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close this bookCERES No. 058 (FAO Ceres, 1977, 50 p.)
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The statistical chickens

the question of command over available food has to be clearly distinguished from that of availability as such

by Amartya Sen

In terms of the extent of misery and agony caused, there are very few problems that compare with the widespread starvation in the world today. Even on a conservative estimate, about 500 million people in the world suffer from significant malnutrition on a regular basis. On top of that, famines afflict large numbers of people in different parts of the world with distressing regularity, slaying many and debilitating others.

The persistence of hunger is frequently taken to be the result of high population growth. This is not a new view, and while Robert Malthus is credited with identifying the dangers of unchecked population growth, much the same worry was expressed more than two millennia earlier by Aristotle in his Politics: "If no restriction is imposed on the rate of reproduction (and this is the case in most of our existing states), poverty is the inevitable result." In fact, Malthus reiterated this piece of traditional wisdom precisely when the basis of it was getting a rough treatment from the enormous technological possibilities opened up by the industrial revolution. There is little doubt, however, that despite continuing technological progress, there remains much sense in this homely Aristotelian wisdom, and the rapid growth of population must be counted among the factors contributing to the problem of starvation in many countries of the world.

The system of entitlements

Having said that, however, one must ask whether population growing faster than food is the best way of viewing the current problem of world starvation. I don't believe it is. In fact, even for the poor developing economies, the overall rate of growth of food production has been higher than that of population. And this is true also of the major developing regions in the world, with the possible exception of Africa. While some particular countries have experienced faster population growth than the rate of expansion of food production, the problem of persistence-and indeed accentuation-of starvation has not been confined to those countries. There is a great deal more to the story than the arithmetic of food divided by population.

We should begin with a fundamental question: how does a person acquire food to eat? In an economy where people consume what they themselves produce, there isn't much to this question. But in an economy with exchange, we have to consider what a person has to offer for exchange and what commodities - including food-he can get through this exchange. What is central to all this is the system of "entitlements" that an exchange economy offers to the members of the society, exchanging one commodity for another, and labour power for commodities. The exchange system depends on a complex set of institutions, rules, traditions, technology, ownership patterns, etc., and it is this totality that is involved in precipitating or avoiding starvation for particular groups in the community. The system of exchange entitlements is reflected partly by relative prices of goods and services, but also by other characteristics of exchange, such as monopolistic restrictions or prospects of unemployment. On the positive side, it includes various social security provisions -where they exist-such as unemployment compensation and other benefits. A person's ability to acquire food depends on this entire system, and regular starvation as well as occasional famines have to be understood in terms of the characteristics of the entitlements and their shifts over time.

Out of reach

An example may make the point clearer. Consider the Bengal famine of 1943, in which at least 1.5 million people died; some estimates put the death toll at twice that figure, which was almost certainly more nearly correct. While there was some decline of per caput food availability in Bengal in 1943 compared with the previous year, the availability figure was not exceptionally low, and indeed in 1941 food per head had been substantially lower than in 1943. And yet there was no famine in 1941, and the biggest famine of the century in 1943. Why?

The system of exchange entitlements had shifted dramatically during the intervening period. The war-based expansion of the economy had increased the purchasing power of some groups significantly, leaving others unaffected. While some groups could demand more and contributed to the rise in prices, other groups simply had to take the consequences of this change. In particular, agricultural labourers, who were the largest single group of famine victims, were hard hit by the steep rise in the price of rice. The problem was compounded by the fact that the incomes of agricultural labourers tend to be very unevenly distributed over the year, and peak period wages consistently failed to anticipate the rise of food prices that was to follow. On top of that, some people lost their employment for a variety of reasons, including a cyclone, a fungus disease of the crop and military removal of boats from regions of strategic importance for the war. The class composition of destitution and mortality due to the famine reflects these shifts in exchange circumstances. The fact that the overall food availability per caput was not all that low was of no consolation to those whose entitlements had radically altered, keeping them away from the food that was there. Finally, speculative purchases and withholding of food in search of profits, as well as for precaution precipitated by panic, pushed prices sky-high, putting food out of reach of more people. The failure of policy on the part of the Bengal Government, the Indian Government and the British Government had many complex causes, but a native faith in the statistics of food availability per head - "no real food shortage" - did certainly contribute to policy confusions.

This question of exchange entitlements applies not only to famines, but also to regular starvation and malnutrition. There is quite a bit of evidence that expansion of food production has often been accompanied by a move toward more unequal distribution of incomes and real purchasing power, and improvements in per caput food availability have not always led to a corresponding diminution of hunger. The question of command over the available food has to be clearly distinguished from that of availability as such, and the rapid expansion of purchasing power of one group may even make other groups sink more deeply into starvation.

A barrier of its own

This problem of exchange entitlements is peculiarly relevant at early stages of economic development. In the traditional precapitalist economies with peasant farming and direct consumption of one's own output, the exchange system does not produce a barrier of its own between mouths and food. As the scope of exchange grows, the question of prevailing entitlements becomes more and more serious. In particular, the wage system of employment rather than direct family operations makes a very wide section of the population particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the exchange economy. A drought or a flood may lead to a partial-reduction of agricultural output, but the corresponding partial reduction in work may lead to total unemployment on the part of some landless labourers, and for them it is not a partial failure but a total disaster.

At later stages of economic development this problem would, of course, be dealt with by a system of social security, and in particular, by unemployment benefits. But there is a phase in which the earlier family-based economy, without much exchange, is dead and in which the social security arrangements have not yet come into operation. And in this phase the dichotomy between available food and the command over it is an acute problem.

It is perhaps worth noting in this context that the absence of starvation in the rich, developed economies of the world is not so much a result of general opulence of these economies, but of systems of guaranteed minimum income to all, through social security measures. Even in rich countries there are people who do not earn sufficiently through the market mechanism to be able to buy food - a point I hardly need labour in the context of the recent dramatic rise of unemployment in Europe and America - and the escape from hunger takes place precisely because of the modification of exchange entitlements brought about by the system of social security. In seeking a guarantee against starvation, we have to look not merely at the arithmetic of population and food, or at the statistics of national income, but at institutional ways of making every person entitled to the food he or she needs to eat.

Two types of losses

In the socialist countries such as the Soviet Union or China, the same system of entitlement to food is provided by guaranteed employment. Because of the restriction of job choice that a system of directed employment involves, most Western economists would be unwilling to consider this as a serious alternative for the West. At the same time, there is little doubt that a system of guaranteed employment is more efficient from the production point of view than guaranteed income without employment. Unemployment involves two types of losses: no income for the person in question, which is a tragedy for him, and no productive contribution to the national product by him, which is a tragedy for the society. A system of unemployment benefits takes care of the former problem and represents a vast progress in the fight against hunger and poverty, but it leaves the second problem untouched.

A poor economy cannot afford a decent system of unemployment benefits and social security-it is typically beyond its means to give people incomes without those people producing anything at all. This leaves these economies with essentially two alternative possibilities. One is to go in the direction of the Chinese economic development with guaranteed income and food but with an economic system that includes public assignment of people to jobs. China's programme in preventing starvation seems to have been very successful, but emulation will not be easy without the corresponding political changes. The other alternative is to be less ambitious and to try to widen exchange entitlements through a rapid employment-oriented growth, supplemented by ad hoc relief measures as and when there is a sharp decline in the purchasing power of some group because of, say, a drought or flood. The success of this strategy will, of course, depend on the particular economic circumstances in the country in question.

Whichever approach is chosen, the problem of avoiding hunger can hardly be left to the normal operations of market forces. This is perhaps an interesting point to note in the context of the recent bicentennial celebrations of the publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Because of its advocacy of free trade, this work has often been quoted in justification of a policy of noninterference in a famine situation. In 1812 in the context of a famine that was developing in the province of Bombay, the Governor of Bombay recorded in a special minute that because of this adherence to the principles of political economy as expounded in The Wealth of Nations, he would prefer to leave matters to the market forces. It would be interesting to know what Adam Smith would have thought of that - he had died twenty-two years earlier. One would tend to think that he was too pragmatic a man to stand against famine relief on the grounds of some remote principles of political economy of little applicability in this particular context. In fact, Adam Smith's attitude to the poor laws was both humane and pragmatic. He criticized the "hardship" in the enforcement of the poor laws, especially related to the laws of "settlement," but had no quarrel with the public obligation to provide relief to the poor. The contrast with Robert Malthus, who was hostile to the system of poor relief as such, is clear.

What is perhaps more important to note is the emphasis that Adam Smith put on the determination of rates of exchange between commodities and on their role in influencing relative levels of prosperity and hardship. In an exchange economy we cannot get away from this central issue, and any attempt to analyse hunger in terms of the overall figures of population and food is bound to mislead.

Counting bushels of wheat

This question has acquired some additional importance recently because of a sudden outburst of alarmist literature announcing the inevitability of population growth outstripping food supply - the so-called worldwide famine due to overpopulation. There is a very real danger that in our concern to get food supply and population in line with each other, we may lose sight of the crucial role of the exchange mechanism that stands between food availability and people's access to it. There is, I believe, quite a bit of exaggeration in reading in the available statistics a coming doom arising from an imbalance between population and food. Along with that exaggeration goes a certain loss of focus away from the central role of exchange, toward counting bushels of wheat and the total number of mouths, and indulging in long divisions of the former by the latter. While the arithmetic operation of division can be done with ease and grace, the real economics of the division of food among the people depends on the complex structure of exchange entitlements based on institutional features. And that must be a central concern in a realistic attack on starvation and famines.

I end by allowing myself a personal remark. At the time of the Bengal famine, in 1943, I was a young boy in Bengal. I have a harrowing memory of an endless procession of emaciated men, women and children - more like skeletons than human beings-trekking in search of food. And of roads littered with corpses. One recalls families of labourers, fishermen and craftsmen - all of whom had lost their means of livelihood. Today when I look at the statistics of that period, I can see them in the tables of destitution and mortality. Also in the charts on the epidemics that followed the famine. But I don't see them in the table on food availability per unit of population. The index of per caput food availability with 1941 as 100 had a value of 109 in 1943. While that figure stood high, people fell and perished, and that general problem is with us even today.