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The law stands between food availability and food entitlement. Starvation deaths can reflect legality with a vengeance —Amartya Sen, Offering food aid to suffering victims of famine was widely regarded by the international community, donor states, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as an uncontentious example of humanitarianism until recently. A starving population was assumed to be in need of relief in the form of food supplies, and this was duly, although often belatedly, offered. This seemingly straightforward response in fact invokes a specifically Malthusian notion of what famines are. The Malthusian approach that I discussed in the previous chapter arose alongside the epistemic shift to modernity that took place at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As an approach to famine, it produces technical responses. Famine is seen as a natural disaster and famine relief as a question of food supply. Famine is depoliticized . This view has been widely contested. One of the challenges to this view has been from Amartya Sen. Sen’s approach, first propounded in the late 1970s and early 1980s,1 claims that, contrary to Malthusian assumptions, famine is not caused by food shortages or a failure of food availability. In Sen’s view, famine is due to a breakdown in food entitlements. This fall in entitlements , which would typically affect only certain small sections of a Poverty and Famines 43 3 Availability and Entitlement population, could be triggered by a shortage of food in general, but this shortage is only one of the factors that could give rise to this result. A fall in entitlements to food could equally be caused by unemployment , a rise in prices not itself indicative of shortage, or a number of other factors.2 This would leave the affected groups vulnerable to starvation, and extensive starvation would lead to famines , defined by Sen as “involving fairly widespread acute starvation .”3 Famine is seen as an extension of starvation, which is an acute manifestation of poverty. Although a powerful denunciation of the picture of famine as a natural disaster, attributable to causes such as drought or pestilence beyond the control of states or governments, Sen’s approach retains the notion of famine as a sudden economic collapse, a failure, but this time in the economic system. The remedies advocated include the establishment of early warning systems to detect signs of entitlement collapse, as well as systems of public welfare to provide replacements for those entitlements through public works or, if the process has gone too far, free distribution of food.4 Through the play of market forces, food would be attracted to food shortage areas as soon as the affected groups have reestablished their exchange entitlements . Sen’s approach was widely welcomed as a major advance, enabling detailed attention to be focused on the specifics of the entitlements of particular groups in historical cases, rather than on broadbrush statistics of quantities of food per head.5 It stresses two crucial points: in any population it is only certain vulnerable groups that are affected by starvation; and famines are man-made—they are not the equivalent of earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods. As such, the remedy is to be sought in the economic system; government intervention can replace lost entitlements through public welfare programs. However, despite his challenge to Malthusian approaches to famine , Sen remains within its central assumptions, those of the modern episteme. The similarities between Sen and Malthus are more instructive than their differences. Both reflect, to a greater or lesser extent , modernity’s view of man and nature and its logic of scarcity. By understanding this we can see how, despite their differences, they both produce a technological, managerial approach to famine as a disaster or failure. Such practices technologize and depoliticize famine , producing particular relations of power between those who suffer famine and those who offer famine relief or humanitarian aid. 44 · availability and entitlement Sen’s work relies on a number of exclusions, and I argue that these are central to famine; by excluding what he does, Sen excludes the violence implicated in any particular social order. SEN’S ENTITLEMENT APPROACH Sen’s analysis of the role of entitlements in famine changed the terms of the debate and moved the focus from explanations based on food supply to explanations based on food distribution and the social, political , and legal system on which this was grounded. Famine was not a question for the natural sciences but for the social sciences, and in particular for economics. The importance of the amount...


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