How to Stop Hunger

Hunger and Public Action

by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 373 pp., $16.95 (paper)

When I was a small boy, the traditional thing for a mother to say to a child who would not eat his vegetables was that he should “remember the starving Armenians” and be ashamed of himself for wasting food. I would gladly have donated any amount of broccoli to the starving Armenians or to anyone else who was suffering even mild discomfort, but there seemed to be no practical way to do so.

When I picked up Hunger and Public Action my first thought was to look in the index under Armenia, but the entries go nonstop from Angola to Australia. On reflection, that is not surprising. The starving Armenians of my childhood were the victims of the Turkish oppression and massacres of 1915. That story may contain a lesson for today about the capacity of useless ethnic hostility to elicit violence and cruelty, although it is evidently not a lesson anyone has taken to heart. But there is nothing analytically interesting or practically significant in the fact that deliberate attacks on an ethnic minority can produce mass starvation. Nor is there much to do about it afterward except, whenever possible, to provide food from the outside and distribute it effectively and—what is often harder—equitably.

Drèze and Sen raise much bigger intellectual and practical issues. They want to understand how mass hunger comes about in the modern, relatively food-rich, world. And they want to tell the world how best to prevent it and, if that fails, to relieve it. Hunger itself has two quite different forms. The simpler and more obvious is famine, the episodic and localized, but large-scale, occurrence of death and near-death by starvation. The other form, less visible, easier for people elsewhere to forget, but more costly in human life and human functioning, is endemic undernourishment, the fact that millions of people live inadequate lives because they rarely, if ever, have enough to eat, and their physical and mental health suffers for that reason.

The two authors are clearer and more decisive on the subject of famine, perhaps because the problem is less deeply embedded in the rest of the social and economic structure, than its counterpart. Nevertheless what they have to say about famine is arresting, and not at all what the ordinary good-hearted donor to relief efforts has come to expect.

Their conclusions about endemic undernourishment are more tentative and less programmatic; and that is probably inevitable. There was a time when economists and government officials could get away with being casually Malthusian about widespread hunger—too many people, not enough food—and shrug their shoulders. Certainly there are too many people in some parts of the world, but there is hardly any doubt that modern agricultural technology could make it possible for all of them to be adequately fed. Drèze and Sen are withering about the spectacle of endemic hunger in part of the world while millions of people in rich countries eat too much for their own good and know it.

It is even possible…

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