January 2, 2008

Amartya Sen’s ‘Poverty and Famines’

Filed under: Economics — duncan @ 9:24 pm

I’ve just finished (the main text of) Amartya Sen’s ‘Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation’. Sen (famously) argues that, contrary to conventional belief, most famines aren’t created by food shortages. Harvest failures, reductions in food imports, droughts, etc, are often contributing factors – but far more important are the social systems that determine how a society’s food is distributed. Absolute scarcity – insufficient food to feed everyone – is extraordinarily rare. Vastly more common is for an adequate supply of food to be beyond the reach of those who need it most. Sen advocates shifting our attention from questions of food availability to questions of distribution, or to the social systems that guide this distribution. “If one person in eight starves regularly in the world, this is… the result of his inability to establish entitlement to enough food; the question of the physical availability of the food is not directly involved.” (p. 8).

Sen is on the side of the angels – we need more economists like him. I mean no disrespect when I approach his text with my usual ignorant belligerence. But I worry about the limits to Sen’s “entitlement approach”. Here he is at the very start of the book:

”An entitlement relation applied to ownership connects one set of ownerships to another through certain rules of legitimacy. It is a recursive relation and the process of connecting can be repeated. Consider a private ownership market economy. I own this loaf of bread. Why is this ownership accepted? Because I got it by exchange through paying some money I owned. Why is my ownership of that money accepted? Because I got it by selling a bamboo umbrella owned by me. Why is my ownership of the bamboo umbrella accepted? Because I made it with my own labour using some bamboo from my land. Why is my ownership of the land accepted? Because I inherited it from my father. Why is his ownership of that land accepted? And so on. Each link in this chain of entitlement relations ‘legitimizes’ one set of ownership by reference to another, or to some basic entitlement in the form of enjoying the fruits of one’s own labour.” (pgs 1-2)

The problem with this approach is that it focuses exclusively on legal or social entitlement – and thereby neglects many of the most powerful factors that determine how commodities are actually distributed. Sooner or later this set of entitlement relations is going to come to an end – and we are going to be faced with something like a brute extra-legal possession. “Why is his ownership of that land accepted?” “Perhaps because he appropriated it by use of force, and uses force to maintain possession of it.” Such extra-legal elements may play a role in every link of the chain Sen describes.

Sen is frank about the limits of his approach – but I worry he underestimates their importance. “[W]hile entitlement relations concentrate on rights within the given legal structure in that society, some transfers involved violation of these rights, such as looting or brigandage. When such extra-entitlement transfers are important, the entitlement approach to famines will be defective. On the other hand, most recent famines seem to have taken place in societies with ‘law and order’, without anything ‘illegal’ about the processes leading to starvation. (p. 49)

Those scare quotes indicate Sen’s scepticism about the phrases he deploys. But his approach necessarily ignores the extent which ‘law and order’ can be an active method of resource appropriation. ‘Law and order’ is here implicitly seen as nothing more than the framework within which distribution takes place. This is dubious in any context – but especially given the case studies that form the bulk of Sen’s book.

‘Poverty and Famine’s longest chapter concerns the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 – which, Sen tells us in his Nobel autobiography, was one of the formative experiences of his life. (“I had been struck by its thoroughly class-dependent character… it was not a famine that afflicted even the lower middle classes – only people much farther down the economic ladder”.) The famine was largely the product, Sen argues, of Bengal’s war economy. Far from being the product of general impoverishment, “the 1943 famine can… be described as a ‘boom famine’ related to powerful inflationary pressures initiated by public expenditure expansion.” (p. 75) “Those involved in military and civilian defence works, in the army, in industries and commerce stimulated by war activities, and almost the entire normal population of Calcutta covered by distribution arrangements at subsidized prices… could exercise strong demand pressures on food, while others excluded from this expansion or protection simply had to take the consequences of the rise in food prices.” (p. 77).

The problem for Sen’s theoretical approach, I think, is that the Second World War, and the British appropriation of Bengal’s resources to fight that war, so massively exceed any ‘entitlement’ framework that this approach loses its purchase when considering them. This isn’t to criticise Sen’s perspective – which is a powerful corrective to the official line on the famine’s causes. (“The Famine Commission’s view that the primary cause of the famine was ‘a serious shortage in the total supply of rice available for consumption in Bengal’ provides the standard explanation of the famine.” (pgs 57-8.) Sen definitively refutes this idea.) Nonetheless, I think Sen’s approach can provide only one aspect of a more comprehensive analysis of the causes of famine and deprivation.

I sometimes get the feeling, when I read Sen, that he’s working within a framework unable to accommodate his own insights. This is, perhaps, one definition of a great economist. But I worry that Sen is restricting the scope of his analysis because he is writing for a community of professional economists. It can be painful to watch Sen deploy all his brilliance and erudition in refuting positions that not even a child would take seriously. Sen knows all too well that the legal framework he uses as the basis of his analysis can be a tool of oppression. The book ends on this ringing note: “The law stands between food availability and food entitlement. Starvation deaths can reflect legality with a vengeance.” (p. 166) But Sen’s entitlement approach gives him no way to incorporate this attitude into his formal analyses. Sen’s book’s moral power comes from his belief that our legal economic framework neglects the most important form of entitlement – emphasising, as it does, property rights over human life. But this conviction, which is the book’s heart and soul, plays little part in its economics – in which “entitlement” refers to the legal mechanisms that are the very source of the mass starvation Sen’s humanity revolts against. I wish that, having established his approach, Sen had moved beyond it to examine the forces that create the social framework he is operating within.



  1. I find it hard to believe that all famines are the result of people being deprived of the entitling mechanisms
    to procure food (at least, that is how I understood your summation of Sen’s argument). I would imagine there are
    still agrarian cultures in every corner of the world who depend upon the rains and animal populations for sustenance.
    I was wondering if Sen touches on those cultures at all?

    Comment by robertjerome — January 5, 2008 @ 2:00 am

  2. I see what Sen is saying about hunger and famine being the result
    of problems with distribution and not supply and production. I heard somewhere that 3,000 calories
    of food is either produced in (or imported to) America for daily consumption. Corporations have to market
    and sell all this food or else it will go to waste. If 1/4 of this food could be donated to starving populations
    (with an effective distribution strategy that insured successful delivery) think what a logn way this would in
    alleviating world hunger.

    Comment by robertjerome — January 5, 2008 @ 2:27 am

  3. Hey Robert,

    I’m on the run and the computer just ate my response. 😦 I’ll re-type it tomorrow.

    Comment by praxisblog — January 5, 2008 @ 6:04 pm

  4. Right, sorry for the delay. All I was going to say is that I don’t think Sen believes that famines are /entirely/ the result of entitlement-mechanism failure, or whatever he’d call it. Sen just thinks that this is a vastly more important influence than his predecessors have acknowledged. Certainly lots of famines are in some sense the result of a diminishment in the food supply. Sen’s point is that this diminishment itself does not provide a complete or sufficient explanation for any famine. Food could, after all, be imported, or redistributed from those who have plenty to those who have none. What determines whether or not this reallocation of resources takes place? That’s the question Sen’s entitlement approach aims to answer.

    One of Sen’s case studies focuses on the drought in the Sahel region of Africa in the late sixties and early seventies. This drought massively reduced food production in the region – but it didn’t reduce it to such an extent that famine was inevitable. What created the famine was the fact that those people who had relied on crops or livestock for their sustenance found themselves, once the crops and livestock were gone, completely without purchasing power. It’s this lack of purchasing power – lack of entitlement to food within the system of property exchange – that created mass starvation. The same thing could happen if some other resource upon which many people depended for their income were destroyed. Or – as in the case of Bengal – if widespread inflation reduced the purchasing power of the poorest members of a community.

    Here’s Sen in the book’s first chapter: “The reason why there are no famines in the rich developed countries is not because people are generally rich on the average. Rich they certainly are when they have jobs and earn a proper wage; but for large numbers of people this condition fails to hold for long periods of time, and the exchange entitlements of their endowments in the absence of social security arrangements could provide very meagre commodity bundles indeed. With the proportion of unemployment as high as it is, say, in Britain or America today, but for the social security arrangements there would be widespread starvation and possibly a famine. What prevents this is not the high average income or wealth of the British or the general opulence of the Americans, but the guaranteed minimum values of exchange entitlements owing to the social security system.” It’s the lack of such entitlements – the lack of a social security system – that created famine in the Sahel – not the drought itself. I’d imagine Sen would make the same argument for most famines.

    Comment by praxisblog — January 7, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

  5. There obviously is a safety net for the poor in America and we are very fortunate as a result of this.
    The social security trust fund is a dubious thing to rely on for people of my generation, however, as the
    expected rise in people recieving social security (once baby boomers start retiring in droves during the next
    20 years) is bound to drain the system of all its resources. Kind of scary if you’re in your 30s and you
    don’t have any savings. Baby Boomers can often be described as self-centered people who are/were generally well off
    and hopefully a lot of young people today will end up okay in their golden years when their parents leave them a
    sizable inheritance after they die. I hate to think of the doomsday predictions that could result from our nation
    running out of social security funds, including (but not limited to) mass starvation and famine. That sounds like
    the plot of a Hollywood sci-fi movie if you ask me.

    Comment by robertjerome — January 11, 2008 @ 1:02 am

  6. Yeah – aging populations are causing problems for the welfare state all over the developed world. But I’m not really up to speed on american social security. The phrase refers to the federal retirment fund (or the retirement fund with disability and survivors’ insurance) right? But it can also sometimes refer to the entire welfare system, including Medicaid and Medicare (yes?). As regards the latter… you’ve definitely got problems. But as regards the former – the liberal american commentators I read seem to think this crisis is basically a myth. See, for instance, this Paul Krugman article, or Brad DeLong, or Mark Thoma. Their take on it seems to be – yes, there’ll be a shortfall in the social security fund, probably around 2050. But the shortfall will be a very small fraction of the federal budget. According to Krugman, if Bush’s tax cuts were reversed, that would take care of social security payments into the next century and perhaps beyond. Talk of a social security crisis (these guys argue) is largely the product of right wing propaganda – pushing the need for ‘reform’, which means, of course, privatisation. Thankfully, the Republicans failed to get that one through.

    Comment by praxisblog — January 12, 2008 @ 9:56 pm

  7. Very nice criticism short & sweet.
    so cute

    Comment by arun — February 28, 2008 @ 7:20 am

  8. Fears of Food Scarcity

    Via le Monde, the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) fears that overfishing and pollution are threatening the worldwide stock of fish in the decades to come. It is a serious problem considering that 2.6 billion people depend on fish as their major source …

    Trackback by The Global Sociology Blog — February 29, 2008 @ 7:19 am

  9. Sen offers an important perspective. As a Muslim I am interested in comparing the concept of entitlements against the idea of maqaasid or purposes behind the Islamic law. These maqaasid offer what could be termed as similar to entitlements to citizens but go beyond the rudimentary of food and clothing but to such issues as honour (i.e. no defamation) and intellect (i.e. nothing that subverts the mind such as racist rhetoric etc). Sen is swimming in tide of relativism and as such at the global level you have a form of anarchy where brute strength carries the day. Without an ideology to carry his message it is inevitably lost amongst the din of large powers arguing and warring.

    Comment by Arfan Ismail — October 21, 2012 @ 5:33 am

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