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The world almost conquered famine. Until the 1980s, this scourge killed ten million people every decade, but by early 2000s mass starvation had all but disappeared. Today, famines are resurgent, driven by war, blockade, hostility to humanitarian principles and a volatile global economy. In Mass Starvation, world-renowned expert on humanitarian crisis and response Alex de W The world almost conquered famine. Until the 1980s, this scourge killed ten million people every decade, but by early 2000s mass starvation had all but disappeared. Today, famines are resurgent, driven by war, blockade, hostility to humanitarian principles and a volatile global economy. In Mass Starvation, world-renowned expert on humanitarian crisis and response Alex de Waal provides an authoritative history of modern famines: their causes, dimensions and why they ended. He analyses starvation as a crime, and breaks new ground in examining forced starvation as an instrument of genocide and war. Refuting the enduring but erroneous view that attributes famine to overpopulation and natural disaster, he shows how political decision or political failing is an essential element in every famine, while the spread of democracy and human rights, and the ending of wars, were major factors in the near-ending of this devastating phenomenon. Hard-hitting and deeply informed, Mass Starvation explains why man-made famine and the political decisions that could end it for good must once again become a top priority for the international community.


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The world almost conquered famine. Until the 1980s, this scourge killed ten million people every decade, but by early 2000s mass starvation had all but disappeared. Today, famines are resurgent, driven by war, blockade, hostility to humanitarian principles and a volatile global economy. In Mass Starvation, world-renowned expert on humanitarian crisis and response Alex de W The world almost conquered famine. Until the 1980s, this scourge killed ten million people every decade, but by early 2000s mass starvation had all but disappeared. Today, famines are resurgent, driven by war, blockade, hostility to humanitarian principles and a volatile global economy. In Mass Starvation, world-renowned expert on humanitarian crisis and response Alex de Waal provides an authoritative history of modern famines: their causes, dimensions and why they ended. He analyses starvation as a crime, and breaks new ground in examining forced starvation as an instrument of genocide and war. Refuting the enduring but erroneous view that attributes famine to overpopulation and natural disaster, he shows how political decision or political failing is an essential element in every famine, while the spread of democracy and human rights, and the ending of wars, were major factors in the near-ending of this devastating phenomenon. Hard-hitting and deeply informed, Mass Starvation explains why man-made famine and the political decisions that could end it for good must once again become a top priority for the international community.

30 review for Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine

  1. 5 out of 5

    D. St. Germain

    In the early 2000s, famine as we know it had been largely eradicated, thanks to changing demography, improved public health, efficient humanitarian monitoring and relief efforts, and a relatively stable global political stage. However, the US led War on Terror sharply curtailed these gains, particularly through the PATRIOT Act. This Act criminalized any relief efforts by individuals or agencies to provide humanitarian aid (“material or symbolic”) that could fall into the hands of any organization In the early 2000s, famine as we know it had been largely eradicated, thanks to changing demography, improved public health, efficient humanitarian monitoring and relief efforts, and a relatively stable global political stage. However, the US led War on Terror sharply curtailed these gains, particularly through the PATRIOT Act. This Act criminalized any relief efforts by individuals or agencies to provide humanitarian aid (“material or symbolic”) that could fall into the hands of any organization deemed ‘terrorist’, including aid that could be stolen by said ‘terrorist’ groups. “The agencies affected by the prohibition included not only American organizations but any organization that received US funds, or expected to do so, or did any kind of business with the United States – a group that included the UN agencies and just about every sizeable international aid agency.” de Waal goes on the document the famines (defined as episodes of “heightened mortality associated with hunger”) that have occurred since then in Darfur, Northern Uganda, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and Northern Nigeria. Darfur and Northern Uganda were political famines, caused by military uprisings. Somalia’s crisis was caused by vulnerabilities caused by global interdependence: the international price of food doubled the cost of imports, while US money laundering rules curtailed the remittances coming in from overseas Somalis sending money home to their family at the same time drought conditions resulted in not enough domestic production. Over six months of negotiation with lawyers from the US government about how aid could be provided without running afoul of the PATRIOT Act, “scores of thousands” of Somalis died. The Yemen famine of 2015 was unique in that it affected most of the country, rather than just particular war-torn areas of it. Saudi Arabia believed a political insurrection in Yemen was backed by Iran, and so began a bombing campaign that destroyed the functioning of markets and distribution networks for food; de Waal maintains their campaign was particularly targeted “economic warfare”. According to UN estimates, 82% of the population needed food assistance due to this conflict. And on it goes. de Waal shows that the major famine-related crises in recent times have been tied to the ongoing Wars on Terror and financial shocks caused by a global system. The fact that countries in the MENA region are the ones largely affected has also led to the rise of what he terms “counter-humanitarianism” : a widespread rejection of humanitarian norms, an “array of political and ideological practices that deny the value system of humanitarianism….(that) legitimizes political and military conduct that is indifferent to human life or subordinates human life to other ends.” This is a cause for concern; as he suggests, the rise in war-related conflicts since 2006 coupled with a decline in regard for humanitarianism almost guarantees mass starvation will begin again to be more frequent. Climate change and extreme weather events, coupled with further economic globalization, pose additional risks to local food markets and can spur resource conflicts and mass-distress migration. Unfortunately, he notes, the single-issue global institutions (trade, health, refugees, etc) are not well-equipped to deal with compound/complex-issue threats such as these. de Waal arguess that political decisions in the face of complex issues is what ultimately influences whether famine occurs or not. This is a comprehensive look at the history of famines and their potential near-term future. Anyone hoping to understand the forces behind mass starvation and the responses needed to curtail them in the future would be well served to read this book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    Famine, states the author of this book, is a shape-shifter. This then, is the horrific history of famine and the use of starvation as a weapon. Although the risk of dying in a famine is smaller than at any time in history, modern forces which lead to famine include climate change, the sheer capacity of the planet and also transactional politics. It is a fact that it once looked as though famines were almost eliminated. We have a history of famine from the 1800’s (‘conquest’ famines, caused by Eur Famine, states the author of this book, is a shape-shifter. This then, is the horrific history of famine and the use of starvation as a weapon. Although the risk of dying in a famine is smaller than at any time in history, modern forces which lead to famine include climate change, the sheer capacity of the planet and also transactional politics. It is a fact that it once looked as though famines were almost eliminated. We have a history of famine from the 1800’s (‘conquest’ famines, caused by European colonialism), through mass starvation unleashed by WWI, then post colonial totalitarianism and famine in sub-Saharan Africa, post 1980’s. This is a tragic unfolding of events, mostly linked to politics, war and genocide and, sadly, there is no end in sight to the horrific use of starvation as a political weapon. The author finishes with the future of famines in a volatile world, covering Yemen, Syria and so many other parts of the world. The use of mass starvation is a tragedy, but this is an important – if uncomfortable – read.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lou

    Polity Press tends to have fantastic writers who explore fascinating and timely topics and I am pleased to say that "Mass Starvation" by Alex de Waal is another success. I look forward to continuing my love affair with Polity in the future! This is an uncomfortable subject matter that we all need to learn more about. As de Waal alludes to - famines are man-made and can be placed in the same category as genocide. They are not simply about a lack of food sources but a variety of political and polic Polity Press tends to have fantastic writers who explore fascinating and timely topics and I am pleased to say that "Mass Starvation" by Alex de Waal is another success. I look forward to continuing my love affair with Polity in the future! This is an uncomfortable subject matter that we all need to learn more about. As de Waal alludes to - famines are man-made and can be placed in the same category as genocide. They are not simply about a lack of food sources but a variety of political and policy issues that result in food not reaching those who most need it - this can be deliberate or accidental but either way, it is never as simple as it appears. The book references the cases of the war in Yemen and that in Syria. We all see the pictures on television of Yemeni people suffering so badly from malnutrition that some of them end up dying but I don't think many people really understand the complexity of the issue. Most people just assume it's solely about food resources. De Waal goes some way to addressing the REAL causes of famine and it makes for a rather distressing and depressing read but one I learned from and enjoyed nevertheless. Those who use mass starvation as a weapon of war should be prosecuted, maybe then they will think twice about it. That said, the issue of famine has improved in recent years and they have become less frequent and less severe which gives us all a beacon of hope for the future. Many thanks to Polity Press for an ARC. I was not required to post a review and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

  4. 4 out of 5

    David M

    If you aren't able to get a copy of this book, please at least read this recent short essay by the author, which concludes Since 1995, more than a hundred memorials to the Irish famine have been erected, from St Stephen’s Green in Dublin to sites in Sydney and Toronto. There are modest memorials in Liverpool and Cardiff – but nothing in London. The closest Britain has come to an apology was in 1997, when Tony Blair acknowledged the ‘deep scars’ of the famine. But the famines in India and Ireland If you aren't able to get a copy of this book, please at least read this recent short essay by the author, which concludes Since 1995, more than a hundred memorials to the Irish famine have been erected, from St Stephen’s Green in Dublin to sites in Sydney and Toronto. There are modest memorials in Liverpool and Cardiff – but nothing in London. The closest Britain has come to an apology was in 1997, when Tony Blair acknowledged the ‘deep scars’ of the famine. But the famines in India and Ireland are not yet part of our national story. A public monument, in Whitehall, opposite the Treasury, or in St James’s Park, near the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, would be a first step – one we could take actively, rather than prevaricating until apologies are demanded by formerly colonised peoples. The memorial should leave space available to inscribe the names of famines in which British government complicity might come to play a part. ‘Yemen’ will be the first to be added. I almost like the essay more than the book, which is not meant as knock on the book. Just that it's a near perfect essay. * I found this book extremely valuable for its detailed refutation of Malthus. It just isn’t true that mass starvation follows from overpopulation by biological necessity. Malthus himself came to more or less disavow his most famous thesis before he died. Nonetheless, despite the evidence, the idea has lived on throughout the centuries. As an ideological weapon for victim-blaming it’s just too useful to die. Tellingly, in 1805 the East India Company appointed him professor of political philosophy at their college. De Waal does an excellent job rebutting this sort of racism and misanthropy and showing how famine is first and foremost a political act. In the twenty first century especially, starvation is always transitive; one group of people with power starves another group without power. In the author’s telling, starting in the late twentieth century there was a dramatic reduction of famines around the world; he considers this a fragile but real and impressive political achievement. He attributes it to the rise in democracies and humanitarian ideals around the world. Here one might quibble a bit. First, there’s a question of case selection. He gives Ethiopia as his main example in this story. Since the early nineties, the country that was long virtually synonymous with starvation has not seen a single case of famine. We should be happy for Ethiopia, but does it indicate a global trend? At around the same time that Ethiopia saw the virtual eradication of famine, the Congo experienced a conflict that by some estimates was the most murderous anywhere in the world since world war 2. As many as 4-5 million may have died as a result (most of these were not direct violent deaths, but due to deterioration of living conditions, and so would meet de Waal’s definition of famine). On the face of it, this seems like a pretty serious counter-instance or anomaly in the story de Waal is trying to tell. It’s disappointing then that he doesn’t engage with it at any length. He also sometimes has a curious way of reading events. While acknowledging that data is murky and some of the death figures wildly inflated, he nonetheless thinks that the US-imposed sanctions against Iraq in the nineties counts as an instance of famine. At the time Madeline Albright callously remarked that the cost in Iraqi lives was worth it. Weirdly, de Waal thinks the fact that Albright faced some mild backlash for the comment is evidence that the arc of history is bending towards humanism. Well, I dunno. It’s not like she was ostracized from polite society. I believe she still makes a killing giving vapid speeches about fascism or something. To his credit, de Waal is not an uncritical booster of the humanitarian industry. In the early nineties, he resigned from Human Rights Watch to protest the group’s support for military intervention in Somalia. Samantha Power gets a well deserved drubbing. De Waal believes it’s possible to disarticulate the achievements of humanitarianism from the often disastrous consequences of “humanitarian” military intervention. Regardless of how optimistic or pessimistic you are about the future of humanity, this is a book worth grappling with.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Steffi

    Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (2018) by Alex De Waal who is THE authority on all things horn of africa, including the region's frequent famines and other humanitarian disasters. My move to Ethiopia in 2015 more or less coincided by the recent resurgence of mass starvation and actual famines 2016/2017 in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and extreme food insecurity in much of the Horn of Africa including parts of Ethiopia where in 2016 more than 10 million people depended on food aid Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (2018) by Alex De Waal who is THE authority on all things horn of africa, including the region's frequent famines and other humanitarian disasters. My move to Ethiopia in 2015 more or less coincided by the recent resurgence of mass starvation and actual famines 2016/2017 in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and extreme food insecurity in much of the Horn of Africa including parts of Ethiopia where in 2016 more than 10 million people depended on food aid. I never *really* thought too much about famines but for the past three years the drought became the organixing principle of our work in Ethiopia and led me to the primary question: does drought/ climate change lead to starvation? What is political, structural etc (in line with Amartya Sen's entitlement theory of famines). The book is fairly clear: population growth, climate change and extreme weather events do not cause famines. Famines, like other mass atrocities, are political projects that consider (some) human lives expendable and worthless. However, from the perspevtive of a humanitarian response this doesnt matter, as you must work with the same regime that may be responsible for the crisis on delivering food and water to the people who would otherwise die. Yet, this technocratic approach inevitably contributes to depoliticizing these crises. The significant decline of actual famines and mass starvation over the past 40 or so years shows that mass starvation and famines are no longer acceptable. For instance, humanitarian aid increased from USD 128 million in 1970 to USD 13 billion in 2013 and USD 27 billion in 2017 with now fairly sophisticated early warning tools and response mechanisms in place. Still, the case of Yemen shows that the international community continues to consider some people's lives worthless if it serves political interests. This is why De Waal's and others' stressing of the political nature of mass starvation and calls for treating famines like other mass atrocities (legally speaking, crimes against humanity) is important to end these man made disasters.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    Close to four stars. In this book, De Waal makes the argument that famines have almost been eradicated from our times, but worryingly that recent developments in armed conflict seem to bring back some of it. Modern famine, he argues, is mostly a consequence of political decision. I particularly found his first chapters very interesting and almost could not stop reading in them. He carefully lays out his arguments, discussed famine as a mass atrocity (very interesting and relevant!) and takes a l Close to four stars. In this book, De Waal makes the argument that famines have almost been eradicated from our times, but worryingly that recent developments in armed conflict seem to bring back some of it. Modern famine, he argues, is mostly a consequence of political decision. I particularly found his first chapters very interesting and almost could not stop reading in them. He carefully lays out his arguments, discussed famine as a mass atrocity (very interesting and relevant!) and takes a lot of time to carefully refute what he terms 'Malthus zombie', the notion that overpopulation will lead to famine. But after that it became slightly disappointing to me, mostly because the subject matter is so interesting but De Waal takes too little time to discuss this in-depth (maybe I should start reading his articles as well). His overview of modern famines was very brief and, the chapter I was most looking forward too, on current instances of famine (most notably Yemen and Syria) was really too short, considering these present a core part of his argument. It would have worked better for me if his case studies had been in-depth and elaborate analyses, rather than brief overviews. But, his content is highly relevant and very interesting, so look forward to reading more from him!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Isabel Schmieta

    This book was read for my Global Topics: International Human Rights course at NYU. I greatly enjoyed reading this book, though I don't think enjoyed is the right term for the topic of the text itself... This was one of the text we read for my International Human Rights course, and it was a truly eye-opening read. The point of the book is the reveal the truth and change the narrative around the topic of famines and mass starvation throughout history. As he points out towards the beginning, as was This book was read for my Global Topics: International Human Rights course at NYU. I greatly enjoyed reading this book, though I don't think enjoyed is the right term for the topic of the text itself... This was one of the text we read for my International Human Rights course, and it was a truly eye-opening read. The point of the book is the reveal the truth and change the narrative around the topic of famines and mass starvation throughout history. As he points out towards the beginning, as was a large part of our class discussion, we typically associate famine with natural causes, such as a drought causing a lack of crops. This, as excellently outlined in Mass Starvation, is inherently false. Mass starvation and famine is a political issue, brought about by oppressive regimes to inflict power and control over certain populations. Mass starvation and famine is a form of genocide. De Waal does an excellent job outlining these points in a rhetoric that is understandable. He gives various examples throughout the book, as to also provide significant amounts of evidence that famine is more relevant and prominent than we think. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is remotely interested in this topic.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cat

    Thank you Alex de Waal. I remember way back in the 1960's being told we could feed the world- and that seems to be true on a certain level. We need better land management for farming. But overall, politics creates far more famine that agriculture. Wars are horrible on societies. I'm not convinced global warming is going to induce mass starvation. So I'm pinning it on other humans being horrible and starving other humans. Bullies are everywhere. Great book and a must read. I received a Kindle ARC Thank you Alex de Waal. I remember way back in the 1960's being told we could feed the world- and that seems to be true on a certain level. We need better land management for farming. But overall, politics creates far more famine that agriculture. Wars are horrible on societies. I'm not convinced global warming is going to induce mass starvation. So I'm pinning it on other humans being horrible and starving other humans. Bullies are everywhere. Great book and a must read. I received a Kindle ARC from Netgalley in exchange for a fair review.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dan Sumption

    Almost all of us living in developed countries have no experience and very little understanding of famine and starvation. We think of it as something that happens mainly in Africa, whereas in the last 100 years the biggest mass starvations have been in China and Europe. And we think of it as a force of nature, a natural consequence of failing food supplies; this misconception, which de Waal calls "Malthus's zombie", is the one which this book sets out to tackle. Famine, in almost all instances, Almost all of us living in developed countries have no experience and very little understanding of famine and starvation. We think of it as something that happens mainly in Africa, whereas in the last 100 years the biggest mass starvations have been in China and Europe. And we think of it as a force of nature, a natural consequence of failing food supplies; this misconception, which de Waal calls "Malthus's zombie", is the one which this book sets out to tackle. Famine, in almost all instances, has political causes, and can be avoided if there is political will to do so. De Waal demonstrates this by looking at the causes of all famines in the last 150 years, and by studying the incredible near-eradication of famine in the last 30 years. He takes a close look at Ethiopia, where specific measures to eradicate famine mean that recent food crises have not led to any additional deaths (despite this being a country where the food supply is fragile and the population has increased fourfold in the last 50 years). If Ethiopia can put an end to mass starvation, he argues, the rest of the world can too. In fact, he argues that allowing mass starvation ought to be considered a deliberate crime against humanity, on a par with genocide. The book sounds one note of caution: in 2017, for the first time in some 30 years, mass starvation is again on the rise, and Yemen and Syria are experiencing the first mass starvations in the Middle East in over 100 years. These new famines are all political in origin, and avoidable. They appear to herald a rise in counter-humanitarianism: the belief that some lives have no value. We have made great progress against mass starvation in the last century, but there are signs that that progress is now going into reverse.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lauretta Farrell

    A thorough exploration of a critical topic. Hunger is not due to an absence of food, but to a variety of political and policy issues that result, sometimes deliberately sometimes not, in diverting food resources from vulnerable and marginalized people. A must read for anyone who cares about ending global hunger.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Julian Cribb

    Powerful, hard to read (because of the subject matter, not the writing) and important, this book traces the modern evolution of one of the greatest of human villainies - the use of famine and starvation to control and even exterminate people. In de Waal’s hypothesis starvation is almost always a political act, inflicted by brutal and repressive regimes on those they see as their enemies or opponents. I am nor sure I agree 100% with this, as, in the modern world, nature and climate change underpi Powerful, hard to read (because of the subject matter, not the writing) and important, this book traces the modern evolution of one of the greatest of human villainies - the use of famine and starvation to control and even exterminate people. In de Waal’s hypothesis starvation is almost always a political act, inflicted by brutal and repressive regimes on those they see as their enemies or opponents. I am nor sure I agree 100% with this, as, in the modern world, nature and climate change underpin quite a number of famine events, but these are very often made worse by repressive governments, tribal and national politics. But even then one might argue that climate driven famines are nothing more than deliberate massacres caused by oil and coal companies, sometimes exacerbated by evil governments. It is a dangerously unscknowledged fact that, in our overpopulated world where we exist beyond the limits of the Earth’s ability to support us, famine and its coronary, mass migration will become increasingly commonplace. So I recommend this book to those who wish to understand their world, including its darker aspects.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Griffiths

    The nature of war in our time is changing, and not for the better. Whereas many commentaries on the changing nature of war focus on how hi-tech things are becoming, which granted is the case in some instances, this book focusses on a far more insidious and low tech development in the nature of conflict. I feel within this book Alex de Waal makes a convincing argument as to how mass starvation is increasingly being used a tool in conflicts throughout the world, highlighting the tragedy of this gi The nature of war in our time is changing, and not for the better. Whereas many commentaries on the changing nature of war focus on how hi-tech things are becoming, which granted is the case in some instances, this book focusses on a far more insidious and low tech development in the nature of conflict. I feel within this book Alex de Waal makes a convincing argument as to how mass starvation is increasingly being used a tool in conflicts throughout the world, highlighting the tragedy of this given that large scale and deadly Famines were a phenomenon which had largely disappeared from the face of the earth. This is a fascinating if depressing work of political science and bears thinking about given the number of ongoing conflicts that we face in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia as some prime examples.

  13. 4 out of 5

    SpaceBear

    De Waal's book starts from the premise that the world has seen an incredible and overwhelming decline in the prevalence and intensity of famines. As he points out, famine has almost been completely beaten in the world today. The book discusses how and why things have changed, ranging form the actions of intervening actors to prevent famine, as well as the rise of democratic methods of governance, and better ability to predict and respond to famines around the world. He pays special attention to De Waal's book starts from the premise that the world has seen an incredible and overwhelming decline in the prevalence and intensity of famines. As he points out, famine has almost been completely beaten in the world today. The book discusses how and why things have changed, ranging form the actions of intervening actors to prevent famine, as well as the rise of democratic methods of governance, and better ability to predict and respond to famines around the world. He pays special attention to Ethiopia, the country plagued by famines until relatively recently, which seems to have conquered the crisis for good.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ted Tyler

    Post WW2, great famines (incidents of 100,000 hunger-related deaths) are disappearing. Those that are left are caused by political leaders and their respective policy decisions. Climate change, economic shocks, and poverty certainly exacerbate the magnitude and severity of famines, but interstate war, civil war, and domestic regimes do far more to cause famine. De Waal argues for the criminalization of forced starvation as an international war crime. His arguments, methodology, and evidence are Post WW2, great famines (incidents of 100,000 hunger-related deaths) are disappearing. Those that are left are caused by political leaders and their respective policy decisions. Climate change, economic shocks, and poverty certainly exacerbate the magnitude and severity of famines, but interstate war, civil war, and domestic regimes do far more to cause famine. De Waal argues for the criminalization of forced starvation as an international war crime. His arguments, methodology, and evidence are compelling.

  15. 4 out of 5

    I Read, Therefore I Blog

    Alex de Waal is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and a Research Professor at Tufts University and in this compelling read that’s by turns fascinating and horrifying, he seeks to counter the Malthus theory that famine is an inevitable consequence of overpopulation by arguing that famines result from political decisions and war and that famines have been decreasing in magnitude over recent years and could be eradicated altogether.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jonas Stephan Johnson

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mauricio Santoro

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mandy

  19. 4 out of 5

    George Shaw

  20. 4 out of 5

    Chris Newton

  21. 4 out of 5

    Orogeny Phylogeny

  22. 4 out of 5

    Eruntano

  23. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Dalby

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lucas Perello

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sam

  26. 5 out of 5

    Weston

  27. 5 out of 5

    Haley

  28. 4 out of 5

    Alberta Ross

  29. 5 out of 5

    Roel Debruyne

  30. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

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