Expert Commentary

Famine mortality, rational political inactivity and international food aid

2009 study from the London School of Economics on the link between mortality rates during times of famine with political motivations.

In the previous century, more than 70 million people are estimated to have died during famines. In 1981 Amartya Sen published the book Poverty and Famine, which argued that starvation is due not to a lack of food, but simply to a lack of access to food. Sen further argued that famine mortality did not occur in democracies because politicians would be held responsible for not preventing the unnecessary deaths.

Researchers from the London School of Economics and the University of Essex tested the viability of Sen’s argument in the context of the increasing number of democratic countries in the world. The 2009 study, “Famine Mortality, Rational Political Inactivity, and International Food Aid,” used data from Freedom House and Polity IV for rankings on level of democracy. The study also looked at the effect of receiving international food aid during times of famine to account for factors beyond regime type that might affect famine mortality rates.

The findings of the study included:

  • Even after controlling for various factors beyond regime type, “a higher level of democracy reduces famine mortality significantly”; however, it does not eliminate the possibility that famines can occur in democratic societies.
  • International food aid seems to be an even more important determinant than regime type and “reduces famine mortality if the ratio of affected individuals to total population differs significantly from zero in both regime types.”
  • In both autocracies and democracies, “The larger the ratio of affected individuals to the total population, the stronger the life-saving effect of international food aid becomes,” indicating that distribution decisions may be politically motivated.
  • The statistical regression pattern seemed to indicate that “governments use food aid more effectively, when larger parts of the country are affected.”
  • Food aid to democracies has a more immediate affect: “While in democracies even moderate levels of food aid prevent substantial famine mortality, autocracies need much more international food aid to prevent famine mortality altogether.”

The study concluded that “both democracies and autocracies can experience famine mortality if governments find that inaction is the support-maximizing strategy…. Governments may rationally fail to act against famines when the political costs of action are higher than the political costs of inaction.”

Tags: children, nutrition, Africa, Asia

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