Why People Go Hungry

Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

by Amartya Sen
Oxford University Press, 257 pp., $17.95

The title of Amartya Sen’s book is more provocative than it may at first seem. Hunger is associated with poverty in that people who are not poor are not hungry; and famine is simply the extreme of hunger. Yet most people are convinced that the basic cause of a famine is not poverty but a failure of food supply relative to the population. A localized famine is commonly thought of as resulting from a local failure of crops that is not mitigated by importing food, as happened in the Sahel region of Africa in the late 1960s. Countries where hunger is widespread are frequently blamed, moreover, for allowing excessive population growth. The simple Malthusian ratio of food supply to population is further simplified so that the cause of misery is often seen as a matter of overpopulation alone; and we even hear advocates of “lifeboat ethics,” by which countries should be abandoned to their fates.1

Mr. Sen makes a strong case against such views and is highly qualified to do so. He is a scholar of unusually wide interests in an era in which most economists have become highly specialized. As Drummond professor of political economy at Oxford, he holds the oldest chair in the United Kingdom. He has been a student of economic development since his first work that became widely known, his monograph Choice of Techniques, where his cool insistence on proper economic principles argued against simplistic planning and political doctrines in India. He is known for highly technical studies, particularly on the meaning and measurement of social welfare; indeed, he has been elected to be president of the Econometric Society, a worldwide association of the mandarins of mathematical and statistical methods in economics. He is also known among philosophers for his ideas on ethics and the basis of good social action. An understanding of the workings of an economic system combined with rational concern for income inequality, and particularly for poverty, has guided his study of how the economic system contributes to the causes of famine.

In brief, he argues that famine results from the working of the economic system in allocating the ability of people to acquire goods. Famine cannot be explained by a simple relation between food supply and population. Sen illustrates this argument by detailed studies of four famines: the great Bengal famine of 1943-1944, in which perhaps three million people died (mostly by lowered resistance to disease); the famine in several provinces of Ethiopia between 1972 and 1974; the highly publicized drought and famine in the Sahel between 1968 and 1973; and the famine in Bangladesh in 1974 (the same region as the 1943-1944 famine, but under a different political regime).

Most striking are the statistics on the two Bengal famines, the first of which Sen analyzes in the greatest detail. The 1943 crop of rice and other foods was somewhat low, especially in relation to the extraordinarily large harvest of 1942, but it was distinctly higher than the crop of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.