Why does it matter?
The disagreement between Sen and mainstream economists is not of mere academic interest. It strongly influences the action that a government will take to prevent or ameliorate famine. (3) Millions of lives depend on it. Throughout this paper it will be argued that Sen's theory of the causation of famines, and the methods of analysis he considers appropriate will lead to a misdiagnosis of the cause and the seriousness of the famine and the appropriate action to deal with it.
It would be easy enough to show that, by using Sen's analysis, an economist in the threatened country is likely to misdiagnose the problem and the remedy. Such an economist is unlikely to be a highly-trained theoretical economist; he has limited resources and extremely unreliable statistics; his work is subject to extreme time pressure and political pressure; and he has an awesome responsibility. Instead, I propose to show that Professor Sen, using the analysis that he developed, has reached the wrong conclusion and stuck to it in spite of criticisms, and that his bias has been one that would lead to famine. His many books and papers were not subject to the time constraint that faces the economist in the field; he has dealt with some of the best-documented famines in history and he has had the advantages of hindsight and ex-post data - he was in a better position to make a diagnosis than the man in the field, and yet he was wrong.
It will also be shown that the effects of misdiagnosing a famine as a Sen-type famine are serious. The resulting government action will be totally ineffective or will worsen the situation. Making the opposite mistake and diagnosing a Sen-type famine as a food availability decline (FAD) famine does not matter: the action taken will rapidly bring the famine to an end. Misdiagnosis can worsen the situation because the degree of shortage, ie the food availability per head per day, does not remain constant from one harvest to another. For example, if a government issues too high a ration, a worse shortage will be created and mass starvation is a possibility. The misdiagnosis means that there will be no imports when imports are the only answer.
Again, if the government decides that the famine is not the result of a shortage but the result of speculation, as Sen argues, it might force merchants to release enough grain onto the market to keep supplies at the normal level. In fact, if supplies were 25'% below average, the result would be that all food supplies would be exhausted three months before the next crop was due. The whole population would die.
Unfortunately, the uninformed layman, whether politician or administrator, is easily convinced that high prices are due to something he thinks he understands, like speculation, hoarding or inflation (Sen's explanations), and something he can deal with by administrative action. He feels that he has acted decisively and usefully if he arrests a few speculators and seizes their stocks for distribution. There is a reluctance to accept the horrifying responsibility of a third degree shortage.
This paper is not concerned with long-term food policy: suffice it to say that the traditional food security and famine prevention measures of producing a surplus in normal years and building up an emergency stockpile are not appropriate if famines are not caused by supply shortage.