Tufts Now All Stories
Mass starvation killed more than three million people in Stalin-era Ukraine in the 1930s and more than 18 million in China during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yet by the start of this century, famines like those were all but eliminated, Alex de Waal says in his new book, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. The number of people dying in famines around the world has dropped precipitously, particularly over the last thirty to fifty years.Those gains, though, are fragile, and could be starting to be reversed, says de Waal, who is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at the Fletcher School. For his book, he compiled the best available estimates of global famine deaths from 1870 to 2010, and used that data to analyze trends. Tufts Now sat down with him recently to find out what he learned.
Tufts Now: In the popular imagination, famine is often connected with too many people and too little food—that is, with overpopulation and low agricultural production due to natural disasters such as drought. How does that line up with reality?
Alex de Waal: That is nonsense. Famine is a very specific political product of the way in which societies are run, wars are fought, governments are managed. The single overwhelming element in causation—in three-quarters of the famines and three-quarters of the famine deaths—is political agency. Yet we still tend to be gripped by this idea that famine is a natural calamity.
You can actually show that the population theory of famine is wrong. Not just wrong at a global scale—because famine mortality has gone down precipitously while world population has gone up—but also at a country level. In the countries that have historically been very prone to famine, like Ethiopia or India, famine …