Would I die if there were a famine here?

The shadow of an impending famine hangs over TA Mwambo. According to employees at AGORA and ADMARC, maize prices are reaching record heights on the back of a failed crop last year, and at present it is extremely dry. We’ve been teased by raindrops a couple of times, but they’ve never materialized into actual rain. Conversations about crops always take a detour through grumbling about a lack of action to do something about the impending situation.

Some of the obvious – and misleading – signs of famine in the popular are already here. In some villages half of the children have kwashiorkor; in others they all do. When I saw it, I looked up the causes to see if there’s anything I can do. It’s caused by protein deficiency, so simple multivitamins won’t do the trick. What’s more, although these kids are malnourished, none are wasting away. There’s food to be had, and it’s wrong to even say there isn’t protein. Every village we pass through has tons of livestock running around, and a large proportion of the men in Mwambo work as fishermen. I concede the possibility that the protein-deprived kids all belong to destitute families with no protein source, but a less savory explanation seems more likely: I suspect that many parents are making a choice – maybe a totally reasonable choice – not to give their kids enough protein to prevent kwashiorkor. That might be a way to pay for enough maize to feed the whole family, or it might be a way

What if famine really comes? First, to fix terms, I’m using “famine” in the colloquial sense (which is also the one used by Amartya Sen in his pathbreaking “Poverty and Famines”). It means mass death through starvation. Not a shortage of food, not a really bad shortage of food, not high food prices, not long queues for food. All of those are bad, but none are necessarily equivalent to famine. In the Malawian popular thought, there were famines in 2002 and 2005. From what I’ve heard, these were in fact food shortages – fairly terrifying ones – but I’ve found no evidence of widespread death in those years. In a paper I’m still working on, I have found evidence that the number of surviving children from those years is lower, but haven’t sorted out how much of that is infant mortality versus miscarriage versus delayed fertility. I don’t want to make like of what were no doubt horrible experiences, but as best I can tell there is a big gap between what happened here and for example last year’s famine in Somalia.

The central contribution of Sen’s book is to demonstrate that famines almost never involve a decline in the availability of food. In most cases, famine-struck regions actually export food to other areas. Instead, famines involve people being unable to afford the food they need to survive. Crop failures deprive them of the endowment of food/money they would normally use to survive, while also causing price shifts that make affording food impossible. This isn’t equivalent to the common idea that we have enough food but not the means to transport it to the needy. Mwambo sells tons of rice and maize and other crops which get bought by other Malawians. In a famine, that pattern would continue, using the high-quality tarmac road between Jali and Zomba town.

Many people have trouble believing that claim (that famines have nothing to do with food shortages), and it’s tough to get folks to read Sen’s book just to have their preconceived notions disproven. It’s a great book, which I do recommend highly (it’s pretty readabfle too), but I’ve often thought about how to convince people of its claims in a straightforward way. So here’s a thought experiment: if famine struck TA Mwambo while I was still here, do you think I would starve? Of course not. I would just buy food. Duh.

So if famine does arrive in Mwambo, god forbid, people will starve even while their neighbors sell food to people who live elsewhere in Malawi. If anything that is more horrific than the idea of there being no food around at all. But it also means there’s a simple solution: give people money. Not food, and certainly not surplus food from the US, which we’ve done in the past, but cash.

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