Challenging the fundamentals of famine analysis- extending de Waal’s study

In 1989 Alexander de Waal published Famine that Kills, a revolutionary peasant-focused thesis that introduced two interesting concepts.  First, he argues that famine victims often forgo eating to increase the chance of maintaining their livelihood after the food shortage ends, they choose to starve.  Second, de Waal demonstrates that western ideas of famine do not match the Sahelian peasants’ experiences of famine.

The first aspect of this thesis has resulted in a seismic shift in the emphasis of famine studies, with an increasing focus upon peasant survival strategies and the effects that the state, the economic system, land degradation, changing social structures and colonialism had upon these indigenous techniques.

However, the second aspect to his study has been largely neglected by modern academia and will be explained in more detail in the following paragraph.  De Waal argues that since Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population theory in the late 18th and early 19th century, which argues that famine is a check on human population growth, there has been a fixation in the western world on death in a famine.  This is evident throughout the many tiers of Western society: from the academic Amartya Sen, who stresses that ‘famines imply starvation’, to media reports that fixate on the use the iconography, shown above, to emphasise the inevitability of death in a food shortage.  It seems counter-intuitive to examine famine in any other terms than the loss of human life yet de Waal stresses that this mind-set is peculiar to the western world; African concepts of famine do not use the presence of deaths from starvation as a criterion for famine at all.  Instead they associate famine with powerlessness and poverty, a socio-economic issue rather than one of life and death.

He goes on to argue that the rise of the mass media and disaster tourism has exacerbated this gap between discourse and reality, which makes it even more peculiar that academics have ignored this paradox.  The 1990s and 2000s has witnessed a multitude of works on the western discourse of African famine yet they have not tackled the fundamental issue of the post-Malthusian synonymy of death and famine, set out by de Waal 23 years ago.

My research aims to tackle this issue by investigating the proliferation of this fixation on death in both the British and the east African media, when they reported the famines in the Horn of Africa during the 1980s.  To test the validity of de Waal’s argument, this research will then be set against the actual experiences of Ethiopian and Sudanese peasants afflicted by the food shortage.  This investigation is of vital importance as the role of external agents in modern famines cannot be fully analysed without understanding the disparity between the actual experiences of ‘famine victims’ and the discourse of various western and African institutions.

Brendan Lawson

About perspectivesonafrica

Research and news about Africa
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