About famine

(News & Editorial: About famine)

A.  Famine an often unnatural disaster

__1.  ‘Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962,’
 by Yang Jisheng
7 Dec 2012, New York Times Sunday Book Review, news article by JONATHAN MIRSKY
Pasted from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/books/review/tombstone-the-great-chinese-famine-1958-1962-by-yang-jisheng.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0

famine chinaA rice field in what is now Guangdong Province, 1958.

In the summer of 1962, China’s president, Liu Shaoqi, warned Mao Zedong that “history will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people, and the cannibalism will also be memorialized!” Liu had visited Hunan, his home province as well as Mao’s, where almost a million people died of hunger. Some of the survivors had eaten dead bodies or had killed and eaten their comrades. In “Tombstone,” an eye-­opening study of the worst famine in history, Yang Jisheng concludes that 36 million Chinese starved to death in the years between 1958 and 1962, while 40 million others failed to be born, which means that “China’s total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million.”


__2.  Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962
By Yang Jisheng,  Translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian,  629 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
There are good earlier studies of the famine and one excellent recent one, “Mao’s Great Famine” by Frank Dikötter, but Yang’s is significant because he lives in China and is boldly unsparing. Mao’s rule, he writes, “became a secular theocracy. . . . Divergence from Mao’s views was heresy. . . . Dread and falsehood were thus both the result and the lifeblood of totalitarianism.” This political system, he argues, “caused the degeneration of the national character of the Chinese people.”

Yang, who was born in 1940, is a well-known veteran journalist and a Communist Party member. Before I quote the following sentence, remember that a huge portrait of Chairman Mao still hangs over the main gate into Beijing’s Forbidden City and can be seen from every corner of Tiananmen Square, where his embalmed body lies in an elaborate mausoleum. Despite this continued public veneration, Yang looks squarely at the real chairman: “In power, Mao became immersed in China’s traditional monarchal culture and Lenin and Stalin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ . . . When Mao was provided with a list of slogans for his approval, he personally added one: ‘Long Live Chairman Mao.’ ” Two years ago, in an interview with the journalist Ian Johnson, Yang remarked that he views the famine “as part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time. The chief culprit was Mao.”

From the early 1990s, Yang writes, he began combing normally closed official archives containing confidential reports of the ravages of the famine, and reading accounts of the official killing of protesters. He found references to cannibalism and interviewed men and women who survived by eating human flesh.

Chinese statistics are always overwhelming, so Yang helps us to conceptualize what 36 million deaths actually means. It is, he writes, “450 times the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki” and “greater than the number of people killed in World War I.” It also, he insists, “outstripped the ravages of World War II.” While 40 to 50 million died in that war, it stretched over seven or eight years, while most deaths in the great Chinese famine, he notes, were “concentrated in a six-month period.” The famine occurred neither during a war nor in a period of natural calamity. When mentioned in China, which is rarely, bad weather or Russian treachery are usually blamed for this disaster, and both are knowledgeably dismissed by Yang.

The most staggering and detailed chapter in Yang’s narrative relates what happened in Xinyang Prefecture, in Henan Province. A lush region, it was “the economic engine of the province,” with a population in 1958 of 8.5 million. Mao’s policies had driven the peasants from their individual small holdings; working communally, they were now forced to yield almost everything to the state, either to feed the cities or — crazily — to increase exports. The peasants were allotted enough grain for just a few months. In Xinyang alone, Yang calculates, over a million people died.

Mao had pronounced that the family, in the new order of collective farming and eating, was no longer necessary. Liu Shaoqi, reliably sycophantic, agreed: “The family is a historically produced phenomenon and will be eliminated.” Grain production plummeted, the communal kitchens collapsed. As yields dived, Zhou Enlai and other leaders, “the falcons and hounds of evil,” as Yang describes them, assured Mao that agricultural production had in fact soared. Mao himself proclaimed that under the new dispensation yields could be exponentially higher. “Tell the peasants to resume eating chaff and herbs for half the year,” he said, “and after some hardship for one or two or three years things will turn around.”


__3.   Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962
By Yang Jisheng, Translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, 629 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

A journalist reporting on Xinyang at the time saw the desperation of ordinary people. Years later, he told Yang that he had witnessed a Party secretary — during the famine, cadres were well fed — treating his guests to a local delicacy. But he knew what happened to people who recorded the truth, so he said nothing: “How could I dare to write an internal reference report?” Indeed. Liu Shaoqi confronted Mao, who remembered all slights, and during the Cultural Revolution he was accused of being a traitor and an enemy agent. Expelled from the Party, he died alone, uncared for, anonymous.

Of course, “Tombstone” has been banned in China, but in 2008 it was published in Hong Kong in two mighty volumes. Pirated texts and Internet summaries soon slipped over the border. This English version, although substantial, is roughly half the size of the original. Its eloquent translators, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, say their aim, like the author’s, is to “present the tragedy in all its horror” and to render Yang’s searching analysis in a manner that is both accessible to general readers and informative for specialists. There is much in this readable “Tombstone” I needed to know.

Yang writes that one reason for the book’s title is to establish a memorial for the uncle who raised him like a son and starved to death in 1959. At the time a devout believer in the Party and ignorant of the extent of what was going on in the country at large, Yang felt that everything, no matter how difficult, was part of China’s battle for a new socialist order. Discovering official secrets during his work as a young journalist, he began to lose his faith. His real “awakening,” however, came after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre: “The blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades.” This is brave talk. Words and phrases associated with “Tiananmen” remain blocked on China’s Internet.

Nowadays, Yang asserts, “rulers and ordinary citizens alike know in their hearts that the totalitarian system has reached its end.” He hopes “Tombstone” will help banish the “historical amnesia imposed by those in power” and spur his countrymen to “renounce man-made calamity, darkness and evil.” While guardedly hopeful about the rise of democracy, Yang is ultimately a realist. Despite China’s economic and social transformation, this courageous man concludes, “the political system remains unchanged.” “Tombstone” doesn’t directly challenge China’s current regime, nor is its author part of an organized movement. And so, unlike the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, Yang Jisheng is not serving a long prison sentence. But he has driven a stake through the hearts of Mao Zedong and the party he helped found.

.

B.  Hunger and Famine
2011, Illinois State University, by Robert Dirks
Pasted from: http://www.academia.edu/484324/Hunger_and_Famine

Introduction
Hunger takes many forms:
1) It smolders as chronic under nutrition.
2) It can flare up intermittently, sometimes annually, because food stores are never quite sufficient to last until next harvest.
3) Occasionally, hunger erupts in famine, an episode of want so acute as to precipitate the breakdown of societies’ most fundamental institutions.
Whatever the form, the costs are immense. Eighteen million people die every year from hunger-related causes.The biggest known loss of life from a single famine occurred between 1959 and 1961 when at least 15 million people died.

What causes hunger and leads to such tragic consequences? Certainly it is not always shortcomings in food production. Pockets of hunger exist within some of the most agriculturally productive countries in the world, including the United States. Great regions of persistent famine exist on a planet producing more than enough food for everyone. Currently, parts of Africa suffer the most from famine. Formerly, it was areas of Asia and before that Europe.

Were famine fire, the historical pattern would suggest arson or some other human agency. In fact, careful studies never fail to disclose human causes. I discuss some of these in the first part of this essay. I turn my attention to effects in the second part.

Causes of Famine
Conditions and events of many sorts can contribute to the development of famine. These include natural disasters (e.g., flood, plant disease) and technological failures (e.g., unreliable storage, destructive farming practices) as well as various social, economic, and political factors (e.g., class inequities, market collapse, war). Rarely, if ever, can we attribute a particular famine to any single cause. Take, for example, the most recent famines that have plagued portions of Africa’s Sahel, an arid to semi-arid belt just south of the Sahara Desert.  

As some popular accounts would have it, these were natural disasters caused by drought, one beginning in 1968, another in 1984. Yet, the pastoralists of the region, the chief victims, have coped with periods of unusually scant rainfall for centuries. Key to their survival was their nomadic lifestyle and the movement of livestock over great distances when necessary. No less important was their practice of maintaining larger than needed herds during normal times as insurance against catastrophic loss during exceptionally dry years. While this double-edged strategy was never entirely fail-safe, it did for the most part prevent major catastrophes.

So what happened? For one thing, overgrazing and the reduction of grass cover; desertification was prevented so long as the pastoral tribes moved their herds throughout the year. But, the construction of boreholes by development agencies (to provide water) eliminated the incentive to move. Political concerns also conspired against migration; the enforcement of  international political boundaries became stricter. Later on, crop production began to press into the southern reaches of the region decreasing the availability of pasture. To make matters worse, farmers began turning to cotton and other cash crops, reducing the opportunity to graze animals on grain stubble. The commercialization of the region’s economy created yet another hazard finally realized when drought set in. No longer able to rely on traditional reciprocities with farmers (who now wanted money for their grain) but more dependent than ever on grain because of the poor condition of their herds, the pastoralists brought increasing numbers of animals to market. This upsurge in supply sent cattle prices plunging. Grossly disadvantaged in the marketplace and unable to meet their Caloric requirements, the pastoralists starved, their physical condition deteriorating more than any other Sahelian people. There were 100,000 starvation-related deaths in the region in 1973. Yet, throughout the crisis years, only one Sahelian country, Mauritania (where much of the economy depends on mining), fell short of producing enough food to feed its total population. In addition to illustrating causal complexity, what happened in the Sahelal so demonstrates that disastrous situations do not develop overnight. The stage for famine is often set decades or more prior to the death of the first victim. More or less remote occurrences, such as those that upset traditional Sahelian grazing patterns, are sometimes referred to as “underlying causes.” More immediate events like drought are usually “the last straw.”   That straw can break the camel’s back but only if there are underlying weaknesses or pre-existing burdens, and these are usually traceable to cultural developments.

Foraging, Food production, and Famine
One such development is agriculture, the very foundation of civilization and all modern food systems. Jared Diamond calls it “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

Diamond’s label represents a drastic revision of prehistory. Not long ago nobody doubted that the transition from foraging (hunting and gathering) to cultivation brought with it more bountiful and reliable food supplies and that nutritional well-being increased as a result. Studies showing that modern foragers are generally well nourished first led scholars to question this received wisdom. Later, paleo pathological data gleaned from examinations of prehistoric skeletal materials provided more direct evidence that agriculture was not the great blessing once imaged. Mark Cohen, comparing a variety of information collected from the bones of both foragers and early agriculturalists came to the conclusion that at best farming did nothing to improve nutritional conditions.

Signs of nutritional stress enscribed in tooth enamel indicate worse, that people who gave up foraging inadvertently traded in relatively mild bouts with starvation in exchange for episodes of stark famine. My research using famine records from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS) support this view, particularly when the experience of foragers in especially difficult environments is discounted. Cohen reminds us that before their displacement by agriculturalists, foragers did not live in the harshest habitats earth has to offer.

Following up on this point and removing foragers occupying especially difficult habitats (arctic, sub-arctic, and desert regions) from consideration, I found a significantly greater occurrence of famine among farmers and herders than among foragers.

If agriculture developed as a solution to increasing population and hunger, as Cohen believes, then it would appear that the solution did no more than exacerbate the problem.

Population and Famine
Population growth beyond society’s means of subsistence is widely regarded as an underlying cause of hunger and famine. The problem, as Thomas Malthus pointed out near two centuries ago, is that populations unchecked grow exponentially.

The ability to provide food increases linearly. Consequently, unless society institutes preventive checks on growth– say, for instance, by tolerating abortions – starvation and violent efforts to avoid it are inevitable. The temptation to neglect preventive checks is probably the greatest in agricultural societies in which children can perform simple but economically important tasks.

This presents no problem so long as extra hands increase food supply beyond the additional cost of feeding them. Overpopulation begins once this is no longer the case. For the shifting cultivator, it becomes a matter of too many people attempting to wrest a living from an area to allow soils adequate recovery time between crops. Thus, among shifting cultivators, susceptibility to famine increases with population density.

This is not so among intensive agriculturalists, farmers who have eliminated long fallows by applying manures and irrigation silts to their fields. These ecological imports liberate populations from the natural constraints of soil restoration cycles. This encourages growth and provides an opening for abroad range of technological and organization variables to affect how many people a particular agricultural region can safely support. Once human ecologies become open systems and their productivity depends heavily on non-local resources it becomes impossible to speak of any necessary connection between population growth and the likelihood of famine. An expanding population may go further and further afield in its quest for food. Population pressure has spurred the discovery of new food resources. In some cases, it has pushed standards of living upward by driving trade and industrial development. Nevertheless, the earth’s resources are infinite. For a particular locality, the consequences of unabashedly pro-natal attitudes (favoring reproduction) are not entirely as Malthus predicted; but for the world as a whole, they are almost certainly inescapable.

World Economic System and Famine
Studies of hunger and famine in the Third World frequently point to foreign economic intrusions and changes initiated in the name of “development” as important causes. Various schemes promoting international agribusiness have come under especially severe criticism in recent years. Critics argue that the business of agribusiness, contrary to public claims, is not to feed the world, but to turn a profit. This causes food to flow from where it is needed most to where it can fetch the highest price.

Third World governments, eager for export income, participate in this process by encouraging farmers to raise commodities for the world market at the expense of growing traditional food crops. The upshot in the case of Africa has been a steady decline in per capita food production concurrent with a dramatic increase in the production of such crops as coffee and tea.

Historically, the displacement of traditional systems devoted to locally important subsistence foods was well underway by the early seventeenth century. famine BosniaPlanters, then, no less than modern apologists for international agribusiness, saw their enterprises as progressive and indigenous regimes as backward. It counted for naught that they were the products of hundreds of years of biological and cultural evolution. But, from the standpoint of local food supply, it may be that backwardness has its advantages. Anthropologists often marvel at the ingenuity of traditional food economies and how generations of trial and error have paid off in practices closely attuned to local conditions. Elaborate backup systems, including complex institutions for food redistribution and knowledge of so-called “famine foods,” are seen as part of this accumulated wisdom. While no one contends that lessons from the past can lead to an absolutely fail-safe food system, it has been argued that relatively long-standing ones may be inherently less prone to disastrous breakdowns than newer orders introduced in the name of progress. [ie., “Just in time” grocery shelf  restocking? Mr. Larry]

While recent cross-cultural research does not support this sweeping contention, it does suggest that certain specific economic changes introduced from abroad have repeatedly contributed to the development of food emergencies.

The introduction of foreign trade is one such change. In the past, societies new to trade have been far more susceptible to famine than those having long histories of commerce with other nations. Another change significantly associated with the occurrence of famine worldwide is increased land use. Often this has been at the expense of foragers, pastoralists, or shifting agriculturalists. The practice of the French in colonial Vietnam was to drive peasants from villages in sparsely populated areas and declare the land “unused.” Between 1860 and 1931, large areas formerly devoted to subsistence production were seized by this and various others means and converted to export agriculture. The Vietnamese diet went into steady decline. The final blow came during World War II when under Japanese occupation the entire food system collapsed and more than two million Vietnamese starved to death.

The historical relationship between increased land use and famine susceptibility ought to be especially worrisome at present given the expansion of intensive farming and ranching in tropical forest regions.

Class Inequity, Poverty, and Famine
W.R. Aykroyd, an international authority on nutrition, asserts that all famine may be called “class famines” since it is always the poor who die.

While this may be true, it is not the case that societies with formal class systems have had a monopoly on famine. They appear in fact to be no more prone to famine than their more egalitarian counterparts.

Yet when famine does strike the class-structure society it tends to be especially severe, particularly if the class (or caste) system is relatively complex.

I suspect the reason is because complex systems restrict individuals’ income opportunities to relatively narrow occupational spheres. The makes it possible for economic disturbances to have unequal effects. When the brunt of deprivation falls on a limited segment of society its effects are amplified. This follows from the simple rule that the weight of a burden placed on the shoulders of a few is always more difficult to be than when it is carried equally by many.

Food Entitlements and Famine
Amartya Sen believes that the occurrence of famine is culturally conditioned through society’s rules of ownership and exchange.

These define legal abilities to command resources, including food. Famine in Sen’s view arises when many people simultaneously find themselves unable to survive on the commodities to which they are legally entitled. Sen thinks it is a mistake to think most famines arise from declines in overall food availability. Even granting unusual scarcity, whether starvation actually occurs is almost always a matter of who is entitled legally to whatever food is available. Consider farmers who suffer crop failure. They experience both a reduction in food supply and a loss of direct entitlement to food (i.e., what they own as the fruits of their rightful land and labor). Yet when they and their families starve, it is usually not because there is absolutely no food to be had anywhere. Rather, it is because the food they own or can acquire through trade is inadequate. This distinction, the difference between the general availability of food and the food an individual is entitled to by the rules of ownership and exchange, is of utmost importance. It helps explain why so often it is only some members of society that go hungry. It helps explain, for instance, why Sahelians starved in the early 1970s and their countrymen to the south did not. The influence of legal entitlements on the prospects for famine is seen in comparing societies having some kind of collective ownership with those in which individual ownership is the rule. My research shows that famine occurs less often in non-industrial societies where land and other properties are held collectively.

With collective ownership, one person’s failure to obtain food can only be part of a general shortage. In contrast, individualized property rights allow the effects of untoward events to fall disproportionately on some people. Thus, the potential for famine increases because the immediate event that causes some members of society to starve does not have to be as great as one that reduces food availability for everyone. The influence of entitlements on the prospects for famine can also be seen in comparing societies subscribing to different rules of exchange. On the one hand, there are societies in which members are entitled to food as a status right. Social relationships, such as kinship, encumber individual ownership and compel sharing. On the other hand, there are societies in which members must trade for food. Trade allows the legal right to deny food to others. To put it bluntly, people can be allowed to starve without violating their rights in the slightest. I have found that famine tends to be relatively more severe where trade rather than social status is the cornerstone of exchange.

I believe this is because emergencies are prone to become more serious if people who have food are under no strong obligation to feed the starving. In light of the apparent dangers associated with private ownership and trade, what accounts for the relatively famine-free histories of many modern capitalist economies? It is certainly not because they are immune to disasters nor because they have eradicated poverty. What stands between disaster and poverty on the one hand and starvation on the other are political entitlements, government programs that range from price supports through unemployment benefits and child welfare.

One suspects that by building similar fail-safe programs – at the very least programs that prevent chronic under nutrition (a powerful predictor of famine) – we actually would be doing more to foster the nutritional security of famine-prone nations than we are now doing through efforts to boost food production.

Effects of Famine
Famine has both immediate and long-term effects. Its immediate biological effects include epidemics of disease and sharp increases in mortality. Behaviorally, many conventions of ordinary life disappear. Social contacts, for example, are avoided rather than sought out. Hunger’s long-term effects include physical and psychological scars (e.g., developmental abnormalities and mental illness). In addition, hunger and famine often condition profound transformations in culture (e.g., changes in food habits, forms of government, and magical and religious practices).

Biological Effects
Starvation, meaning a condition in which the body draws on its own reserves for energy, becomes a disease once it begins to damage active tissue. This condition is referred to as “general starvation.” In children, kwashiorkor and marasmus (protein-calorie malnutritional diseases) show up early.
• Before gross weight loss is seen in older victims, there is loss of endurance.
• As general starvation becomes more advanced, victims become apathetic and a series of physical symptoms unfolds, including
 • rapid weight loss,
 • edema
(abnormal accumulations of fluids in parts of the body)
• and diarrhea.

General starvation increases susceptibility to many contagious diseases.
• Individual resistance is undermined at every line of defense.
• As protein is lost, protective surface such as skin and mucous membranes lose their integrity and fail as barriers against the invasion of pathogens.
• Infectious agents once inside the body encounter an impaired immune system.
• Population dislocations and the overcrowding of public facilities favor the spread of infections at the community level.
• Energy-sparing behavioral economies cause inattention to personal hygiene and public sanitation.
• The infections facilitated by famine accelerate the course of general starvation by increasing the body’s nutritional demands. During famines more people die of contagious diseases that of starvation itself.
• Famine’s survivors come away with both physical and mental scars. On the physical side, starvation can result in the curtailment of growth and permanent stunting.
• Work capacity and productivity suffer.

Careful investigation of the long-term consequences of the Dutch Hunger Winter(1944-1945) disclosed lasting damage among those who lived through it while still in their mothers’ wombs. Problems included central nervous system abnormalities detected in military inductees nineteen years later.

Among the Kaiadilt, a group of Australian Aborigines, psychiatric problems arising from famine, including chronic depression, were still evident some twenty years after rescue.

famine group

Social and Cultural Effects
Behavior amidst famine shows certain regularities.
1) The first response, particularly when food emergencies are unfamiliar or of unprecedented proportions, is alarm. This often means panic in the marketplace, mass emigration, and increased (and sometimes violent) political protest and anti-government activity. However, in face-to-face communities the situation is liable to be quite different. Here neighborhoods and other localities often experience a “disaster utopia,” the development of a social environment of intense mutual care and assistance. This environment disappears once starvation begins to exact its physical toll and individuals become weaker and more easily fatigued.

2) The question of available energy becomes paramount at this point. People resort to unusual foods. To conserve energy, expenditures other than those immediately related to obtaining food are pared to a minimum.

3) Social atomization results. Essentially, households close themselves off, and any signs of concern or generosity beyond the bounds of family and household disappear. Supplies are hidden. Food preparation and eating takes place in secret.

4) Lawlessness, including physical aggression, continues to increase but tends to be less concerted and sustained.

5) As victims approach exhaustion, the mayhem ceases. Indeed, activity of any sort practically disappears.

6) Eventually comes the disintegration of the household.  Its collapse is foreshadowed as food sharing within becomes increasingly  discriminatory. There is a tendency to see the elderly as a drain on provisions. Tolerance toward younger dependent erodes less quickly, but there comes a point when children too are receiving disproportionately small amounts of available food. The appearance of neglected wandering children is a certain sign that pockets of exhaustion exist within a famine region. The abandonment or sale of children might be attributed to parents’ concern for their own survival or to their hope that some other person or agency will save their off springs’ lives. In either case, an underlying cause is almost certainly the mental fatigue and exasperation that arises from hearing the children’s incessant cries for food.

Famine can leave cultural legacies that persist for many generations. It is not unusual to find customs that appear to reflect food-related anxieties. Eating patterns, for example, sometimes appear anticipatory, almost as if people were anxiously preparing themselves or “practicing” for another bout with starvation. That Cagaba of Northern Columbia, who have been trouble repeatedly by food crises, glorify fasting.

Goodenough Islanders, likewise no strangers to starvation, use magic to depress their appetites.

Anxiety manifested as a mistrust of others is especially rampant in societies familiar with famines. Famine and mistrust are strong predictors of societies’ readiness to engage in war.

Prolonged or repeated famine has the effect of allowing emergency behavior, patterns essential to survival in the midst of a crisis, to become normalized. This apparently occurs because younger members of society grow up knowing no alternatives. Colin Turnbull felt he witnessed a pivotal moment among the Ik of Uganda when memories of food sharing died with the last members of the society who could recall what life was like in the absence of famine.

For those still living, sharing food with anyone beyond the age of three had become unthinkable, even when food was now and again plentiful. William Shack’s work among the Gurage of Ethiopia provides some indication of the depth to which famine-inspired traits can become embedded in a culture. Shack found the Gurage to be astonishingly light eaters, which he interpreted as the product of “rational fears about physical survival.”

At the time of his fieldwork, however, he found nutrition ample. The Gurage nevertheless behaved as though food were scarce. Meals taken during the day amounted to no more than slight handfuls. Eating more was considered vulgar. It was a different story in private. At night in the dim light of their fireplaces, family members showed none of the restraint they displayed during the day. Shack saw this two-faced attitude as fundamentally selfish. One shared food only when observed eating. The key to minimize sharing was to minimize eating in public.
Shack explains this historically. Four centuries of pillage at the hands of various enemies ended in 1889, but by then the Gurage had learned the consequences of indulging one’s appetite in public and appearing conspicuously plump. To reduce the risk of attack and subsequent starvation, the Gurage developed the habit of never eating more than a handful in public and cultivating an emaciated appearance. These practices set the course of cultural development; what at one time was adaptive became no more than arbitrary virtue. Will this fossilized sense of virtue serve the Gurage well should hunger become a problem again in the future?

The Study of Hunger and Famine
It has been argued that famine is avoidable if government has incentive to act in time. Recent history would suggest that political democracy and a free press create the strongest incentive. According to Sen, no democratic country with a free press has ever suffered famine. If office holders must seek reelection and the media are free to report hunger and criticize policies, then leaders must take pre-emptive steps or risk losing office.

While this may be true, it ought not to be imagined that democratic institutions are the answer. Economic programs that all alleviate immediate concerns of an electorate at the expense of long-term prospects for food security may do more harm than good. Granting the desirability of institutions that foster responsive government, there remains the need for arming the public with knowledge that renders politically unacceptable any response that wins a reprieve from hunger by placing others, including future generations, at greater risk. The realization that nutritional impoverishment is largely a cultural problem places anthropology, the science of culture, under an obligation to respond to this need. To date it has lived up to that obligation. Its holistic, historically informed, and comparative outlooks have contributed substantially to broader, more sophisticated understandings of hunger and famine. The challenge for the future is not to develop some ultimate model for prevention. There are no lasting solutions. Rather, hope resides in relentlessly engaging hunger and famine as topics of investigation and, through research, continuously constructing the knowledge people will need to identify and avert threats to food security in the future.

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