During my agricultural history class, we talked about the reason why agriculture is often seen as a “special” economic sector worthy of disproportionate governmental support (just ask the EU), and agreed that it was because it’s a matter of survival that your agricultural sector works properly – any society is literally dependent on the fact that enough food is produced for everybody to not starve, and even more so, any ruler is dependent on the fact that his people don’t go hungry enough to stage an uprising; as has happened repeatedly during history. Yet, the blanket statement “Nobody wants to rule a hungry people” irked me, since there have been several instances in history where famines were purposefully initiated to subdue a particular part of a society, or at least where nothing was done to ease the suffering though it would have been politically feasible. And with that, I present to you… The top five politically-induced famines over the ages.
5. Zimbabwe, 2002. I have to admit that I only just learned about this one, but in the early 21st century, Zimbabwe faced a famine after draconian laws were imposed by then- and current president Robert Mugabe. In 2002, the summer saw a drought, which combined with a land reform policy that de facto evicted most of the country’s commercial farmers and prohibited them to plant a winter wheat crop. In the resulting food shortage, the ruling party refused food to anybody they suspected of supporting opposition party. Aid organizations found themselves caught in the middle between wanting to help a starving population – estimates of up to 6.7 million Zimbabweans facing starvation were circulating – and playing in the hands of a political farce. As a Danish minister said, “We would like to strongly react against the fact that the Zimbabwe government is using our aid and our food to put political and economic pressure on its own people. They use our aid as a tool in the domestic fight against the opposition to survive, and that is not acceptable.“
4. Bengal Famine, India, 1942 – 1943. This incident was reportedly what caused Amartya Sen to study economics and the cause of famines (greatly explored in his essay Poverty and Famine – An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation), who had witnessed it first hand. His later studies concluded that it was an unnecessary loss of 3 million people’s lives, since there was enough food in the region – but the poor could not afford it after price spikes triggered by “British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region“. Food production during these years in the Bengal region was even higher than in previous years, making it clear that hunger and starvation is not only about food availability, but about access to food – still an important distinction when we talk about the right to food and world hunger in general. What caused me also to include this as a politically influenced famine is that the British colonial rulers destroyed boats (purportedly to prepare for the case of a Japanese invasion, but the boats were desperately needed to transport food) and continued to export grains in order to feed their troops during World War II, in stark negligence of the impacts on the local people – which showed to be a reoccurrence of starvation in India under the British mandate which had also happened in the 1870s and 1890s, as well as an uncanny repetition of our next case. Plus, a recent book places a lot of blame on Winston Churchill himself, accusing him of callousness and holding him directly responsible for letting Indians starve. Add to that blatant racism – apparently, the War Cabinet was of the opinion that “Bengalis would sooner starve than eat wheat“.
3. Great Famine, Ireland, 1845 – 1852. This famine is well-known due to its biological main cause – the Irish’s reliance on one staple crop, potatoes, which was subsequently ravaged by the disease called potato blight -, but did you know that Great Britain continued to export grain from Ireland at the same time as population levels were falling (by 20 – 25%) with emigration and increased mortality among the Irish people? Just as devastating as the potato blight was the Irish’s economic dependence on the (cheap) staple crop and the unwillingness of the British central government to stop exporting the estimated 30 to 50 boatloads of grains a day to the English isles. Partially also resulting from the Penal Law, which prohibited Irish from owning or leasing land, making them totally reliant on (oftentimes absentee) British landlords that collected their dues relentlessly, the Great Famine became a turning point in Irish history and a rallying point for the independence movement.
2. The Arduous March (konanŭi haenggun), North Korea, 1994 – 1998. A variety of factors came together to create this economic crisis that North Korea took decades to recover from, though prospects are looking a bit better now as we recently discussed. Causes range from the collapse of the Soviet Union, together with its economic and in-kind support and trading of important agricultural inputs, to a series of floods (which also destroyed emergency grain stocks that were stored underground) and droughts, but most impactful probably was the mismanagement of the economy under the central planning mechanisms. Death toll estimates vary from 240,000 to 2.5 million out of a population of 22 million. Whatever food there was would also be distributed unequally: North Korea has a long-standing military-first policy, and the Public Distribution System (which 62% of the population was entirely reliant on) also differentiated how much grain each person was allowed according to political standing and degree of loyalty to the state. Here again, the international humanitarian response was a challenge, since the North Korean government, while immensely reliant on food aid during these years, would not allow foreign supervision of the aid’s distribution, leading many countries to doubt whether their donations reached the intended recipients without major diversions. Interesting tidbit – under George W. Bush, “aid was drastically reduced year after year from 320,000 tons in 2001 to 28,000 tons in 2005.The Bush Administration took criticism for using “food as a weapon” during talks over the North’s nuclear weapons program, but insisted the USAID criteria were the same for all countries and the situation in North Korea had “improved significantly since its collapse in the mid-1990s.”
1. Holodomor [Ukrainian: голодомор, literally: extermination by starvation], Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, 1932/33. This is probably the best-known case of a man-induced famine that was created in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and killed up to 7.5 million Ukrainians. It’s actually been recognized as a genocide in 2006 by the Ukraine as well as a number of other countries. The background? We know for sure that the harvest of 1932 was only 4.3 million tons as opposed to 7.2 millions obtained in the previous year, which made the food supply inadequate to say the least.
There is still a lot of historical debate about the extent that it was deliberate, but the famine was most closely related to the radical economic change that was pushed under Stalin, including the collectivization of agriculture and the disproportionate support of industrialization at the expense of the rural population and livelihoods. Under the unpopular collectivization reforms, peasants were expected to produce new, unfamiliar crops to them (e.g. sugar beets instead of wheat), and logistical and administrative channels were woefully inadequate, leaving much of the crops unharvested or lost during transportation, processing and storage. Add to that the fact that the famine had been predicted as early as 1930, but that no preventive action was taken, and that several of Stalin’s policies actively contributed to the starvation. That included, according to Wikipedia, “(i) exporting 1.8 million tonnes of grain during the mass starvation (enough to feed more than five million people for one year), (ii) preventing migration from famine afflicted areas (which may have cost an estimated 150,000 lives) and (iii) making no effort to secure grain assistance from abroad (which caused an estimated 1.5 million excess deaths), as well as the attitude of the Stalinist regime in 1932–33 (that many of those starving to death were “counterrevolutionaries”, “idlers” or “thieves” who fully deserved their fate)“. According to many historians, Stalin used this catastrophe to crush the nationalist spirit of Ukrainians and to subdue them enough to become a willing part of the greater Soviet Union. Grisly detail: 2,500 people were convicted (and many more suspected) of cannibalism during the period.
So what to conclude? Sometimes, food can be used as a great leverage – to get people to join your party, to dissuade them from rising up against you, or in extreme cases even to rid your country of them entirely. Other times, governments just didn’t seem to care enough for the welfare of their populations to care, especially in colonial contexts. So the adage of not wanting to rule over hungry people may not be true in all cases, though hunger has also been a major cause of social upheaval throughout the ages – but we can discuss that another time.
Want to know even more? This report gives a good analysis of the definition and main causes of famine.
Did you know about these moments in history?