33, no. 4, October 2002.

Reference and further reading

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Amrita Rangasami, ‘Failure of Exchange Entitlements Theory of Famine’, Economic and Political Weekly, 20, nos 41, 42.

Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1997). W. A. Schabas, An Introduction to the International Criminal Court (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

David Keen, The Benefits of Famine: A Political Economy of Famine and Relief in Southwestern Sudan, 1983–1989 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Simon Devereux, ‘Famine in the Twentieth Century’, IDS Working Paper (105).

Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995).