Causes of famine

Famines may be caused by: a fall in food supply, a rise in the demand for food (eg because of an influx of refugees), a redistribution of what food is available (eg with hyperinflation or unemployment meaning that some people cannot afford to buy food), or shortages within a season, caused by transport problems, etc. It is difficult for a casual observer to isolate the cause of a particular famine, because a famine caused by crop failure, for example, will necessarily be accompanied by speculation, a redistribution of income, reduced purchasing power by some groups and by regional shortages. Adam Smith thought that, in practice, all famines were caused by a sudden fall in food supply. (The Wealth of Nations, Everyman,1910, 1977, ¸, p 26) Likewise, modern economists have thought that such famines were the norm, but that they can be caused, on occasion, by other factors.

Sen, on the other hand, has argued that the cause of many or most famines is a redistribution of supplies resulting from a shift in purchasing power. He has been scathing about those who consider that a sudden food availability decline (FAD) is the primary cause, and about those who consider an examination of aggregate food supply of primary importance in the analysis of famine. He has been particularly scathing about those who consider a decline in food availability to have caused the Bengal famine of 1943. When Sen denounces the FAD approach, he is sometimes denouncing an unbelievably narrow approach which I am quite certain that no economist ever held. Sometimes he is denouncing the view of the Bengal government, which was virtually the same as his own. Sometimes he is denouncing the balanced approach of the Famine Commission (Famine Inquiry Commission, Report on Bengal, New Delhi, Government of India, 1945a; Famine Inquiry Commission, Final Report, Madras, Government of India,1945b).[Some examples of his scathing language are attached at the end of this document].

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