Episode 106      28 min 13 sec
Nothing To Eat: Famine and Its Consequences

Economic Historian Prof Cormac O Grada joins host Jennifer Cook to discuss famine, its causes and repercussions, and the human condition in times of mass food scarcity.

"The areas at risk are becoming fewer and the capacity of the rest of the world to deal with them is becoming greater.  That would leave me reasonably optimistic about the prospects over the next decade or two.  I wouldn't want to go further than that." -- Professor Cormac O Grada





           



Cormac O Grada
Cormac O Grada

Cormac O Grada is a Miegunyah Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the University of Melbourne, and Professor of Economics at University College Dublin. His research has been mainly in the field of economic history, Irish and other. His recent books include Black ’47 and Beyond (Princeton, 1999); Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History (Princeton, 2006); Ireland’s Great Famine: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Dublin, 2006); and Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009).

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

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Nothing To Eat: Famine and Its Consequences

JENNIFER COOK
Thanks for joining us.  I'm Jennifer Cook.  Famine rides alongside death, war and pestilence as one of the harbingers of the apocalypse.  Conservative estimates say famine has claimed as many as 100 million lives during the 19th Century and 70 million in the 20th.  Beyond this staggering death toll is the collective psychological scarring caused to a country and a people blighted by famine.  As the Kashmiri proverb says "famine goes but the stain remains".  But what of famine in the modern world?  How prevalent is it and what can the past teach us about dealing with and indeed preventing famine?
Cormac O Grada a Professor of Economics from the University College, Dublin and the author of the book Famine a Short History believes the prospect of a famine free world hinges on good governance and peace.  Professor O Grada visited Australia in mid 2010 as a Miegunyah Distinguished Visiting Fellow to the University of Melbourne.  He joins us on Up Close to explain why he believes famines in even the poorest economies are an avoidable scandal and why it's time to make them history.
Cormac thank you so much for joining us.

CORMAC O GRADA
Alright and it's good to be here.

JENNIFER COOK
If I could begin by asking you to give us a sense of what famine is like, given that it is something that thankfully few of us will ever have had first hand experience of.

CORMAC O GRADA
Yes well it's I think hard to imagine the horrors of famine.  Lots of people have tried in the past but famine brings out both the best I suppose and the worst in people.  You get heroic actions during famine but you probably get far more anti-social activity.  Famine makes people do things that normally they wouldn't dream of doing such as abandon children, engage in voluntary enslavement, just lose all sense of hospitality or compassion or empathy towards others including people within their own families and at the extreme you get cannibalism.  It isn't something that always accompanies famine but there is a good deal of documentary evidence of cannibalism during famine.

JENNIFER COOK
And you have a quote there from the Bible that you thought you might read to us.

CORMMAC O GRADA
Well this is one of the most graphic accounts of that particular aspect and it comes from Deuteronomy and I read - it goes as follows:
"You will then eat your own offspring, the flesh of the sons and daughters that the Lord your God has given you.  The man among you who is by nature tender and sensitive will turn against his brother, his beloved wife and his remaining children.  He will withhold from all of them his children's flesh that he is eating since there is nothing else left.  Likewise the most tender and delicate of your women who would never think of putting even the sole of her foot on the ground because of her daintiness will turn against her beloved husband, her sons and daughters and will secretly eat her newborn children since she has nothing else left."
And like I say, that passage isn't unique and in the book I mention other examples.  At the same time I think it should be emphasised that there have been many recent famines where you do not observe the cannibalism that's described there.

JENNIFER COOK
It becomes a part of the mythology of famine though doesn't it?  A collective memory that infects that the people.

CORMAC O GRADA
It can do and sometimes this kind of memory lasts a long time.  Sometimes the memory of individuals actually grows faint and then what might be called a collective memory is invented.  So that people think they remember something which in fact their parents or grandparents may already have forgotten about.  I mean I'm Irish and the Great Irish Famine is probably an example of that.  When I was growing up there wasn't all that much talk about famine memory and the poems that were written about the famine, including some indeed by Seamus Heaney the Nobel Laureate were inspired less by any memory he had himself through his forebears done by a book that was published in 1962 The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham-Smith which is still in print and a very famous book.  On the other hand in the 1990's, 150 years after the famine, there was a big commemoration and it was almost as if everybody once again remembered the famine.
But there was a kind of a collective memory which was I suppose in part inspired by intellectuals and in part by the government.  It was prescriptive and it was intended to remind people that their grandparents or great grandparents had gone through something which some of the world is still going through.  So the idea then was to I guess instil a certain amount of compassion or empathy towards third world causes.  In other examples this kind of collective memory of famine can be put to very different use.  Like a case in point would be say in Ukraine where there was a very bad famine indeed in 1932-33 but a memory, a particular version of how that famine is remembered is very much a bone of contention between Russia and Ukraine today.  Politics is never very far away but in the Irish case in the 1990's for the most part the memory didn't breed resentment.  It was more about, you know, being more generous.  In the case of the Ukraine it is very much part and parcel of a foreign policy that is anti-Russian or pro-Ukrainian if you like.

JENNIFER COOK
Cormac what about the survivors of famine?  What does it mean to actually come through with your life?

CORMAC O GRADA
Well at one level the survivors must be traumatised by what they've been through. This is worse than being through a war or being through a pestilence.  It's something absolutely horrific and they have survived this.  There is another sense of course in which the survivors are materially better off because there is more land to go around.  The market for labour becomes more of a seller's market because a lot of people have died.  So there is that sense in which people are better off.  Now one other sense in which one group of people are materially affected and this is one which has been studied a lot in the very recent past.  If you have the misfortune of having been born during a famine then that compromises your health and your economic prospects in adulthood.  There is increasing evidence for this kind of echo effect.  So I described the survivors a minute ago as being better off materially.  Well there is one group for which that is not necessarily true and that is the group who are in the womb if you like or at the breast at the height of the famine.

JENNIFER COOK
And they call that the Barker Effect?

CORMAC O GRADA
Well that's right.  This is after the English medical scientist David Barker and he studied this and popularised this notion which of course has important implications for public health and looking after pregnant mothers and so on in the welfare state.  But people now have been studying this where the evidence is available in famine context.  The best evidence comes from the Netherlands of course which was again rich and highly bureaucratised and also Leningrad, St Petersburg and there is evidence being found of these kinds of unfortunate echo effects.

JENNIFER COOK
Now Cormac I'd like to ask you why your interest in famine?  What brought you to devote so much time and study?

CORMAC O GRADA
Well coming from Ireland I suppose and being an economic historian it was natural that I studied the Great Irish Famine which is the most important event in 19th Century Irish history and with very important economic and political ramifications for a long time after the 1840's.  But then I began to think about the famine comparatively.  To what extent or if at all the Irish Famine was unique.  How did it differ from other famines?  And you learn I think a lot about the Irish Famine, not just by reading about what happened in Ireland, but also by comparing it to other famines because that gives you a sense of perspective.  So I moved on then from addressing issues which were purely Irish to writing about famines in other countries and then ultimately trying to write a global history of famine since the beginning up to now.

JENNIFER COOK
What a fascinating journey for you to start from that perspective and then with this thread of economics to tie it all together.  So tell us what have you found?

CORMAC O GRADA
Well famines have symptoms in common and the symptoms are not identical always.  But in terms of the kind of anti-social behaviour I mentioned, that is a common phenomenon.  There tends to be an increase in crimes against property.  The demography of famines is common across countries and also throughout history until very recently.  And one of the things that I think surprises people, but which I address in the book and indeed other people have talked about as well, is how males tend to be less better equipped to survive famines than females and this is probably for physiological reasons.  Famine affects people of all ages.  One might have thought that the elderly would be more vulnerable than people who are healthy to begin with and that is true, but of course the elderly are more vulnerable in normal times as well.  Another aspect of famine that holds for Ireland and also holds for most other cases throughout history is that what killed people was not literal starvation but infection diseases.
And I'm thinking here of things like typhus and typhoid fever, relapsing fever and then indeed diseases like malaria which might be there anyway regardless of whether there is a famine or not.  But when people's immune systems are down they are more likely to die from diseases which they might be able to cope with in normal times.

JENNIEFER COOK
Now that's something that's changed over time hasn't it?  Because as health systems have improved we've been able to combat the infectious diseases.  Talk to us a little bit about that.

CORMAC O GRADA
That's right.  This has changed quite recently.  If we go back say to famines during and in the wake of World War I, the causes of deaths then were roughly the same as I described in Ireland.  But then there were several famines during World War II.  In St Petersburg, it was then Leningrad during the siege or the blockade.  In the Netherlands at the end of the war in the Warsaw ghetto, in Greece.  So we're talking about famine in places which are by historical standards relatively well developed and more urbanised, where people are literate.  Where people have maybe learned the lessons of the germ transmission theory of disease.  Where there is a public health regime and in those places the cause of death tended to be not so much typhus as before or these other causes I mentioned, but literal starvation.  Hunger oedema or pneumonia or heat failure.  In other words, people keeling over or dying in their sleep through literal starvation.  So that is something that is quite different.
And the case of Leningrad is very interesting because one of the reasons why the occupying Germans were reluctant to capture the city is they thought their troops would all die of infectious disease if they stayed there.  So instead they imposed a blockade and the blockade lasted famously 900 days, although the peak of the blockade was maybe a year.  It was 1941 into the summer of '42.  But during that time hundreds of thousands of people died but they did not die of infectious disease and that's because the regime there in its own very brutal but efficient way kept up a public health system.  They kept people sweeping the streets, cleaning their clothes, washing dishes, washing themselves and so on.  So that in the end they died but they did not die in the way people had of famine previously.  And more recently it seems now, although we still don't know the full facts that the millions, the tens of millions probably, of people who died in China during the Great Leap Famine also for the most part died of literal starvation rather than of the kind of diseases that killed people historically.

JENNIFER CLOSE
This is Up Close.  We're coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia and I'm Jennifer Cook.  Our guest today is Cormac O Grada and we're talking about famine.
Now Cormac it's interesting that you just mentioned the Great Leap Forward Famine of 1959-61 in China.  This was known as the greatest famine on record but it also witnessed the virtual elimination of major famines.

CORMAC O GRADA
Yes I mean there is something ironic about this and one might ask when the era of famines comes to an end in a country are the last famines very small so that there is a gradual decrease in the severity of famines so that eventually they disappear from the scene altogether.  Well one could argue I suppose that the last famine in India in the 1970's in the state of Maharashtra was a small famine because it killed 70,000 people it seems, but in a country of hundreds of millions.  This is not true in China.  So China's last famine was also its greatest and after 1961 there were various problems and civil unrest in China but there have been no further famines and that is striking.

JENNIFER CLOSE
And look famine, it sounds so simple, is caused by food shortage which you argue in your book usually takes place against a background of economic instability.  So just how far can we distinguish between famines of natural and economic causes and is it a useful distinction at all?

CORMAC O GRADA
Well it's a distinction that's often drawn and it is useful to this extent I suppose that in the 20th Century the biggest famines have been attributed more to human agency, to poor governance, to tyranny, to totalitarianism if you like.  Whereas famines back in the dark ages and in medieval Europe and so on have been attributed to economic backwardness and over population and poor harvests.  So there is a tendency to regard famines long ago as natural and famines today as unnatural.  To the extent that famines shouldn't happen today and are avoidable today, I think the distinction is valid.  At the same time I think that it would be difficult to identify an historic famine where, had people done more, had government tried harder, lives might not have been saved.  So there is always an element of both of these factors.  Even famines which you might consider very natural because there's a huge crop failure.  If the rich did more, if government tried harder, if there was more relief available, then almost certainly some lives could have been saved.
That is not to say that the famine could have been avoided.  Equally if you take again the case of China in 1959-1961 undoubtedly the main emphasis has to be placed on the regime.  But it should also be borne in mind that at that time China was one of the very poorest countries in the world.  Some would argue there are statistics to suggest the very poorest or the second poorest.  So China then was maybe if you like what Niger or Burkina Faso are today, at the very, very bottom of the league table.  It's also true that before 1949, before the Maoists took over, China had a history of almost endemic famine from the 1870's on.  So the Great Leap Famine was a disaster and a catastrophe and a scandal but it didn't happen in a country which had been famine free before.

JENNIFER COOK
Now Cormac let's talk a bit about the role the rich or the ruling class, or in modern times, the government play in famine.

CORMAC O GRADA
Well I think the poor always thought that there were people who had some responsibility to help them out in return for their loyalty.  There are examples throughout history of people rejecting leaders or turning against leaders.  This is true of leaders in Venice, in Ancient Rome, in Ireland, and unfairly perhaps to some extent, Queen Victoria was singled out for her lack of concern about the Irish during the famine.  In fact…

JENNIFER COOK
Wasn’t she called the Famine Queen, is that right?

CORMAC O GRADA
She was yes.  She was known as the Famine Queen and I think personally she wasn't as lacking in empathy or sympathy as she was painted.  I think one could build a stronger case about some of her ministers, some members of the government at the time who probably didn't care very much.

JENNIFER COOK
So they were motivated out of self interest.  But there is an altruism there isn't there?

CORMAC O GRADA
Well there is an element of both.  I mean there is the self interest that monarchs want continuing loyalty.  There is also the worry that the diseases which kill the poor might attack and affect them as well and one of the problems with typhus for example, is that it can kill the rich as well as the poor.  Now the rich sometimes can escape, they can move away from where famines are threatening and retreat to their country palazzos or dachas or whatever.  But historically those most at risk during famines have included medical personnel and priests, clergymen.  These are not people who died because they were hungry but simply because they were in touch with the poor.  So there was that element of self interest both in order to prevent civil unrest and also to minimise the danger to their own health.  As well as that of course, most kinds of philosophies are ideologies.  Christianity, Judaism, there is an element of humanitarianism in them which is about one's duty to the poor and that would also have informed, to some extent, how the rich treated the poor in times of famine.

JENNIFER COOK
On Up Close this episode we're speaking about famine with our guest Cormac O Grada.  I'm Jennifer Cook.

Now Cormac, what about famine in the political mix.  We spoke about it briefly earlier.  In your book you say there's evidence that while famine is less likely to take place in a stable democracy if it does occur there that democracy is less likely to survive.

CORMAC O GRADA
That's right.  I mean this is an allusion to a generalisation proposed by the Indian economist Amartya Sen.  You might see it as one of Amartya Sen's laws.  It is the statement that famine and democracy don't mix, that democracies are less likely to have famines because the voters then will hold the government of the day accountable and won't re-elect them.  You know one might then think oh solving problem is easy.  All one has to do is to convert governments everywhere into democracies.  The trouble is of course that that is easier said than done.  Because it is very difficult to make democracies last to persist in very poor countries where people are uninformed and subject to bribes and corruption and so on.  So while it's true, it's certainly true and it's difficult to think of very many exceptions to Amartya Sen's generalisation.  The trouble is which is the chicken and which is the egg?  You might say famines are impossible in democracies but you might also argue that democracies are very difficult to sustain in countries which are also famine prone.  That's the difficulty.

JENNIFER COOK
So let's look now to the future.  Based on your years of research, how do we prevent future famines or how do we stop them once they've started?

CORMAC O GRADA
Well I don't want to sound complacent and it's never easy.  But there is a sense in which it can be done now because the globe is so productive.  The capacity of the globe to produce and therefore to relieve has increased by leaps and bounds over the last century and particularly since World War II.  The margin over subsistence globally is much greater now than it was even in 1970 or 1980.  And it's also true that communications are much more effective, they're faster, and they're cheaper than they were some decades ago.  So if there is a famine, one finds out about it very, very quickly and in fact one can read about symptoms.  There are warning signals which are well established and well recognised.  Once those warning signals are evident, one can move in and do something.  So we're in an era now basically when relief is globalised and the parts of the globe which are vulnerable to famine still, they're becoming a smaller and smaller proportion of the total.  We're talking about parts of Sahelian sub-Saharan in Africa.
It's difficult to think really of any part of Asia, other than maybe parts of Afghanistan which are at serious risk of famine.  North Korea is a special case and I think the problem there is less famine than kind of ordinary, everyday malnutrition which is becoming more and more endemic and more serious.  So the areas at risk are becoming fewer and the capacity of the rest of the world to deal with them is becoming greater.  That would leave me reasonably optimistic about the prospects over the next decade or two.  I wouldn't want to go further than that.  There is a sense in which this kind of forecasting is a mug's game because people in the past have made forecasts with great confidence and they have turned out to be exactly wrong.  So maybe while I am sounding broadly hopeful, in the 1960's and 1970's several people forecast that the world would be blighted by famine in the '70s and '80s and what has happened on the contrary is that famine has been virtually eliminated in peace time contexts.

JENNIFER COOK
Now Cormac there's been some exaggeration in modern times about the effects of famine and how wide spread it's been.  Can you talk to us about the impact that's had.

CORMAC O GRADA
Yes well if one considers the last two crises that have been interpreted or described as famines they would be Malawi in 2002 and Niger in 2005.  Now if they were famines then by historical standards they were absolutely miniscule.  And there is an issue as to whether, in particular in the case of Niger ordinary everyday malnutrition was called famine by some people on the ground.  I mean I think there is evidence that that is the case.  Now part of the reason why that might happen is that NGOs find it easier to gain sympathy and to raise funds on the back of a crisis, on the back of a famine than they do on ordinary malnutrition.  So a place like Niger has very, very high infant immortality.  It has very low life expectancy but it's difficult to get people to put their hands in their pockets to do anything about that.  On the other hand if you say there is a famine in Niger then that causes a different reaction.
There is an extent in which NGOs need famines in order to sustain their everyday bureaucratic activities as development agencies.  So a lot of NGOs which begin as disaster relief agencies actually morph into agencies which try to relieve hunger and poverty rather than famine.  That is a difficulty.  It's simply something that NGOs are faced with.  I sympathise with it but some of them then run the risk of crying wolf and saying famine when there isn't a famine.

JENNIFER COOK
You're saying that the end justify the means?

CORMAC O GRADA
Well that's perhaps a harsh way of putting it and one can see why they might do it.  But I think there is a risk because I think they need to convince people that problems such as HIV Aids and very, very high levels of infant mortality are worth helping regardless of whether there is a famine or not.

JENNIFER COOK
Cormac O Grada thank you so much for joining us on Up Close today.

CORMAC O GRADA
Thank you.

JENNIEFER COOK
Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is brought to you by marketing and communications of the University of Melbourne Australia.  Our producers for this episode were Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer and Up Close is created by Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  I'm Jennifer Cook, until next time, good bye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  Fore more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.   Copyright 2010, the University of Melbourne.


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