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Hunger and Public Action$

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen

Print publication date: 1991

Print ISBN-13: 9780198283652

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198283652.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 28 October 2020

Famines and Social Response

Famines and Social Response

Chapter:
(p.65) 5 Famines and Social Response
Source:
Hunger and Public Action
Author(s):

Jean Drèze (Contributor Webpage)

Amartya Sen (Contributor Webpage)

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/0198283652.003.0005

Abstract and Keywords

This is the first of four chapters dedicated to famines. It begins by emphasising the role of public intervention in avoiding famines and then elaborates on the advantages of thinking of famine prevention in terms of an entitlement protection problem. It notes how any action should take into account the informal security systems already in play and describes some aspects of them, with special reference to sub‐Saharan Africa. Concludes with some reflections on early intervention.

Keywords:   early intervention, entitlement protection, famine, famine prevention, informal security systems, public intervention, sub‐Saharan Africa

5.1 Famine Prevention and Entitlement Protection

Faith in the ability of public intervention to avert famines is a relatively new phenomenon. Even as confident a utilitarian as James Mill felt compelled to use the most fatalistic language to tell his friend David Ricardo about the likely effects of a spell of adverse weather in England:

Does not this weather frighten you? . . . There must now be of necessity a very deficient crop, and very high prices—and these with an unexampled scarcity of work will produce a degree of misery, the thought of which makes the flesh creep on one's bones—one third of the people must die—it would be a blessing to take them into the streets and high ways, and cut their throats as we do with pigs.1

Ricardo had full sympathy for Mill's feelings, and assured him that he was ‘sorry to see a disposition to inflame the minds of the lower orders by persuading them that legislation can afford them any relief’.2

Echoes of Mill's and Ricardo's pessimism can be found in abundance even today.3 But an enormous amount of evidence now bears testimony to the potential effectiveness of public action for famine prevention. This part of the book examines the role of public intervention in the elimination of famines.

We discussed in Chapter 2 how famines develop from entitlement failures suffered by a large section of the population. Those who cannot establish command over an adequate amount of food have to perish from starvation. Famine prevention is essentially concerned, therefore, with the protection of entitlements. That much might be obvious enough, but a few interpretational issues should be addressed straightaway to avoid misunderstanding the content of that superficially simple message.

First, while famines involve—and are typically initiated by—starvation, many of the people who die from a famine die in fact not from starvation as such, but from various epidemic diseases unleashed by the famine. This happens primarily through the spread of infectious diseases helped by debilitation, attempts to eat whatever looks eatable, breakdown of sanitary arrangements, and massive population movements in search of food.4 Famine (p.66) prevention is, in fact, intimately connected with the avoidance of epidemics, even though the first and basic culprit may be the failure of food entitlements.

Thus, when acute deprivation has been allowed to develop, the task of containing famine mortality may require substantial attention to health care and epidemiological control. This consideration links with the general importance, discussed in Chapter 3, of seeing hunger and deprivation in terms of entitlement failures in a broader perspective than that of food entitlements only. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that in the case of famines the collapse of food entitlements is the initiating failure in which epidemics themselves originate, and that the protection of food entitlements at an early stage is often a more effective form of action than medical intervention at a later stage.5

Second, while the entitlement approach asserts the inadequacy of aggregate food availability as a focus for the analysis of famines, it does not assert its irrelevance. Aggregate food availability remains important, but its influence has to be seen only as an element of a more complex entitlement process. This general point was discussed in Chapter 2 in the context of analysing the causation of famines, but it also has to be borne in mind when the attention is turned to the prevention of famines. In particular it is important to see that (1) the improvement of food availability can play a helpful or even crucial role in preventing the development of a famine, whether or not the threat of famine is accompanied by a decline in food availability, and (2) at the same time, many other influences are at work, and a broad view should be taken of possible options for action—including that of protecting the food entitlements of vulnerable groups even when it is not possible to bring aggregate food availability to a particular level.

Third, the protection of entitlements in the short run has to be contrasted with the general promotion of entitlements in the long run. In the short run, famine prevention is essentially a question of encountering an immediate threat of entitlement failure for vulnerable groups. In the long term, of course, much more is involved, and a durable elimination of vulnerability requires promotional policies, such as the expansion of general prosperity, the reduction of insecurity through economic diversification, and the creation of secure earning arrangements.

However, even within a long‐term perspective, the task of building up reliable entitlement protection systems remains quite crucial. Indeed, in most cases it would be rather naïve to expect that efforts at eliminating vulnerability could be so successful as to allow a country to dispense with distinct and (p.67) specialized entitlement protection mechanisms. While famine prevention is not exclusively concerned with the protection of entitlements, much of the discussion in this part of the book will concentrate on this elementary and urgent aspect of the problem.

Fourth, the task of entitlement protection also has to be distinguished from the popular notion of ‘famine relief’ which conjures up the picture of a battle already half lost and focuses the attention on emergency operations narrowly aimed at containing large‐scale mortality. Devising planned, coherent, effective and durable entitlement protection mechanisms is a much broader task. Entitlement crises have many repercussions on the rural economy and on the well‐being of affected populations, and a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the scourge of famine must seek to ensure that human beings have both secure lives and secure livelihoods.

This is not just a question of immediate well‐being, but also one of development prospects. Consider, for instance, the so‐called ‘food crisis in Africa’.6 The current débâcle of agricultural production in much of sub‐Saharan Africa has, not without reason, been held partly responsible for this region's continued vulnerability to famine. But it is legitimate to wonder how farmers who are condemned every so often to use up their productive capital in a desperate struggle for survival can possibly be expected to save, innovate, and prosper. There is indeed considerable evidence of the lasting adverse effects of famine on productive potential as well as on the distribution of assets.7 It is reasonable to think that improved entitlement protection systems in Africa would not only save lives, but also contribute to preserving and rejuvenating the rural economy. The alleged dilemma between ‘relief’ and ‘development’ is a much exaggerated one, and greater attention has to be paid to the positive links between famine prevention and development prospects.

Finally, seeing famine prevention as an entitlement protection problem draws our attention to the plurality of strategies available for dealing with it. Just as entitlements can be threatened in a number of different ways, there are also typically a number of feasible routes for restoring them. Importing food and handing it over to the destitutes is one of the more obvious options. The overwhelming preoccupation of the journalistic and institutional literature on African famine relief has been with the logistics of food aid and distribution, reflecting the resilient popularity of this approach. But there is a good case for (p.68) taking a broader view of the possible forms of intervention, and this part of our book will be much concerned with exploring other—often more effective—alternatives.

5.2 African Challenge and International Perception

It seems to be widely believed that most African countries lack the political framework (perhaps even the commitment) for successful pursuit of comprehensive strategies of entitlement protection. There may be truth in this in some cases. The inaction and confusion of some governments in the face of crises have been striking. The role of war in exacerbating food crises in Africa also needs persistent emphasis. Nevertheless, an excessive concentration on failure stories has given a vastly exaggerated and undiscriminating impression of the apathy, incompetence, and corruption of African governments in the context of famine prevention. In fact, contrary to popular belief, there is some evidence that the willingness and ability of many African countries to respond to crises have been improving over time, in some cases to a very considerable extent.8

Furthermore, as we shall argue later, state action is not immune to the influence of political ideology, public pressure, and popular protest, and there is nothing immutable in the nature of contemporary African politics. It is, of course, true that the development of a workable system of famine prevention calls for political as well as economic restructuring, but political changes—no less than economic transformations—are responsive to determined action and popular movements.

While examining experiences of success and failure in famine prevention, it has to be recognized that international perceptions of these past experiences are often seriously distorted. In particular, for reasons of journalistic motivation (which has its positive side as well, on which more presently), the media tend to overconcentrate on stories of failure and disaster. To the extent that successes do get reported, the balance of credit is heavily tilted in favour of international relief agencies, who enjoy—and need—the sympathy of a large section of the public.

This phenomenon is well illustrated by an episode of successful famine prevention in the state of Maharashtra in India in 1972–3. The impressive success achieved at the time by the government of Maharashtra in preventing a severe drought from developing into a famine by organizing massive public works programmes (at one point providing employment to as many as 5 million men and women) is described in Chapter 8. This event, however, caused very (p.69) few ripples in the Western press, and received extraordinarily little attention from social scientists outside India.9

While the government of Maharashtra was employing millions of people on relief works, various international agencies were involved in feeding programmes on a relatively tiny scale—often importing modest amounts of wheat, biscuits, and milk powder from the other side of the globe. However, the role of the latter appeared to be oddly exaggerated. One of the relief organizations—indeed one that has altogether distinguished itself for many years by its far‐sighted initiatives and actions—had no hesitation in reporting in its bulletin how a poor peasant sighed that the drought ‘may be too big a problem for God; but perhaps OXFAM can do something’. There are other self‐congratulatory snippets in the same vein about OXFAM's heroic deeds in Maharashtra and other drought‐affected parts of India at that time:

‘I suddenly realised that, driving 20 miles out of Ajmer on the road to Udaipur, all the scattered green patches I saw in the brown desert were in some way or another due to OXFAM.’

‘In spite of the feeding programme the children have not gained weight. Stina at first thought her scale was wrong, but she discovered that the children now get almost nothing to eat at home. One shudders to think what would have happened to them without the feeding scheme. What's happening in other villages, where we aren't feeding?’10

The donor's exaggerated perception of its achievements is coupled with a comparatively patchy account of what the government was doing on an enormously larger scale. As late as December 1972, by which time the government‐led relief programme was in full swing, the same bulletin reports: ‘we have no information as yet of the extent of the Indian Government's programme’. The fact that an organization with as remarkable a record of helpful action and leadership as OXFAM could fall into this trap of making mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains shows the difficulties of objective perception and reporting on the part of an institution directly involved in the act of relief and dependent on the preservation of a heroic public image.

The highly selective focus of public discussions on famine is also evident in the case of Africa. For instance, until recently Botswana's remarkable record of famine prevention had received very little recognition, to the point that a (p.70) (p.71) leading expert on Africa described it as ‘Africa's best kept secret’.11 Examples of worthwhile but underreported successes in famine prevention in Africa, most of them involving large‐scale government intervention, can also be found inter alia in countries as varied as Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Kenya, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and even to some extent Chad and Ethiopia.12

Table 5.1 Food and Agricultural Production in Sub‐Saharan Africa, 1983–1984

Country

Per capita food production 1983–4

Per capita agricultural production 1983–4

Growth rate of agricultural production per capita 1970–84

(1979–81 = 100) (1)

(1976–78 = 100) (2)

(1979–81 = 100) (3)

(% per year) (4)

Cape Verde

62

n/a

n/a

n/a

Zimbabwe

73

68

82

−1.4

Niger

83

78

83

0.7

Botswana

83

n/a

84

−3.8

Kenya

87

82

93

−1.3

Senegal

88

70

89

−2.1

Mozambique

88

75

87

−4.3

Ethiopia

88

94

88

−0.6

Sudan

89

72

93

−0.5

Togo

90

93

90

−1.1

Zambia

92

89

93

−1.1

Angola

93

81

91

−5.6

Guinea

93

92

94

−1.0

Malawi

93

100

96

0.1

Tanzania

95

91

93

−0.6

Burundi

95

87

95

0.5

Côte d'Ivoire

95

111

90

0.5

Cameroon

96

83

95

−0.8

Burkina Faso

98

90

99

−0.2

Uganda

98

96

100

−1.7

Ghana

98

80

98

−3.9

Nigeria

98

88

98

−1.0

Zaire

101

97

102

−0.6

Liberia

102

100

99

−1.4

Benin

103

85

104

−0.3

Sierra Leone

104

84

101

−0.5

Mali

106

90

105

0.8

Guinea‐Bissau

114

92

114

−0.9

Note: The countries included in this table are all those for which data are available from each of the three sources; Cape Verde has been added using van Binsbergen (1986), Table 3. Figures for 1983–4 have been calculated as an unweighted average of 1983 and 1984.

Sources: (1) and (3): Calculated from FAO, Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, Nov. 1987. (2): Figures given by the United States Department of Agriculture, reproduced in J. Downing et al.] (1987), Table 1.1. (4): Food and Agriculture Organization (1986), Annex I, Table 1.2.

It is arguable that popular interpretations of the ‘African famine’ of 1983–5 have themselves involved important misperceptions. Though drought threatened a large number of African countries at that time, only some of them—notably war‐torn ones—actually experienced large‐scale famine. There was no uniform disaster of the kind that has often been suggested. In fact, a probing interpretation of the mounting evidence on this tragedy could well uncover many more reasons for hope than for despair.13

It is, moreover, far from clear that those countries in which large‐scale famine did occur were the ones most affected by drought. Such an impression is certainly not borne out by available food and agricultural production indices (see Table 5.1).14 We shall argue, in fact, that the sharp contrasts which can be observed in the relationship between drought and famine in different countries have a lot to do with the contrasting quality of public action in various parts of Africa. In particular, a number of countries where drought was extremely severe in 1983–4 (indeed often more severe than in the much‐discussed cases of Ethiopia or Sudan, in terms of declines in food and agricultural production indices) met with notable success in averting large‐scale famine. Powerful illustrations are found in the experiences of Botswana, Cape Verde, Kenya and Zimbabwe (see Table 5.2, and also Chapter 8). There is as much to learn from these ‘quiet successes’ as from the attention‐catching failures that can also be observed in Africa.

5.3 Informal Security Systems and Concerted Action

Rural communities faced with a precarious environment often develop sophisticated institutions and strategies to reduce or cope with the insecurity of their lives. A few examples of this phenomenon are the diversification of crops and herds, the exploitation of geographical complementarities in the eco‐system, the pursuit of ‘symbiotic exchanges’ between different communities, (p.72) the development of patronage or reciprocal gift‐giving, the recourse to complex dietary adjustments, and the storage of food or body fat.

Table 5.2 Drought and Famine in Africa, 1983–1984: Contrasting Experiences

Country

Percentage decline of production since 1979–81

Growth rate of per capita total gross agricultural production (1970–1984)

Outcome

Food

Agriculture

Cape Verde

38.5

n/a

n/a

Mortality decline.

Nutritional

improvement.

Zimbabwe

37.5

18.5

−1.4

Mortality decline.

No sustained

nutritional

deterioration.

Botswana

17.0

16.5

−3.8

Normal nutritional

situation. No

starvation deaths.

Kenya

13.5

7.5

−1.3

No starvation

deaths reported.

Possibility of

nutritional

deterioration.

Ethiopia

12.5

12.5

−0.6

Large‐scale

famine.

Sudan

11.0

7.0

−0.5

Large‐scale

famine.

Sources: The figures on food and agricultural production performance are from the same sources as Table 5.1. On the assessment of ‘outcome’ in Botswana, Cape Verde, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, see Chapter 8. For estimates of excess mortality in Sudan and Ethiopia during the 1983–5 famines, see e.g. Otten (1986), de Waal (1987), Jansson et al.] (1987) and Seaman (1987).

It has been pointed out that informal security systems of this type have, inter alia, the great merit of not leaving the rural community at the mercy of undependable sources of external assistance. Appreciation for these and other virtues of traditional responses to the threat of famine has, in fact, not infrequently resulted in an expression of considerable alarm at the prospect that traditional abilities to cope with the threat of famine might be dangerously weakened or even undermined by the interference of externally provided forms of entitlement protection.15 This claim has to be taken seriously, and its (p.73) assessment must be based on a careful appreciation of how informal security systems function in practice.

Some of the coping strategies that have been referred to in the literature on informal security systems essentially consist of dealing with the risk of entitlement failure through some form of individual precaution at the household level. An important example is that of food storage, e.g. storing foodgrains, keeping animals, developing body fat. It is easy to see, however, that taking extensive precautions individually, without any pooling of risks, can be a difficult and costly business, and it can entail large losses of average entitlements compared to a situation where more efficient forms of insurance opportunities are available. For instance, storage has a high opportunity cost in the form of foregone investment in productive activities. Given their costs, therefore, it is hardly surprising that the scope for using precautionary measures can be rather limited for poor households. This way of tackling vulnerability may be nowhere near adequate.

Further opportunities for pursuing security arise from mutual insurance, and the attempt to obtain a better distribution of risks across households, rather than coping with them individually. A simple example may help to bring out the potentialities and limitations of mutual insurance. Consider a fishing community consisting of fishermen and their families, where fishermen go out every day to fish but their daily individual fortunes are not related to each other. If, every day, ‘lucky’ fishermen feel a social obligation to give some fish to the less fortunate ones, a measure of insurance against poor catches will exist.16 In fact, if a well‐developed system of mutual credit or reciprocal gift‐giving operates, individual fluctuations in catches will not ‘matter’ at all: for each family the daily consumption of fish need bear no relation to the individual daily catch of the family. In this example, fishermen can costlessly insure against the entitlement risks arising from individual variations and fluctuations in catches, in the sense that—if the system works well—they have the opportunity to even out the consumption stream without lowering its average level.17

There are good reasons why, in practice, opportunities for costless insurance are often difficult to exploit. In fact, sometimes such opportunities can be altogether absent. In the last example, the possibility of costless insurance depended crucially on the fact that the fortunes of different individuals were (p.74) not related to each other. Clearly, a system of reciprocal giving would be useless in dealing with collective risks. For instance, in the event of an adverse fluctuation in the total catch of the community (with the catches of individual fishermen going down together) there will be little scope for the ‘unlucky’ families to rely on the ‘lucky’ ones. Similarly, if fishermen rely on the exchange of fish for rice to survive, and if the price of fish in terms of rice collapses, the scope for evening out misfortunes within the fishing community will clearly be very limited. This is no small spanner in the wheel, since collective risks applying to large sections of a population are often precisely what we are most concerned with in the context of famine vulnerability.

Informal arrangement for mutual insurance are, therefore, deeply problematic when it comes to dealing with collective risks. Their failure in circumstances of widespread calamity is in fact well documented: in times of famine, the ordinary rules of patronage, credit, charity, reciprocity, and even family support tend to undergo severe strain and can hardly be relied upon to ensure the survival of vulnerable groups.18 Nor is this failure a new phenomenon: during the famines of ancient Egypt several thousand years ago it was already found that ‘each man has become a thief to his neighbour’, and the story of biblical famines is similarly replete with tales of introversion, conflict, and even cannibalism on the part of famine victims.19

Quite aside from the problem of collective risks, there are many reasons why, in practice, the design and enforcement of insurance contracts tend to involve considerable difficulties.20 The difficulties present (particularly those related to the revelation of information) are, in some respects, less acute in small face‐to‐face communities, but the fact remains that generally insurance opportunities are neither ‘costless’ nor even particularly attractive for poor households. The miserable employment conditions which permanent farm servants are often willing to accept in exchange for some security of employment are a telling example of the sacrifices that may be involved in insuring against the worst eventuality.21

(p.75) These limitations of informal security systems have to be borne in mind—no less than the potentialities mentioned earlier—when assessing their place in a programme of public action for famine prevention. It has been argued by many that, in order to be effective, famine prevention strategies should strengthen rather than undermine traditional security systems. There is no doubt an element of wisdom in this, and there are several important examples of such strengthening. At the same time, it has to be recognized that there may be nothing embarrassing in famine prevention policies having a partial ‘displacement’ effect on informal security systems, as long as this displacement effect reflects the greater effectiveness of public intervention. While careful account always needs to be taken of the possible adverse effects of public intervention on informal security systems, it would be a poor principle of action to attempt to preserve the latter at all cost.

Consider, for instance, the case of private storage at the household level mentioned earlier. It is to be expected that, if they feel more secure (possibly as a result of successful public intervention), individual households will store less and devote their resources to other—perhaps more productive—purposes.22 If this is really why the reduction of storage takes place, such a development may be welcome. An instinctive conservationism regarding traditional institutions may easily take the form of nostalgic hopes rather than contributing to a pragmatic integration of formal and informal security systems.

The revival or strengthening of informal security systems, important as it often is, cannot be an adequate response to the challenge of famine. The effective protection of vulnerable groups requires redistributive mechanisms going well beyond what individual precaution or traditional systems of mutual insurance can deliver. The need to devise famine prevention systems that do not leave the rural community to its own fragile devices is inescapable.

5.4 Aspects of Traditional Response

An effective programme of public action for famine prevention must be responsive to the empirical features of informal security systems. As a prelude to further discussion of the forms which concerted action for famine prevention might take, this section briefly recalls some relevant findings from the literature on traditional responses to the threat of famine.23 The discussion will (p.76) focus mainly on sub‐Saharan Africa, and our remarks will concentrate on a few strategic elements of informal security systems, viz. (1) diversification and exchange, (2) dietary adjustments, (3) migration and employment, and (4) intrahousehold redistribution.

Diversification and Exchange

One of the earliest and most robust findings of anthropological studies in uncertain environments is that diversification is among the chief strategies adopted by vulnerable communities to reduce the precariousness of their lives. People learn not to put all their eggs in the same unreliable basket. The diversification motive is a pervasive aspect of economic decisions in uncertain environments, including those on cropping patterns, livestock management, occupational choices, and migration routes.

Opportunities for diversification can, of course, be greatly helped by the institution of exchange. While complete autarky may often be an admired achievement, it tends to be, in fact, a poor basis for security. Numerous historical and anthropological studies confirm that over the world vulnerable communities have consistently seen exchange as an opportunity for enhancing the security of their existence.24

Exchange itself can assume a multiplicity of forms, and the cash economy accommodates only one of them. Nevertheless, the acquirement of cash (especially through wage employment, but also through the sale of livestock, charcoal, craft work, assets, and even ‘superior’ foods) has now become one of the foremost responses to the threat of entitlement failure in sub‐Saharan Africa.25 The development of market exchange offers both new opportunities (p.77) and new threats. It is natural to expect that potential famine victims would attempt to use the market to overcome their problems, whether or not the problems themselves have been partly generated by a greater exposure to market fluctuations. When we turn to strategic issues of famine prevention in the next three chapters, we shall have to investigate the part that market operations can play both in undermining and in helping to protect the entitlements of vulnerable groups.

Dietary Adjustments

An important characteristic of dietary habits in vulnerable communities is their flexibility.26 There is, of course, nothing particularly encouraging in the observation that, in times of crisis, affected groups resort to many ingenious forms of dietary adjustments. Indeed some of these strategies (such as programmed fasting or the gathering of wild foods) can be extremely painstaking and even dangerous. Of greater interest, however, are the general findings that (1) the reduction of food consumption tends to be an early response to the threat of entitlement failure, apparently motivated, at least partly, by the preservation of productive assets, and (2) substantial adjustments of consumption patterns are observed in times of economic adversity even in the behaviour of richer people who are not immediately at great risk of starvation.27

As we shall see in the next chapter, these findings are of far‐reaching relevance for entitlement protection strategies. For example, they suggest that, in the event of a moderate but unpreventable decline in the availability of food, there is some scope for inducing a reduction of food consumption on the part of the relatively richer and not‐so‐vulnerable households. This adjustment can help to support the consumption of the most affected population. For instance, income support measures for the destitute population can, by putting an upward pressure on food prices, bring down the consumption levels of the more privileged groups, thus releasing food to meet the newly generated demands of the income‐supported destitutes. The tightening of belts can be shared more easily given the priority that seems to be attached by rural households to preserving assets through adjusting consumption.

Migration and Employment

Two general points of crucial importance for public policy seem to have emerged from studies of migration patterns during subsistence crises in (p.78) sub‐Saharan Africa. First, among sedentary communities the migration of entire families is generally a last resort option.28 The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. On the one hand, for a family used to a sedentary life, leaving a home can mean a severe social and psychological stress, extreme hardship for those too weak to travel, and selling off one's possessions or exposing them to theft.29 On the other hand, when everything else has failed, migration does provide a hope, however faint, of access to new opportunities: the hospitality of relatives, the charity of city dwellers, or the presence of public relief camps.

Second, the migration of single adults in search of work appears, by contrast, to be an early response to the threat of entitlement failures in sub‐Saharan Africa.30 These movements mainly involve adult males, moving either to cities or to more prosperous rural areas. It is not immediately clear, of course, how this particular strategy can be expected to affect different household members. In principle, the departure of adult males can reflect the pursuit of three distinct objectives: (1) the supplementation of household resources through remittances (typically earned as wages); (2) the release of the migrant's share of joint household resources for the benefit of those who stay behind; and (3) the abandonment of other family members by the migrant.

Empirical examples can be found illustrating the operation of each of these three motives. But there is much evidence that the first motive is often the dominant one, and that remittances from absent adult males during periods of stress now represent a crucial form of entitlement support for vulnerable households in most African countries.31 Particularly interesting in this respect are several recent studies showing a clearly positive association between food security and the migration of adult members in different households.32

There can, of course, be a problem of intrahousehold inequality in a process (p.79) which leaves the survival of women and children thoroughly dependent on the earnings and remittances of male migrants.33 This intrahousehold consideration has to be kept in view when assessing the contribution of labour migration to the survival of different household members.

Intrahousehold Redistribution

The issue of intrahousehold divisions during famines has an important bearing on the strategy of public action for famine prevention. For instance, whether entitlement protection should be aimed at households or at individuals would depend quite importantly on the pattern and intensity of intrahousehold inequalities. We have already commented, in the previous chapter, on the question of gender discrimination during famines. A complementary aspect of the problem of intrahousehold divisions is that of the fate of children vis‐à‐vis adults.34

The history of famines over the world is full of gruesome stories of neglect, abandonment, sale, or even murder of children.35 It is not really surprising that family ties can be significantly undermined by severe famines and crises. Whether the family also provides inadequate protection to children in subsistence crises of moderate intensity is a more open question. In fact, on this point empirical findings are much less clear‐cut. If anything, the limited evidence available suggests the strong possibility that in early stages of a famine young children are protected at the expense of other family members.

There are three types of findings in that direction. First, a number of anthropological studies have found that, when food is short at the household level, young children tend to get priority in feeding. In their study of hunger and poverty in the state of Orissa in India, for instance, Fernandes and Menon report that ‘during scarcity, children get first priority, then come men and then only women’.36 Very similar observations regarding the preferential treatment of children in food allocation during crises have been reported in different parts of sub‐Saharan Africa.37

(p.80) Second, several quantitative studies of anthropometric status and nutritional intake during famines confirm that the burden of nutritional adjustment often falls disproportionately on adults. For instance, the very careful nutrition surveys carried out by Médecins Sans Frontières during the 1983–5 crisis in the Sahel found a pro‐children bias in intrafamily distribution compared to ordinary times.38

The third type of evidence, which is harder to interpret, relates to age patterns of mortality during famines. Given the greater biological vulnerability of young children to nutritional stress, one might expect that in spite of special protection they would often suffer disproportionately from excess mortality during crises. In fact, the evidence does not seem to support this generalization.

Of course, the absolute mortality rates are almost invariably highest among young children during famines. But this is true in ordinary times as well, and there is no evidence that the increase in mortality is usually most pronounced for the lower age groups. In fact, among the few studies presenting reasonably accurate estimates of mortality by age groups both before and during a subsistence crisis, a surprisingly large proportion indicate a lower (or at least no higher) percentage increase in mortality for young children compared to other age groups.39

The fact that intrahousehold divisions in famine situations appear to operate often in favour of rather than against young children does not imply, of course, that this group requires no special attention. Given the high fragility of their lives, young children almost invariably account for a major share of famine mortality even when the percentage increase in mortality is no higher for them than for other age groups. The fact that systematic intrahousehold discrimination does not seem to be the clue to high infant and child mortality during famines has important implications, however, for the choice of remedial action. In particular, the case for striving to influence the intrahousehold distribution of food in favour of young children during crises (e.g. through direct feeding) would seem to lose some force to the extent that a bias in that (p.81) direction often exists already within the family in such situations. We shall return to this issue in Chapter 7.

From the analysis and evidence presented in this chapter and in Chapter 4, some typical patterns do seem to emerge. It appears that, during the early stages of subsistence crises: (1) the elderly are frequently neglected; (2) adult women often bear a disproportionate share of the burden of adjustment in comparison with adult men, but do not typically experience higher increases in mortality; (3) young children seem to be comparatively protected, at least initially, vis‐à‐vis other age groups; (4) in sub‐Saharan Africa, there is no evidence of widespread discrimination against girls in comparison with boys, in the field of nutrition.

5.5 Early Warning and Early Action

Historical as well as contemporary documents on the subject of famine prevention repeatedly stress the advantages of early intervention—in pre‐empting the disruption of population displacements, in containing the outbreak of epidemics, in preserving family solidarity, and in preventing the emergence of famine expectations. These considerations are all the more important if one accepts the view of famine prevention as being concerned not just with containing mortality but also with preserving a certain normality of life and preventing the loss of productive assets.

Arguing in favour of early intervention may sound like pushing against an open door, since nobody, presumably, is in favour of ‘belated intervention’.40 The sluggishness of action in the event of subsistence crises has indeed a lot more to do with the politics of famine situations than with doubts about the advantages of early intervention. But what bears emphasis is that the objective of early intervention sometimes has distinct implications for the choice of intervention method, and also that its attainment may require making concessions on other fronts. For instance, while feeding centres and relief camps may have a role to play in emergency operations, they clearly have little place in early intervention strategies since (as we have seen) most people are not eager to join relief camps until they have reached an advanced stage of destitution. And, generally, the ambition of remedying intrafamily inequalities in famine situations by individual intervention may have to be moderated in favour of coarser but swifter intervention mechanisms operating at the level of household entitlements.

This being said, the really important issues raised by the need for early intervention are concerned not so much with detailed strategic considerations as with the tougher problem of ensuring that resolute and early action will, in (p.82) fact, be forthcoming in the event of a crisis. This is the context within which the related questions of preparedness, warning and response have to be seen.

The blame for delayed action is often put on inadequate information about the existence, or the exact character, of a crisis. There has, indeed, recently been a phenomenal surge of interest and involvement in so‐called ‘early warning systems’.41 However, as we shall discuss in Chapter 8, it would be hard to see formal early warning techniques as having played a central role in recent experiences of successfully averted famine, whether in Botswana, Cape Verde, Kenya, Zimbabwe, or indeed India.

One frequently cited reason for the apparent redundancy of formal warning systems is their technical deficiency. There is certainly scope for refining existing approaches by moving away from mechanical analyses of the causation of entitlement failures. It is intriguing to note, for instance, that the Food and Agriculture Organization's Global Information and Early Warning System (this was, during the famine threats of 1983–5, the main source of regular information on potential food crises available to the member governments of the FAO) persists in concentrating on ‘food balances’ at the national level as the main variable of interest:

The Global Information and Early Warning System of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has three main functions. First, it monitors the global food supply position . . . Second, it monitors the food supply position at the national level and alerts governments to emerging food supply problems . . . Third, assistance is provided to strengthen national early warning capacities in developing countries . . . These national and regional projects aim at providing a low‐cost system of monitoring which brings together all the indicators on the food supply position and prospects which are available in the country.42

This focus is perhaps not unnatural for an agency whose main concern is to assist various countries with food supply management. But it can clearly not form the basis of a reliable anticipation of threatening famines.43

(p.83) Nor is the solution simply to shift the focus from food supply to another single variable (e.g. crop failures, changes in food prices, etc.), leaving out the rest of the system. The ‘crop failures’ approach, for instance, has been found quite useful in countries where the growing of crops (food or non‐food) is, directly or indirectly, a major source of livelihood for vulnerable groups. But it can by no means be relied upon mechanically, and its predictive power has in some cases failed quite miserably.

A similar remark applies to early warning techniques based on food prices. Close association has been found between famine vulnerability and the level of food prices in a number of recent studies.44 Indeed it is hard to think of a variable which exerts a comparable influence on the entitlements of large numbers of people. But it is also easy to see how starvation can hit particular occupational groups without being accompanied by a sharp increase in food prices. Again, historical experiences clearly point to the need for a more discerning assessment of the entitlement process.45

It is sometimes thought that a handy shortcut through this problem is to monitor nutritional status directly. This ‘nutrition surveillance’ approach has its uses, but for purposes of early warning it is now widely thought to be of limited value. The main reason is that, given the time needed for visible signs of increasing deprivation to develop, nutrition surveillance gives practically no advance indication of an impending crisis.46

There is no escape, then, from giving a solid place to economic and social analysis in attempts to predict future crises. Food balances, crop estimates, cereal prices, wage levels, population movements, and indeed many other variables are all useful clues, but the real challenge is to put them together to arrive at a coherent picture of the entitlement process. A number of recent (p.84) contributions to the development of early warning techniques have considerably advanced in that direction, and this progress deserves to be welcomed.47

It would, however, be a mistake to regard early warning only as a question of generating information for governmental policy making. As we have already discussed, the informational exercise has to be seen in the wider context of the need to trigger early action. In this process, the diffusion of information, and its use as a basis for public pressure, are no less important than the task of data gathering and analysis.

In that task, the media can play a crucial role, both as conveyors of information and as organs of public criticism and advocacy. Other important influences are the activities of political parties, of voluntary agencies, and indeed of the wider public. In Chapters 8 and 11 of this book, we shall encounter several instructive examples of the importance of adversarial politics in forcing an early response from governments in power in the event of a crisis. It will also be apparent how the interest that a political opposition typically has to find out, disseminate and use information about an impending food crisis can make a crucial difference, if the opposition is allowed to function.

Official tolerance of political pluralism and public pressure in many African countries is, at the moment, quite limited. The opposition is often muzzled. Newspapers are rarely independent or free. The armed forces frequently suppress popular protest. Further, to claim that there are clear signs of change in the direction of participatory politics and open journalism in Africa as a whole would be undoubtedly premature. However, there is now perhaps a greater awareness of the problem and of the need for change. The long‐term value of creative dissatisfaction should not be underestimated.48

Notes:

(1) Letter of Mill to Ricardo, August 14, 1816. Quoted in Jacquemin (1985), ‘Annexe historique’, p. 18.

(2) See Jacquemin (1985), ‘Annexe historique’, p. 18.

(3) The cult of the ‘lifeboat ethics’ (as well as the ‘case against helping the poor’ and the ‘toughlove solution’ advocated by Garrett Hardin 1974, 1981), discussing who to ‘sacrifice’ to let others survive, builds on a peculiarly heightened version of that pessimism.

(4) See Chapter 3, section 3.3, where the relation of these findings to the entitlement approach is also discussed.

(5) Many past experiences of famine prevention show the dramatic effectiveness that simple intervention measures can have on famine mortality. These measures have primarily taken the form of early protection of food entitlements, supplemented if possible with the provision of drinking water and basic health care (especially vaccination). For some examples (historical as well as contemporary), see Valaoras (1946), Ramalingaswami et al.] (1971), Berg (1973), Krishnamachari et al.] (1974), Binns (1976), Smout (1978), Will (1980), Kiljunen (1984), Otten (1986), de Waal (1987), and Drèze (1988a, 1989), among others.

(6) For valuable analyses of the problems involved, see Lofchie and Commins (1982), Berry (1984), Labonne (1984a, 1984b), IDS Bulletin (1985), Rose (1985), Society for International Development (1985), Eicher (1986a, 1988a), FAO (1986), Idachaba (1986), Lawrence (1986), Lofchie (1987), Mellor, Delgado and Blackie (1987), Platteau (1988a), Rukuni and Eicher (1987). See also Chapters 2 and 9.

(7) See e.g. Swanberg and Hogan (1981), Chastanet (1983), de Waal (1987), Glantz (1987b), McCann (1987), and Hay (1988). Numerous reports on the 1983–5 famines in sub‐Saharan Africa also emphasize the acute problems caused (inter alia) by shortages of seeds, oxen, or human labour during the recovery period, often resulting in a shrinkage in sown area and other forms of production losses.

(8) See e.g. Borton and Clay (1986), CILSS (1986), Caldwell and Caldwell (1987c), Hill (1987), Wood, Baron and Brown (1986), and World Food Programme (1986a). The last, for instance, reported on the basis of field missions in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger after the crisis of 1983–5 that ‘in all the countries visited, governments had made tremendous efforts to organise relief activities effectively’ (p. 3). As we shall see, very impressive capabilities to respond are now clearly visible in such diverse countries as Botswana, Cape Verde, Kenya and Zimbabwe (see Chapter 8).

(9) The first in‐depth analysis of the Maharashtra drought published in an international professional journal outside India is that of Oughton (1982). On the role of public policy in averting a possible famine and the lessons to be drawn from this experience, see McAlpin (1987) and Drèze (1988a). See also Chapter 8.

(10) These citations are from OXFAM (1972, 1973) and Hall (1973). It must be emphasized that it is not the intention here to blame OXFAM in particular for sharing in a form of disaster reporting that seems to be, in fact, common to the publications of many relief agencies when these are addressed to the wider public. The point is simply to illustrate certain biases which an institution of this kind seems to find hard to resist.

(11) Eicher (1986b: 5). The experience of this country will be further discussed in Chapter 8.

(12) See e.g. Kelly (1987) on Burkina Faso; Freeman et al.] (1978) and van Binsbergen (1986) on Cape Verde; Borton and Clay (1986), Cohen and Lewis (1987) and Downing et al.] (forthcoming) on Kenya; Bryson (1986) on Lesotho; Steele (1985) on Mali; UNDRO (1986) on Mauritania; de Ville de Goyet (1978), CILSS (1986) and World Food Programme (1986e) on Niger; Mwaluko (1962) on Tanzania; Brennan et al.] (1984) and Dodge and Alnwick (1986) on Uganda; Bratton (1986) on Zimbabwe; Holt (1983), Nelson (1983), Firebrace and Holland (1984), Peberdy (1985), Grannell (1986) and World Food Programme (1986a) on Ethiopia (including Tigray and Eritrea); and Autier and d'Altilia (1985), Brown et al.] (1986) and World Food Programme (1986b) on Chad.

(13) A large number of the references cited in the preceding footnote deal with the 1983–5 crisis.

(14) Nor is this impression confirmed by meteorological evidence (see J. Downing et al.] 1987).

(15) For some variations around this theme, see Morris (1974, 1975), Colson (1979), Torry (1979), Wohlt et al.] (1982), Cuny (1983), Turton and Turton (1984), Campbell (1986, 1987), Downing (1986), Zinyama et al.] (1988), Devereux and Hay (1988), and Eldredge and Rydjeski (1988).

(16) The phenomenon of ‘reciprocal gift‐giving’ has sometimes been interpreted by anthropologists as a mechanism of mutual insurance. For discussions of the anthropological literature on informal security systems, see Torry (1979, 1987), Posner (1980), Cashdan (1985), Dirks (1980), and Platteau (1988b). The last author investigates an instructive example of the operation of reciprocal gift‐giving as a mutual insurance mechanism in an Indian fishing community. For economic analyses of gift exchange, see Lundahl (1983), Akerlof (1984), Platteau (1988b).

(17) The partners in a contract of mutual insurance need not, in general, make symmetric contributions to the reduction of risk as in this example. On the subtler distinctions between risk‐sharing, risk‐pooling, risk‐shifting, etc., see Newbery and Stiglitz (1981) and Newbery (1987a).

(18) The so‐called ‘breakdown of the moral economy’ in times of severe collective crisis, in the past as well as in the present, is one of the best documented aspects of social responses to food crises. Dirks (1980) provides a good discussion of this phenomenon, and a survey of the literature. For some relevant empirical studies, see Colson (1979), Greenough (1982), Jodha and Mascarenhas (1985), de Waal (1987), Vaughan (1987), Chen (1988), and Rahmato (1988), among others. It should be mentioned that the breakdown of social ties is a common feature of the advanced stages of famines, and that in the early stages greater sociality may well be observed.

(19) The citation is from an ancient inscription, mentioned in Aykroyd (1974: 25). On biblical famines, see Dando (1983). See also Garnsey (1988).

(20) These difficulties include the ‘incentive’ problems arising from the need for some parties to elicit information which other parties may have little interest in revealing (see Newbery 1987a, for an excellent discussion). These problems are particularly acute in large and anonymous societies, but some of them are also important even in small, face‐to‐face communities. See Cashdan (1985), Torry (1987), Rosenzweig et al.] (1988), and Platteau (1988b).

(21) An extreme example is that of ‘bonded labour’. There are, of course, many other aspects to the causation of this phenomenon than the quest for security on the part of dispossessed labourers. But this part of the story is, in some cases, clearly an important one. See Breman (1974), Deshpande (1982), and Ramachandran (1986), among other contributions.

(22) This is indeed a plausible interpretation of the considerable decline of on‐farm storage in India since the last century (Drèze 1988a). The decline of private storage against a background of decreasing famine vulnerability in Kenya is also noted in Downing (1986).

(23) The empirical studies on which this section draws include Firth (1959), Morris (1974, 1975), Jodha (1975, 1978, 1981), Lallemand (1975), Jackson (1976), Bernus (1977a, 1977b, 1986), Faulkingham (1977), Gallais et al.] (1977), Scott (1976), Colson (1979), Popkin (1979), Prindle (1979), Bertlin (1980), O'Leary (1980), Campbell and Trechter (1982), Greenough (1982), Schware (1982), Chastanet (1983, 1988), Watts (1983, 1984), Campbell (1984, 1986, 1987), Cutler (1984a, 1985b, 1986), Turton and Turton (1984), Cashdan (1985), Jodha and Mascarenhas (1985), Negus (1985), Pankhurst (1985, 1986), Lombard (1985), Swift (1985), Tobert (1985), Caldwell et al.] (1986), Downing (1986), Fleuret (1986), de Waal (1987), Akong'a and Downing (1987), McCorkle (1987), Mamadou (1987a, 1987b), Sperling (1987a, 1987b), Vaughan (1987), Zinyama et al.] (1988), M. Chen (1988, 1989), Dupré and Guillaud (1988), Matiza et al.] (1988), Platteau (1988b), Pottier (1988), Rahmato (1988), Wheeler and Abdullah (1988), Brown (forthcoming), Kamau et al.] (forthcoming), von Braun (forthcoming). Valuable discussions of informal security systems in more general terms can also be found in Torry (1979, 1986a, 1986b, 1987), Dirks (1980), Wynne (1980), den Hartog (1981), van Appeldoorn (1981), Lundahl (1983), Toulmin (1983), Scott (1984), Jiggins (1986), Longhurst (1986), Agarwal (1988), Corbett (1988), de Garine and Harrison (1988), Platteau (1988b), Chambers (1989).

(24) See Pankhurst (1985, 1986) for an illuminating discussion of this issue. The author insists, inter alia, on the importance of ‘extensive pre‐capitalist regional systems of exchange’ in both East Africa and the Sahel, and on the role of market exchange as a ‘safeguard against the vulnerability of subsistence economies to environmental risk’ in pre‐colonial African societies (Pankhurst, 1985: 42–3). The historical role of exchange in enhancing security is confirmed by examples of famines occurring as a result of the disruption of traditional exchange channels in some parts of Africa during colonial times. For some interesting examples, see Lugan (1976) and Herlehy (1984), among others. On the historical importance of market exchange in Africa, see also Gray and Birmingham (1970a, 1970b), Jones (1980), Eicher and Baker (1982), Hill (1986), and the literature cited in these studies.

(25) This observation is reflected in numerous recent studies of famine responses, including those of Faulkingham (1977), Bertlin (1980), O'Leary (1980), Campbell and Trechter (1982), Chastanet (1983), Watts (1983), Cutler (1985b), Swift (1985), Downing (1986), Fleuret (1986), Hale (1986), Pankhurst (1986), Akong'a and Downing (1987), de Waal (1987), Holland (1987), Bush (1988), Matiza et al.] (1988), Pottier (1988).

(26) On this see Bernus (1977b), Fleuret and Fleuret (1980), den Hartog (1981), Campbell and Trechter (1982), Watts (1983), Fleuret (1986), Longhurst (1986), Downing (1988a, 1988b), and Drèze (1988a), among others. See also Chapter 8 below.

(27) The evidence from India, reviewed in Drèze (1988a) and recently supplemented by Pinstrup‐Andersen and Jaramillo (1986) and M. Chen (1989), is fairly conclusive on this point. Few quantitative studies are available for Africa, but qualitative studies suggest a strikingly similar pattern—see Colson (1979), Watts (1983), de Waal (1987), Corbett (1988), Rahmato (1988), and Kamau et al.] (forthcoming). See also the literature on survival during the period of ‘soudure’ in different parts of Africa, including Campbell and Trechter (1982), Dupré and Guillaud (1984), Lombard (1985), and the earlier studies reviewed in Mondot‐Bernard (1982).

(28) See Corbett (1988) for a review of the evidence on this point. The same observation has often been made in South Asia, where one turn‐of‐the‐century commentator went so far as to assert that ‘the dislike of the people to leave their homes was so strong that they would rather starve in their village’ (Government of India 1898: 77, citing the Famine Commissioner of Madras). On the phenomenon of distress migration in South Asia, see Chakravarty (1986), Agarwal (1988), and the literature cited in these works.

(29) See Negus (1985: 15), Schware (1982: 215), and Hale (1986) for some examples of these anxieties.

(30) See e.g. Mwaluko (1962), Lallemand (1975), Caldwell (1977), Smale (1980), Watts (1983), Autier and d'Altilia (1985), Cutler (1985b), Swift (1985), Downing (1986), Hay (1986), McLean (1986), Akong'a and Downing (1987), de Waal (1987), Holland (1987), Government of Mali (1987), Dupré and Guillaud (1988), Brown (forthcoming).

(31) On the supportive role of cash remittances in the context of subsistence crises, and their close connections with wage labour, see Faulkingham and Thorbahn (1975) for Niger, Leys (1986) and Bratton (1987a) for Zimbabwe, Bush (1988) for Sudan, Akong'a and Downing (1987), Downing et al.] (forthcoming) for Kenya, Dupré and Guillaud (1984) for Burkina Faso, Government of Mali (1987) for Mali, Hay (1988) for Botswana, Lombard (1985) and Chastanet (1988) for Senegal, Smale (1980) for Mauritania, van Binsbergen (1986) and Freeman et al.] (1978) for Cape Verde.

(32) On this question, see particularly Lombard (1985: 38–40). Similar findings are reported for diverse sub‐Saharan countries in the empirical studies of Dupré and Guillaud (1984: 31), Leys (1986), Akong'a and Downing (1987), and Vaughan (1987: 47), among others. See also Chapter 8.

(33) On the question of gender conflicts in African famines and particularly in the context of male migration, see Vaughan (1987). Vaughan's insightful analysis underlines the conflicts involved in the phenomenon of male migration during the famine of 1949 in Malawi (including the possible abandonment of women by their husbands). But it also brings out the positive overall contribution which male migration made to the survival chances of both men and women. Husbands who were reluctant to migrate in search of work or food appeared to be cursed by their wives in sarcastic songs (p. 32).

(34) Another problem of great social importance concerns the fate of the elderly. There is considerable evidence from anthropological studies that the old fare particularly badly during famines (see Dirks 1980, Greenough 1982, Vaughan 1987, de Waal 1988a, Rahmato 1988). This remains, however, an understudied problem, and its implications for public policy in particular need to be pursued much more extensively.

(35) For a detailed review, see Dirks (1980). The secret murder of starving children by their desperate mothers during the 1949 famine in Malawi is discussed by Vaughan (1987: 36).

(36) Fernandes and Menon (1987: 109).

(37) See e.g. Hale (1986), Rahmato (1988) and Wheeler and Abdullah (1988). See also Jelliffe and Jelliffe (1971).

(38) See Autier and d'Altilia (1985) and Autier (1988). See also Binns (1976) on dietary change among the Yana of Papua New Guinea during the 1972–3 food crisis, Biellik and Henderson (1981) on the Karamoja famine of 1980, and Wheeler and Abdullah (1988) and Chaudhury (1988) on the intrafamily distribution of nutritional stress during the lean seasons in Bangladesh and Malawi.

(39) See e.g. Valaoras (1946) on the Greek famine of 1941–2, Sen (1981a: 210–4) and Greenough (1982: 238) on the Bengal famine of 1943, O'Grada (1988a: 9) on the Irish famines of the 1840s, Chen and Chowdhury (1977: Table 2) on the famines of 1971 and 1974 in Bangladesh, Maksudov (1986) on the Ukrainian famines of 1927–38, Hill (1988) on the Chinese famines of 1958–61, Meegama (1985: 324) on the food crisis of 1974 in Sri Lanka, and the work of Dyson (1989) on the demography of South Asian famines. In the case of infants, these findings have often been attributed to the protective value of breast‐feeding; but the studies mentioned here found relatively low proportionate increases in mortality for non‐infant young children as well. There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern; see e.g. de Waal (1988a, 1989a) on the 1985 famine in Darfur (Sudan).

(40) However, in some instances early intervention strategies have been criticized for involving the risk of ‘overreacting’ in the form of intervening in a situation where in fact people are quite capable of ‘coping’ (by which is usually meant surviving) on their own. See e.g. Morris (1974, 1975) and Waddell (1974), and the responses by Jodha (1975) and Binns (1976) respectively.

(41) One study finds the current situation of duplication, heterogeneity and even inconsistency of independent efforts to be quite ‘surrealistic’ (CILSS 1986: 67). That study, which is not meant to be exhaustive, identifies no fewer than 39 different early warning systems in the Sahel alone, of which 14 are engaged in primary data collection and 25 ‘recycle’ information collected by ‘more or less competing agencies’ (p. 69).

(42) Newhouse (1987: 6), italics added (on the GIEWS, see also FAO 1987a). Admittedly, the same document emphasizes that national early warning systems include the analysis of various ‘socio‐economic variables’ of greater interest, such as ‘cereal prices, cereal stocks, market arrivals, population movements, cattle prices and slaughter rates, length of queues at food shops, nutritional indicators, etc.’ (p. 22). However, the role of these variables is seen as one of providing ‘direct clues to emerging food supply problems’, and the exercise therefore seems to remain instrumental to the ultimate purpose of gauging food supplies. It should be mentioned that many of the current problems of early warning systems are better understood when due recognition is given to the fact that, in practice, the purpose of these techniques is often more to establish a credible claim for food aid than to galvanize the domestic government into action.

(43) For a telling critique of the shortcomings of the ‘food balances approach’ with reference to the African crisis of 1983–5, see Torry (1988a). In the case of many African countries, the problem of misleading focus is compounded by that of atrocious production statistics, as a number of authors have emphasized; see e.g. Berry (1984), Lele and Candler (1984), Eicher and Mangwiro (1986), CILSS (1986), Hill (1986) and Lipton (1986). Some authors have gone so far as to question whether the alleged decline in food production in Africa during recent decades has been adequately ascertained; see e.g. Berry (1984), Hay (1986) and Hill (1986).

(44) See particularly the works of Peter Cutler on Ethiopia (Cutler 1985b) and Martin Ravallion on Bangladesh (Ravallion 1987a), as well as the historical studies of Meuvret (1946) and Lardinois (1982, 1985). See also Seaman and Holt (1980) and von Braun (forthcoming).

(45) In India, the Famine Commission of 1880 ended its pronouncement on the existence of a fairly systematic association between food price increases and famine with a strong word of caution: ‘It is a well‐ascertained fact that prices which would be regarded as indicating famine in one part of the country are quite compatible with undisturbed prosperity in another’ (Government of India 1880, para. 78). The Ganjam famine of 1888–9 later revealed that ‘food prices were no criteria of severity in a famine’ (Srivastava 1968), and the Famine Commission of 1898 expressed an even more sceptical view on this general question (see e.g. Government of India 1898: 18, 44, 158). For similar observations in contemporary Ethiopia and Sudan, see Sen (1981a: Chapter 7) and de Waal (1988a).

(46) See e.g. Rivers et al.] (1976), Mason et al.] (1984), Autier and d'Altilia (1985), Borton and York (1987). Nutrition surveillance can, of course, have functions other than just early warning. It has, for instance, been used with good effect to monitor health conditions in non‐crisis as well as crisis situations (see e.g., Morgan 1985 on its use in Botswana).

(47) See, for instance, the pioneering work of Médecins Sans Frontières in Chad (Autier 1988), the bulletins of the Système d'Alerte Précoce in Mali, the work of Jeremy Swift on Turkana in Kenya (Swift, forthcoming), and the econometric modelling by Meghnad Desai (1986). For a survey of the literature on early warning, see Walker (1988).

(48) A distinguishing feature of many of the African countries which have been relatively successful in responding adequately to the threat of famine in recent years is the greater accountability of their governments. This question is further discussed in Chapter 8 below. On the role of the press in the context of African famines, and the emerging signs of positive change in some countries, see Hoffer (1980), Yao and Kone (1986), Mitter (1988), Reddy (1988). On the general role of ‘enfranchisement’ in influencing entitlements of different groups, see Appadurai (1984).