Mass Starvation: The History And Future Of Famine by Alex de Waal

The Blurb On The Back:

The world almost conquered famine.  Until the 1980s, this scourge killed ten million people every decade, but by the early 2000s mass starvation had all but disappeared. Today, famines are resident, driven by war, blockade, hostility to humanitarian principles and a volatile global economy.

In Mass Starvation, world-renowned expert on humanitarian crisis and response Alex de Waal provides an authoritative history of modern famines: their causes, dimensions and why they ended.  He analyses starvation as a crime and breaks new ground in examining forced starvation as an instrument of genocide and war.  Refuting the enduring but erroneous view that attributes famine to overpopulation and natural disaster, he shows how political decision or political failing is an essential element in every famine, while the spread of democracy and human rights, and the ending of wars, were major factors in the near-ending of this devastating phenomenon.

Hard-hitting and deeply informed, Mass Starvation explains why man-made famine and the political decisions that could end it for good must once again become a top priority for the international community. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Alex de Waal is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and a Research Professor at Tufts University and in this compelling read that’s by turns fascinating and horrifying, he seeks to counter the Malthus theory that famine is an inevitable consequence of overpopulation by arguing that famines result from political decisions and war and that famines have been decreasing in magnitude over recent years and could be eradicated altogether.

de Waal’s central argument is that mass starvation events/famines have decreased over the last 30 years in line with improvements in political stability, democracy and human rights.  He structures the book so as to revisit some of the thinking in his earlier book FAMINE CRIMES and assess why famine is not treated as a specific war crime and how the international legal framework formed from the Nuremburg trials, while acknowledging the harm that deliberate famine could cause, nevertheless chose not to make it a crime in its own right even though the Nazi’s Hunger Plan was a textbook example of forced starvation.  Particularly interesting is his look at how famine has been wrapped into other war crime charges (e.g. in the context of the Yugoslavian conflict) and the difficulties in proving whether a famine has been deliberately inflicted on a population.

Also interesting are the chapters where de Waal looks at the Malthus theory – how he formulated it and the impact it has had on policy making since – with de Waal setting out just how pernicious the theory is and how even now it continues to crop up in international discussions about famine (notably in the context of climate change, which will undoubtedly have an impact on food production and food security).  de Waal takes apart the Malthus theory by looking at major famines between 1870 and 2010 to analyse their causes and what brought them to an end. I have to say that I wasn’t completely convinced by some of the figures for early famines (with de Waal himself acknowledging weaknesses in assessing death rates because of how famine and disease usually go hand in hand, making it difficult to determine cause of death).

The best and most compelling chapters are those where de Waal looks at why famines have become less common and less deadly than in the past, taking in political, military, economic, demographic and public health factors.  I found his arguments very persuasive, especially when he turns to Ethiopia as a case study to look at the political and structural changes that the government made and how their efforts have fared in the face of mass starvation events. What’s chilling though is where de Waal goes on to show how economic volatility and climate change could work to undo the progress made in eradicating famine, especially given the recent changes in US politics (notably how Trump’s America First policy combines with a real politick attitude that’s grimly tied back to the Malthus theory) which, when combined with the so-called War on Terror, risks working to undo the global humanitarian effort.

All in all I found this a strong, compelling read that was easy to follow for those who are not familiar with the topic and a must-read for anyone who is interested in this as a subject.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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