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Famine, the Unnecessary Evil

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A refugee camp in Korem, Ethiopia, 1984.

You and I and everyone we know are always living only a few weeks of food away from famine psychosis. Here’s how it goes. Deprived of meals, your body starts to consume itself. It uses up the glucose stored in your liver and body fats. It uses up the proteins in its own muscles and cells. Rapidly, your body starts to mock you: your belly swells as if you are becoming fat, because the breakdown of muscle causes the remaining fat to bunch there.

THREE FAMINES

Starvation and Politics

By Thomas Keneally

323 pp. PublicAffairs. $27.99.

And then your personality is consumed. As Thomas Keneally puts it in “Three Famines”: “The victim becomes a new person. The fastidious become slovenly; the kindly become aggressive; the moral are caught up in the great amorality of famine. Fraternity and love wither. Judgment vanishes, and a hyperactive anxiety seizes the mind.” You are gripped by psychotic delusions. Sometimes you will eat your own children. You will become so insane you don’t even recognize food when it is put in front of you; rescued famine victims often howl for sustenance long after it is offered to them. And then you die.

It’s torture. Eradicating famine from the human condition is one of the most noble goals we can have. But to do this, we need to understand how famine happens — and in the past few decades, this has gone through a revolution, which Keneally’s important new book helps explain.

As recently as the mid-1980s, it was thought that famine was usually an “act of God” — a “biblical” failure of rains or crops or seasons. But in the 1990s ­Amartya Sen, the Nobel-­winning economist, showed this was wrong by proving one bold fact: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Famine, it turns out, is not caused by a failure to produce food. It is caused by a failure to distribute food correctly — because the ruler is not accountable to the starving.

To demonstrate this thesis, Keneally — best known for his remarkable novel “Schindler’s Ark” — closely studies three of the greatest hungers in history: the Irish potato famine that began in 1845, the Bengal famine that raged in 1943 and 1944, and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and ’80s. They are scattered across continents yet they are uncannily similar; Keneally says that “it is as if they shared part of the same DNA.”

In every instance, there was a natural trigger — but it was not nearly enough to explain the famine. For example, in Bengal, the crop harvested during the famine was only 5 percent less than the crop harvested the year before, when there had been virtually no starvation.

So what happened? Keneally shows that in each of these famines, tyrannical powers did one of three things: they forcibly took the food away and gave it to others, they vandalized the means of producing it or they simply neglected the starving because they were not accountable to them. In 1845, when the potato blight hit Ireland, the land was apparently producing enough food for the population there — but the British Empire insisted on continuing to seize and ship it to England. As one contemporary observer wrote, “Insane mothers began to eat their young children who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England.”

British imperialists justified this by reference to their two strongest theologies — a vengeful God and the free market. Charles Edward Trevelyan, the British administrator of government “relief,” believed the famine had been sent by God “to teach the Irish a lesson. . . . The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” He said any diverting of crops or livestock from trade would be an unacceptable interference with the market. Similarly, in Bengal in 1943, the British authorities blamed and mocked the victims. Winston Churchill sent a sneering cable demanding to know why, if food was so scarce, his sworn enemy Gandhi wasn’t dead yet.

In Ethiopia in the 1980s, there was a different theology — Stalinism — but similar tactics. The tyrant Mengistu Haile Mariam aggravated the famine by waging a scorched-earth war against local dissidents, and then used the starvation as a pretext to resettle and collectivize the farms at gunpoint, making it even worse. But outsiders totally misunderstood the situation. The well-meaning leaders of charitable organizations like Band Aid, for example, raised millions of dollars, which often ended up strengthening the corrupt Mengistu regime. The real cause of the catastrophe is plain in a document from Ethiopia’s council of ministers that read: “The people are like the sea and the guerrillas are like fish swimming in that sea. Without the sea there will be no fish. We have to drain the sea.”

At times, the horrors reported in “Three Famines” can be numbing, though Keneally almost always gives us a God’s-eye view of the famines, rather than zooming in to provide us with the individual stories of the victims. It’s odd that he actually witnessed the Ethiopian famine of the late ’80s, but chooses not to provide any sense of what it looked or sounded or smelled like. It’s an unpleasant irony to say of a book about famine that it leaves you hungry for more, but this one does.

Yet in its human glimpses, we see why Keneally’s message is so important. He describes an engraving that appeared in the Illustrated London News entitled “Woman Begging at Clonakilty,” drawn at the scene of the potato famine. In her right arm, she clutches her dead daughter. In her left hand, she has a begging bowl, to raise money to buy a coffin. As yet more glib headlines announce that East Africa is currently suffering a biblical failure of crops, rather than a failure of accountable government, this book — and her cries — could hardly be more urgent.

Johann Hari is a writer for The Independent of London and Slate.

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