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Hunger and Public Action (Jean Drèze, Amartya Sen)

maggio 18, 2011

Part I (pag 3-61)

Hunger is not a new problem: deprivation of food has been one of the most important causes of the crudeness and brevity of human life. In the modern world, the big increase of productivity has made it possible to guarantee adequate food for all, so for this reason today chronic hunger and famines are morally scandalous and unacceptable.

First of all we have to distinguish between chronic hunger(constant nutritional deprivation) and famine(acute starvation and sharp increase of mortality).These phenomena are connected and dependent from each other but are not the same thing, in fact there are countries where can famines don’t occur while chronic hunger is widespread (e.g. India) and viceversa (e.g. China).

Starvation problem is caused by the fact that the aggregate food quantity is not equally divided among the population, but each family has to establish command over their food. According to the authors ,”starvation is the result of entitlement failure”, that is entitlement set of a person does not include an adequate amount of food in its commodity bundle . Entitlement is the set of alternative bundles of commodities over which a person can establish command and control. In private market economy, person entitlement set is determined by his initial  ownership bundle(=endowment) and the different combination of alternative bundles that a person can achieve through trade and production(=exchange entitlement) .So entitlement failure can be caused by an endowment loss (e.g. loss of labour due to ill health) or by a deterioration of exchange conditions (e.g. decrease of wages, rise in food prices, decrease in the price of goods sold). Then  the world common rights of ownership and exchange, when they are not supplemented by other rights (e.g. social security, unemployment insurance, public health provision), may worsen the living conditions of famine victims  guarantying that the have-nots do not grab food from the haves.

Food availability approach  considers famines as the result of a sudden decline of food availability at macro level (where country food availability = agricultural production – food exports + food imports + food aids), so what counts is per capita food availability that depends on food production and population size.                                                                                                                      This first approach and food entitlements approach have something in common because food ability and food entitlements are linked very closely:

–          for some people(e.g. peasants), the output of food grown by themselves is their fundamental entitlement to food(=direct entitlement).

–          the price of food has a big influence on people capacity to “command food” and this price is influenced by production and availability of food.

–          Food production is often a very important source of employment.

–          During a famine, possessing a sufficient stock of food available in public distribution system is a main instrument to face starvation.

But these links can not establish a tight connection between availability and entitlement because often while the food command of different groups of population increases or decreases in the same time the food availability in the economy remains the same. In fact the command of food of different groups of population depends on different legal and economic factors(e.g. ownership, production, exchange). This fact has been empirically demonstrated by some famines where the beginning of starvation has not coincided with lack of food availability (e.g. Bangladesh famine 1974, Bengal 1943, Wollo 1973, Ireland 1845 and so on..). We can say that the overall availability of food is not sufficient to explain the causes of famines , so we have to shift our approach from food availability to entitlements. In details, the big difference between these two approaches is the disaggregative nature of the entitlement model and the aggregative nature of the other one. Entitlement approach is applied to particular individuals and families, but when many individuals and households are in a similar situation (e.g. same occupation group) it is useful to study the entitlement relations of these groups. However, in analyzing famines and hunger it is very important to take the more possible disaggregative view  because there are many alimentation differences and inequalities  within the same class.

Food Crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa:  Neomalthusian theories keep on sustaining the worrying possibility of a decline in the amount of food available per person, but the evidence proves that there has not been any decline trend in food availability in the recent decades and the more recent studies do not confirm the pessimistic prophecies of neomalthusian models. Statistic results of eighties show that food output per head went up by 3 per cent for all developed economies and 11 per cent for all developing economies over that last decade. The problem is that different developing countries have done very different results over last few decades: food output per head increased by 17 per cent for Asia, 2 per cent for South America, while came down by 8 per cent for Africa. Actually, Africa has had many production problems and also has had the fastest growth rate of population among major regions of the world, but there are also other reasons involved (e.g performance of industries and non-food agriculture..). Furthermore, it’s  very important to underline that food production is also a major source of income for a large part of African population: this fact can explain why many other countries (e.g. Venezuela, Costa Rica…) have experienced the same food production per head decline of African countries but without experiencing famines or undernourishment.

Hunger in the world: The World Bank and Fao studies calculate that the number of people suffering from nutritional deprivation, in terms of not having an adeguate calories intake, are  about 925 millions. This calculation is based on two methods: the one relates hunger to low incomes of particular groups of population, the other relates hunger to “calorie requirement norms”. This second methodology is the traditional nutritional analysis and compares a person’s food intake with specific levels of requirements for particular nutrients(=calories). If calories fall under the requirements , the person is considered undernourished. This method has been very criticized in recent years: first, there are important interindividual variations in the conversion of nutrients into nutritional achievements which is to say that metabolic rates vary from one person to one other; second, there can be intraindividuals variations over time and a person can balance the intake of food by eating lower intakes in some periods and higher ones in others; third, the possibility of adjustment to a long and lasting decline in nutritional intake (the cases of “small but healthy” and  “adaptation of nutritional needs to variation in nutritional intakes”), even though the empirical results are still not clear. Despite these critics, the probability of being undernourished can be related to calorie intake levels rather than to calorie requirements. In conclusion, calorie information must be supported by other data regarding incomes, employment, assets in order to distinguish between “involuntary shortfall of calories and variations in intake patterns maintaining the same nutritional balance”.                                                                                                             The use of capability approach, where deprivation is seen in terms of failure of certain basic functionings rather than lack of income or calorie intake, can be very useful to different grounds. Firstly, given interpersonal and intrapersonal variations, the difference between calorie intake(or income) and capability of being well nourished and live an healthy life can be very considerable. Secondly, the distinction between bundle of commodities held and capabilities can be important when we consider disadvantaged peoples( e.g. the old has more difficult to earn money and to converting money into functionings). Thirdly, this approach consider inputs other than food as determinant of functionings (e.g. non-food inputs such as clear water, health care and basic education).

Natural or man-made famines?: The distinction between natural famines, started by a natural event, and man-made famines, started by social changes, can be very misleading. In fact, according to the authors, famine is a social phenomenon the manifestation of which is influenced by natural events, such as flood or drought. Besides, every times that the prime mover in a famine is a natural event, its impact on the population will depend on how society is organized.  Moreover, the happening of droughts and floods is not independent of social or economic policies: for instance many desert have been created by imprudent human actions. So there is an influence of natural events on famines but it is not the fundamental in terms of anti-famine policy because we know that ,in the modern world, all famines are preventable by human action.

Cooperative conflict: The coexistence of cooperation and conflict is a constant feature in social relations. In general famines are a divisive phenomena: typical victims come from bottom classes of society(e.g. poor peasants, pastoralist nomads..) and from rural areas(politically less important). Often there is a big conflictuality between different classes in ensuring a larger share of supply of food in the short-run, like in Bengal famine where the increase of purchasing power of urban population raised food price making it impossible for poor people to command sufficient food.   Cooperative conflict (=coexistence of congruence and conflict of interest, determining reasons for cooperation as well as for debates) is also very common in the social living. The result of these conflicts depends on several factors: the most important is the breakdown position, “the party who has to fear breakdown will have less probabilities to reach a favorable outcome over alternative possibilities”. For example the relation between workers and industrialists: both of them are interested to cooperate in the process of production, but the share of benefits may cause a fight between the industrialists and the workers. Considering the breakdown position of more vulnerable groups it could be very important to choose the best public intervention .

Another example of cooperative conflict is the fact that is all the members of a household are interested in cooperation but there is also an intrafamily conflictuality, the husband tries to secure himself a higher share of benefits than his wife. This issue leads to the gender-based inequality problem. Economic models can not include the intrafamily food sharing because they assume that the distribution of commodities is fair which means it is made on the basis of need fulfillment. Women deprivation is very widespread in many parts of the world (South Asia, West Asia, North Africa, China), obviously it is not easy to observe how food is allocated within a family. One way is that of examining direct evidence of various nutritional and related functionings, such as clinical signs of undernourishment, morbidity rates… Besides these are vey important issues( what kind of life a person can lead) compared to commodity intakes, which can be easily deceptive by interpersonal and intrapersonal variations. To show this gender inequalities we can use the female-male ratio: while in more developed economies( Europe, North America) is about  1.05 ,mainly reflecting some women survival advantages in absence of anti-female bias, in China, South Asia, West Asia and North Africa it is about  0.93. From this data we can calculate a number of missing women around 100 million, where Pakistan has the highest rate of missing women. The different mortality rates are not only connected with unequal division of food  but even with other inequalities, such as access to health care. Fortunately we know that sex discrimination in health and nutrition(and so on..) is not immutable and important changes have occurred over times in some countries.                                                                                                                                                                       Empirical results have pointed out that the increase of rate mortality is lower for women than for men during famines ; nevertheless they bring out  the fact that in many societies  households’ priorities are often pro-male in distress situations. The empirical evidence is still not so clear.

The presence of anti-female discrimination has clear connections with the problem of cooperative conflicts: the women in the division of joint benefits is affected by the more precarious position in the event of breakdown. This greater vulnerability is partially due to biological differences, connected with reproduction and physical strength, in fact is often socially generated (social and cultural influences). This precariousness influences the relative shares that women can claim in the division of family resources. Since the importance within the household is attached to whom is contributing and how much to the wealth of the family ,women vulnerability is very connected with less opportunities for finding  outside job  and getting paid employment. There are a lot of evidence that more outside work and paid employment  and less anti-female inequalities in intrafamily divisions are strictly related: policy consequent implications are very important.

Social security and public action. There are two different aspect of social security: protection, who is concerned with avoiding starvation, and promotion, concerned with enhancing normal living conditions. They are strongly connected.                                                                                                               Public action includes “not only what is done for the public by the state but also what is done by the public for itself”, in fact  public action will be determined by what the public is ready to do and what sacrifices is ready to make…


Conclusions: We can say that today we have more disparity in food distribution than in the past: one part of the world desperately  searches for more food, the other counts calories and looks for new diets. Food entitlements and capability approach are more effective than food availability pattern because they allow to overcome food availability problems and consider starvation in a more real and disaggregated way. In fact, hunger and famines do not depend only on  lack of food , but also on great inequalities within the society( famines has been occurred even in a context of food availability and economic growth). Regarding hunger, recent studies have demonstrated that humankind wastes about 1.3 billion tons of food per year(both in developed and in developing countries) that is a sufficient amount to eliminate completely world hunger, so increasing world food production ,as FA approach suggests,  could not be a useful policy in order to fight chronic undernourishment. Nevertheless, information about food availability is necessary because it has relevant effects on food prices and on the income of some groups.                                                                             Furthermore, dealing with famines and its inequalities , is important to consider the great role of cooperative conflicts, in particular women’s breakdown position.                                                                                                               All we have said have significant  implications in how policy makers can prevent and avert famines ,since several types of interventions have been recommended by the authors ,such as employement creation for regenerate the purchasing power of population groups particularly hit by the famine. It has been also supported the main role of accounting in a democratic system through political opponents, mass media and NGOs in order to have more effective control over famines(evidence in time-series: democratic India vs autocratic China; cross-country evidence in different African countries :Zimbabwe/Botswana vs Ethiopia/Sudan).


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