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A silent form of genocide

Mass Starvation. The History and Future of Famine
Forfatter: Alex De Waal
Forlag: Polity Press (UK)
Can hunger be abolished? Today's hunger catastrophes have political causes, says Professor Alex De Waal. He believes famine must be criminalized and that political leaders must be tried before a court. 


If we analyze the global waves of famine over the past 150 years, we see that nearly 100 millions of people have perished. About 95 percent of these died in the period before 1980. This means that the world has become a much better place to be in the last four decades. But it seems we are about to step back – politically enforced hunger is on the rise.

The man who tells this is nobody. For more than 30 years, Professor Alex De Waal has written about hunger as a phenomenon. He has studied it, seen it up close in fields such as aid worker, activist and academic. In his new book, he argues that we are still living in the Malthusian delusion that famine comes as a result of overpopulation – nature strikes back with weeds and crop failure. But it hasn't been that long, according to De Waal. In collaboration with the foundation he is managing director of, the World Peace Foundation (WPF), he has cataloged all significant hunger situations over the past 150 years, and then classified them by scope: total, much comprehensive or store disasters. The cataloging and classification is in itself interesting reading and good enough reason to get the book.

Three catastrophic waves. The famines that have hit the world can be divided into three "waves": the first in the age of imperialism, from 1870 to 1914, the second in the period De Waal calls "the extended world war" – 1915-50 – and the last in postcolonial totalitarianism from 1950 to 1985. The period from 1870 until World War I is often referred to as "The Late Victorian Holocaust" – a term introduced by author and historian Mike Davis. Like other colonial powers, Britain ran a tight political and social line in India, China and in parts of South America and Africa. When the British Empire began its expansion in Asia in the late 1700th century, India had a viable textile industry. Two hundred years of transmitters were crushed – destroyed by British tariffs in textile production. Raw cotton was ship to England and gave the British textile industry a monopoly. Millions of Indians lost their jobs and starved to death.

«There Hungerplan». The second wave came at the beginning of the 20th century and was mass extinctions by totalitarian regimes. The Nazis executed six million Jews. In addition, they had their own "Hunger Plan" ("The Hunger Plan"). The plan was to starve to dead 30 million people in Eastern Europe – that is, in Poland, Ukraine and the Soviet Union. Hitler wanted to get rid of what he referred to as "useless food swallows": Germany wanted Living Space. In addition, they needed the food soil to feed their own. According to De Waal, the Germans did not succeed in their comprehensive hunger plan: it became too complicated and "only" 6 million of the planned 30 neighborhoods included.

The last and most destructive category of famine disasters before 1980, consists of those that took place internally in communist countries, such as the Soviet Union and China. The worst of these lasted from 1958 to 1962. The famine was a result of Mao Zedong's mischief and the plan he called "the big leap." There was a leap into the abyss. 25 million starved to death.

Much of this is known from before, at least for those interested in such. But, of course, that does not mean that new descriptions of human madness cannot provide refreshing perspectives. I would also like to think that the details of the Germans' hunger plan are relatively unknown to many. De Waal also writes well, and he has great credibility through his own field experience.

De Waal's analysis shows that 70 percent of all hunger disasters in the last 150 years can be attributed to political choices and human responsibility. 18 per cent of the deaths were due to the authorities failing to curb food shortages due to climatic conditions (drought, floods et cetera). These deaths could have been avoided with relief. An example of this is from the early 80s: Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry overlooked advice and clear signs of drought and refused to seek international assistance. 200 lost their lives.

Only 12 per cent of deaths in the 150-year period were due to external factors that the governing authorities did not have the prerequisites to handle. Most of these died in the distant past, writes De Waal, who during various famine disasters in India and China in the 1870s.

We can do something about this. De Waal wants something sea than just retelling the story. He wants us to gain a deeper understanding of what is actually happening. And here we return to the British priest and researcher Thomas Malthus, whom De Waal believes is still of great importance. De Waal argues that all experience indicates that we can produce enough food for a growing world. He gives us a thorough review of what happened during the "green revolution" – which led to a significant increase in agricultural yields, due to new seeds and increased use of fertilizers, insecticides and irrigation. He does not deny that this agricultural revolution has led to challenges, but on the whole it has ensured that most people have enough food in their stomachs.

De Waal uses Ethiopia as an example of a country that has managed to work its way out of the shadow of hunger. Who could have thought that? The country has political leaders who have put hunger issues at the top of the agenda, despite the many other problems they also have to solve.

Hunger crime is as serious as genocide.

Climate change – not so dangerous? De Waal also looks at various climate change scenarios, and believes that there is no research-based basis for saying that climate change will lead to direct conflict or more war – ergo hunger. Climate change will be one of several variables that play a role when an area experiences increased social tensions. There are generally fewer hunger disasters now, and the relief organizations are very competent. The more we open to doomsday scenarios about the future of climate hell, the more "land-grabbing" in Africa will spread, according to De Waal. Then the Malthusian mindset enters: them or us. De Waal says that Hitler was a fan of Malthus, and he is skeptical of the zero-sum thinking behind it. It is legitimate to be concerned about what climate change can do with food production, he writes, but believes we know enough about how we can increase productivity. Therefore, we should avoid starting neo-colonialist measures such as land acquisition.

Based on this foundation, De Waal – when he began writing the book at the end of 2015 – believed that we could eradicate the hunger problem over the coming years. But things have changed along the way. Hunger as a phenomenon came back in 2017.

Syria, Somalia, northern Nigeria and Yemen are all experiencing real hunger situations – situations we may have thought we were done with. De Waal analyzes the current situation in all four countries, and concludes that hunger is unnecessary: ​​Some must be held accountable. When it comes to Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its allies are responsible, they say. They must be brought before a court. Hunger crime is as serious as genocide. The er a form of genocide. Should we, in 2018, allow some leaders to look at people only as a starvation product that can be starved to death so that these leaders can reach their goals? No, says De Waal. We must all agitate for a new judicial system, where such leaders can be held accountable for what they have done. Therefore, it is everyone's duty to keep abreast of what is happening in these countries.

Andrew P. Kroglund
Andrew P. Kroglund
Kroglund is a critic and writer. Also Secretary General of BKA (Grandparents' Climate Action).

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