In the Midst Of Plenty

Listener 14 December, 1985.

Keywords: Distributional Economics;

“At the time of the Bengal famine (in which over one and a half million people died), in 1943, I was a young boy in Bengal. I have a harrowing memory of an end]ess procession of emaciated men, women, and children -more like skeletons than human beings -trekking in search of food. And of the roads Jittered with corpses. One recalls families of labourers, fishermen and craftsmen – all of whom had lost their means of livelihood.

“Today when I look at the statistics of that period, I can see them in the tables of destitution and mortality. Also in the charts on the epidemics that followed the famine. But I don’t see them in the table of food availability with 1941 as 100 [which] had a value of 109 in 1943. While that figure stood high, people fell and perished, and that general problem is with us even today.”

The writer, Amartya Sen, has made many significant contributions to economic theory and philosophy, yet these painful observations and the conclusions he drew are perhaps the most profound. He observed that famine occurs even when there was sufficient food to go around. Such a situation occurs today. Warehouses can be stuffed with food, and nearby people can be dying from starvation. Indeed on a global scale, the rich world has uncontrollable stocks of grains and other foods, while around half a billion people suffer regularly from malnutrition.

It is easy to be outraged about this situation, but Sen’s cold, precise analysis is also useful. What he points out is that people can starve while there is food if they lack the entitlements to procure the food. In simple terms, they have not got the spending power to purchase the available food, although a little care is needed with the notion in a peasant economy where money income may not , be as important as the farmers’ production.

What often happens is that a natural disaster {such as drought) or a social disaster (such as war) destroys the entitlements of groups, who barely had enough anyway. Next time you see the agony of starvation upon your television set reflect a little on what would happen if each were to fortuitously receive a million dollars. The camera crew would not have been able to get through the throng of hilrd-nosed businessmen trying to sell food, clothing, housing and medicine.

Of course there is no way that sort of money is available. Relief budgets are much less than adequate, and no matter how famine is caused, the method of breaking it typically requires a large supply of food in the public distribution system. Relief is a form of providing direct entitlements. But it is a temporary form and is unlikely to be sufficient.

Further entitlements Can be generated by assisting the peasants to grow their own food or a cash crop. Even less directly they can be assisted by our purchasing of the products of the poor country -which injects income and spending power. That is one of the main justifications for trade liberalisation towards Third World economies.

Many people will be buying some of their Christmas presents from Trade Aid shops and commerci(J1 shops specialising in Third World products as a means of doubling the blessings of Christmas. Such “aid” is just as effective as the extraordinary generosity that New Zealanders have shown in the !ast year over Operation Ngahere. the Live Aid concert, and numerous other donations to support the poor. In private terms, we may be among the more generous of the world although, sadly, our public foreign aid programme is embarrassingly small.

Underlying Sen’s analysis is an economist’s very fundamental perception. Famine and other forms of destitution are not simply phenomena about agronomy, nutrition, medicine and so on. They are also about the way society and its entitlements are organised. Looking at the figures for how much food was produced and available and how much was consumed is not enough. As Sen writes. “There is, I believe quite a bit of exaggeration in reading the available statistics … arising from the imbalance between population and food. Along with the exaggeration goes a certain loss of focus away from the centra! role of exchange, towards counting bushels of wheat and the total number of mouths, and indulging in long divisions of the former by the latter. While the arithmetic operations of division can be done with ease and grace, the rea! economics of the division of food among the people depends on the complete structure of exchange entitlements based on institutional features. And that must be a central concern in a realistic attack on starvation and famines.”