Thursday, November 19, 2009

What is famine?

Today Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi ask an important question: Is Ethiopia having a famine? They point out the incentives faced by the people best able to answer that question: the government wants everyone to think their isn't while aid agencies and the media have an incentive to overstate the seriousness of the situation. They conclude:

De Waal notes that during the pre-Christmas prime fundraising season, ‘One million dead by Christmas’… has been heard every year since 1968 and has never been remotely close to the truth.” Put into the current mix a credulous Western media that is happy to check the box “Ethiopia = famine,” and is unable to handle subtleties like chronic food insecurity and chronic malnutrition vs. emergency famine. Between unreliable media, NGOs, and government, it is tragically difficult to know when tragedy is happening.

According to the latest FAO estimates, there have been 25-38 million people suffering from hunger in Ethiopia since 1991. It was 38 million in 1991, steadily decreased to 25 by 2000, but had increased back to 35 million by 2005. Some of those people will have been not getting enough calories in most of those years while others will have been hungry in some years and not in others. The concern is that we're about or have already added several million more to that list. In more unmitigated good news, however, the percent of Ethiopians suffering from hunger decreased from 71 percent in 1991 to the low 40's 2000 where it has remained since. That means if we could get just another 5 percent of the population (~3 million) out of hunger by 2015, Ethiopia would accomplish the Millennium Development Goal for hunger reduction. Not bad, hunh?

Another source for good information on 20th century famines is O'Grada's JEL paper, "Making Famine History" (Working Paper version). To summarize, a few points 'natural' famines where there's just not enough food to go around were very devastating in the past and have largely been eliminated today for most of the world. What famines there have been have been remarkably benign in relative terms. Globalization has helped this by recucing the cost to transport food where it is needed. Wars, price fluctuation and speculation (Sen, 1981), and poor governance have caused more hunger-related deaths than actually production shortfalls.

Among the difficulties of identifying a famine is that hunger takes a long time to kill. By the time the numbers are high enough for the referee to identify it, those with responsibility have waited far too long. Also recall: most of the deaths from famine aren't so much from people starving to death as from the diseases that people's bodies are no longer strong enough to fight off. Malaria, diarrhea, typhus, and dysentery do most of the killing [see one of my favorite figures, by Blössner and de Onis, 2005]. Add to that the number of elderly and newborns whose deaths may or may not be caused by famine, the permanent loss of long term health, growth, and mental development for children at the time of the famine, and 'delayed' or 'lost' births.

A different but related question: what's the difference? If a national government or a donor agency or you and I could have prevented a death by emergency famine and chose not to, are we less morally culpable than if we could have prevented a death by chronic hunger and chose not to? Are famine sufferers in some way more worthy of our sympathy than other people who suffer from hunger?

The distinction between the two kinds of death is important for knowing what we need to do to prevent them - flying/shipping/trucking in emergency food aid or investing in longer-term solutions like infrastructure and agricultural research. But in terms of "knowing when tragedy is happening" we already know that: ongoing, daily, and silently. The question is more if a tragedy that we care to acknowledge is happening.

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