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After 1974: Post-Famine Politics

'Elites have long accepted a moral obligation to relieve those most at risk during famines', from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the otherwise neglectful French ancien regime (O Grada 2009, 197), so elite failure to meet their 'moral obligation' often produces wide social, political, and economic consequences (Torry 1984; Arnold 1988).[1] 'New famine thinking' has recently taken a political turn in its examination of how regimes, conflict, global economic adjustment, and the 'humanitarian international' (de Waal 1997) can exacerbate episodes of mass hunger (see Devereux 2006b). This new emphasis on politics fills a gap that Sen's entitlement theory, an essentially economic theory of famine causation, was unequipped to tackle.[2] Recent analysis has refined the broad association of democratic accountability with famine prevention by identifying the role of state legitimacy (Sutter 2011), state capacity (Burchi 2011), the 'selectorate' (Plumper and Neumayer 2009), and the insulating effects of foreign aid (also Plumper and Neumayer 2009) on the priority given to famine prevention and relief. These new approaches analyse why and under what conditions governments fail to relieve famine, and with what implications for accountability (Edkins 2006; Devereux 2006a), helping to bring the effects of famine into view.

An examination of accounts of modern famine episodes suggests two broad political effects are common, both operating through the delegitimizing consequences of famine on the balance of political power.[3] This may be destabilized or challenged by a) the emergence of subaltern groupings and/ or a mass threat or b) elite challenges to political leadership through, for example, the prospect of a palace or other coup. In wartime Bengal, for example, the Communist Party focused on strategy rather than organizing the peasants and lost support after the war; by contrast, frontline Muslim League activists tried to help starving peasants, a fact that contributed to both their party's post-war provincial election victory and the (chiefly Muslim) peasant reprisals against (mainly Hindu) graindealers and moneylenders in the Noakhali riots of 1946 (Bose 1990). In the Indochina famine of 1945, members of the nationalist Viet Minh died alongside many of the Tonkin peasantry, but their strategy of seizing granaries to feed the starving became key to their support in the north (Bose 1990). In Ethiopia armed peasant groups fought long-running campaigns against the state after 1973, and Tigrayan separatism grew out of the unrest (de Waal 1991). The enduring effects of the famine in Tibet have featured in the political memories and popular grievances against Chinese rule in that region (Jisheng 2012).

Famines may also directly affect the terms of the political settlement if contending elites recognize in the crisis the possibility for regime change. Christopher Clapham has shown how the 1973 famine was implicated in the loss of peasant support for Haile Selassie's empire, but also that the middle classes and student population sympathized, and were critical of official inaction (Clapham 1990; see also de Waal 1991; Shepherd 1975). The Irish famine ultimately forced a divided political class to overcome its differences in a more unified articulation of interests against Britain (Kinealy 1994). In China, grassroots cadres made clear their dissatisfaction with the moderate reforms after the famine became known to the political leadership; Communist Party leaders like Deng Xiaoping were 'repulsed' by Mao's failures to acknowledge the famine, weakening his hold on the party leadership (Becker 1996).

  • [1] Theorizing of the effects of famine has largely focused on demography, health, and to some extentsocial relational change (for instance, Kynch 1997; Kynch 1998). Sociological literature predictschanges in individual and community social behaviour, but typically in the immediate aftermath.Some predict that social organization may become animalistic, 'pared down to satisfaction ofnutritional needs, the most basic requisites of life' or turn to sociopathy, discarding or destroyingsocial rules (Dirks etal. 1980, 31). People may withdraw from social participation or draw on'contingency' rules hardwired as a result of natural selection and social learning, or depress vitality,operating at a lower level of intensity and activity (see, for instance, Sorokin 1975).
  • [2] See introduction in Devereux (2006b);also Devereux (1993;2001).
  • [3] We focus mainly here on the Irish Potato Famine of 1848-52, the Bengal and Indochinafamines of 1943-5, the Soviet Union famines of the 1930s, the Great Leap (or Chinese) Famine of1958-62, the El Nino-triggered calamities across Asia and Africa in the late nineteenth century, andthe Ethiopian famines of 1973 and 1984-5. The African and North Korean famines of the recentpast are not discussed here because the longer-term consequences for politics, policy, and socialrelations have not been closely analysed or because (apart from North Korea) mortality levels werecontained to a level that prevented these events from being seen as major catastrophes.
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