This is by way of a followup to Chris’s comment on Nick Cohen’s article on the pointlessness of providing disaster relief to governments who don’t care about their citizens. I’ve never been a big fan of Sen’s dictum that “democracies don’t have famines” – I’ve always regarded it as being a slogan on a par with “no two countries which have a McDonalds have ever gone to war with each other”. I was originally just going to point out that the only African country which has managed to stay clear of famines entirely since independence is Kenya, which has not been a democracy and leave it at that, but I ended up looking up the original quote from Sen’s “Development as Freedom” and this ended up expanding somewhat into a more general piece on the subject of democracies and developmental states. I’m actually pretty sympathetic to Sen on most of the issues he writes about, and I hope readers will bear that in mind, because it is more or less impossible to resist making a few harsh remarks when you find out that the original quote, from page 16 of the paperback edition of Development as Freedom is, verbatim:
“It is not surprising that no famine has taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy – be it economically rich (as in Western Europe or North America) or relatively poor (as in postindependence India, or Botswana or Zimbabwe)”
Emphasis added, of course. I’d make it clear from the outset that I am not playing “pin the anachronism on the donkey” here; Development as Freedom was originally published in 1999, and the paperback edition I have is from 2001; there don’t appear to have been any changes made for the paperback but there could have been. Mugabe joined in the civil war in Congo in 1997, faced riots in 1998 and began stealing farms in 1999, the year in which the Movement for Democratic change was formed (for what it’s worth, the MDC was formed in September 1999 and the latest citation I can find in the book is to a newspaper article from June 1999). So it is clear that when Sen refers to Zimbabwe here, he is referring to Mugabe’s one-party state, and not to some immediate postcolonial Nirvana of the development studies literature. I’d emphasise, however, that this slogan only appears twice in the entire book and not at all in the two chapters which actually deal with democracy and famines. Almost all of the analysis below is actually cribbed from Sen’s book; I’m arguing against his slogan, not against him.
This ought to raise suspicions right from the get-go, of course. If the “democracies don’t have famines” factoid is a proposition that can have Zimbabwe advanced in its favour, then it is clear that it is a bit of a David Lewis gambit – a proposition which has been cunningly constructed so as to have no counterexamples. And a proposition like that is unlikely to bear as much empirical weight as one might want to place on a useful-sounding slogan like “democracies don’t have famines”. These suspicions are entirely justified, because it appears to me that Sen was entirely correct to include Zimbabwe on that list in 1999 and 2001 and (even more strongly) I suspect that if he was being consistent, he’d have to leave them on the list if he brought out a revised edition of Development as Freedom in 2005. Two simple reasons for this:
1. On the criterion Sen appears to be using, Zimbabwe is a democracy. Since the word “democracy” has been abused by the “democratic people’s republics” of the world (and indeed by the “liberal democracies”) so much as to have lost all meaning, it’s easy to forget that it can be used in a descriptive as well as a normative sense. Nobody but a fool or someone being contrary for the sake of it would argue that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is anything other than a horrible despotism, or that what we normally regard as “democratic freedoms” are respected there. But … they do have elections. Horribly corrupt elections, but elections in which an opposition party stands (note that this isn’t a necessary condition for being a democracy for Sen; Zimbabwe was a one-party state between 1988 and 1999). An opposition party which has to be incredibly brave to stand up to the despicable treatment it receives from the government, but one which nevertheless wins seats, took Mugabe within an ace of losing the last Presidential election and actually beat him in local elections in 2003.
Zimbabwe even has a free press. Not a free press in the sense in which you or I would recognise it; journalists are regularly harassed both through the courts and through physical intimidation, and censorship is rife. But nonetheless, the censorship is not total, and the newspapers are not state-controlled in one important sense. That sense is the one alluded to in Nick Cohen’s article linked to by Chris; if there was a famine going on in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwean press would print that there was one, and this is an important qualitative difference between them and, say, the Burmese press.
So, Zimbabwe is a democracy in the only objective sense which matters for Sen’s theory, which is that Mugabe can’t keep on ruling it if the people don’t want him to (and the same applies to his designated Zanu-PF successor). This was actually how Zimbabwe got into the current mess; Mugabe started grabbing farms not because he wanted to, but because he needed to do something for his political base after the Congo disaster. If there was a serious famine in Zimbabwe, Mugabe would not be able to hold on to power and he knows it.
[at this point, it is understandable to raise the issue of the disgusting practice of withholding food aid to political opponents, which Zanu-PF apparatchiks definitely did, and which there is decent evidence that government bodies directly controlled by Mugabe did in the 2002-03 food crisis. I would make two points here. First, there wasn’t a famine in Zimbabwe in 2002-03; it was averted (as it was in borderline democratic Malawi and Zambia, democratic Senegal, democratic but dysfunctional Kenya and entirely undemocratic Ethiopia and Eritrea). Second, the information that if a democratic government can identify a subset of its citizens that it doesn’t care about, it can starve them to death was already available to Sen; presumably he is aware of the Irish famine and does not regard it as a counterexample to his theory.]
and the second reason …
2. On the criterion Sen is using, Zimbabwe has never had a famine. No really. Zimbabwe has not had a famine since independence and has not had one in the last ten years; I will bet large sums of my own money on this proposition if the term “famine” is defined as it is in Development as Freedom. Zimbabwe has, since 1999, seen an economic collapse, a collapse in food production, an epidemic of malnutrition and a shocking increase in mortality rates. But it has never had a famine; an episode of mass deaths due to starvation rather than malnutrition. It looked like they were going to have one in 2002, but the UN’s World Food Programme and the Consortium for Southern Africa Food Emergency (an umbrella group of charities, since renamed the Consortium for Southern Africa Food Security) managed to avert it.
This second point is a rather important one, which goes to the heart of why I think “democracies don’t have famines” is a bad slogan. It sounds awfully like “the poor are better off under democracies”, but it doesn’t mean that at all (and indeed Sen spends two chapters of his book explaining that it doesn’t. It’s a statement about one particular kind of misfortune that can befall the poor, famines, and doesn’t directly say anything about malnutrition, AIDS, malaria, gender-selective infanticide, cholera or any other of the silent killers that account for the majority of excess deaths in poor countries. Peter Griffiths in his book “An Economist’s Tale“, which so help me I will review soon, suggests that “famine” is more of a television producer’s concept than a development economist’s one and there is a great deal of truth to this. Like tsunamis, famines are big dramatic events, and like tsunamis they are situations where a clear plan of action suggests itself, usually involving the organisation of the movement of lots of objects relative to the surface of the earth. For this reason, aid agencies and the man in the street is correct to focus on them for good Hayekian reasons; because these are situations where the diversion of resources from the market into a planned operation can clearly do identifiable good. Solving the problems of malnutrition and malaria would certainly save more lives than anything we can do for the tsunami victims, but a population’s state of being vulnerable to malnutrition and malaria is in general the result of complicated social arrangements which are extremely difficult to make plans about.
It is this “plannability” of famine mitigation which is at the heart of Sen’s argument about famines and democracy. The actual reason why “democracies don’t have famines”, according to Sen, is as simple as pie. Think about it this way; it would be a very bad famine indeed that killed even as much as 10% of the population. The 10% of your population who are vulnerable to a famine are usually the poorest 10%, so their consumption is often as little as 3% of your GDP. And the famine comes about when their consumption drops below subsistence level, not when it disappears entirely. So basically, it is reasonable to suppose that the famine-vulnerable population could be brought back to their original level of consumption by diverting as little as 1.5% of GDP, and a government which can’t divert one and a half per cent of a country’s output is not a government worthy of the name. So, Sen’s thesis about democracies and famines is based on the fact that it is actually very easy to prevent or mitigate a famine if you really want to. (It is an important irony that the way in which a democracy goes about preventing a famine is to start acting like a planned economy; interfering with the price mechanism, diverting resources and even commandeering private property. But this is only a contradiction for people who have made the mistake of wholly identifying “democracy” with “liberal democracy” and “liberal democracy” with “laissez-faire economy”. And I suspect that it would take only a couple of missed suppers to cure these people of their error).
The really interesting point is that it is only democratic governments which really have any interest in preventing famines. If you aren’t accountable to the population and only care about your own wealth, then you will not typically prevent famines. Why not? (I cribbed these from Peter Griffiths’ book, btw, which is sort of a novelisation of Development as Freedom and a much more exciting read)
1.A famine is usually the result of significant movements in the prices of important commodities. It is really quite easy to profit from these price movements if you are in control of the supply of the commodities and know that the famine is coming.
2.If you get early warning of a famine and start taking steps to prevent it, then the outside world will usually give you food aid in kind, to move through your distribution network until it reaches the needy. If, however, you wait until people are dying in front of the television cameras, then you will get aid in cash, in order to buy food locally (which is quicker than shipping it in from donor countries) and to set up the distribution network. Cash is easier to steal than rice.
3.If you are a genuinely undemocratic regime, then it is quite possible that even if you fundamentally like the people and don’t want them to starve, then nobody will tell you that there is a famine going on, because they are yes-men and scared of telling you the truth. This was apparently always happening in Malawi; the leadership of the Women’s Movement of Malawi prevented at least one famine because they were the only group who felt able to tell the truth.
So, “democracies don’t have famines” should really read “there is no excuse for having a famine if you are a government which cares about its population and is in control of its territory”. This is less catchy, but it has two important advantages.
First, it doesn’t make any presumptions about democracies. Sen is certainly right to emphasise that, empirically, democracies are much more likely to care about the deaths of their citizens than any other kind of regimes (and are good for many, many other reasons; for people who want to peek at the end of “Development as Freedom”, he’s in favour of them both). But there are countries like Kenya which have a very good record in famine prevention and which haven’t been democracies for much of their history. If you start judging countries on the basis of a sweeping rule about “democracies” rather than on their actual record, then you’re doing the development equivalent of Coase’s “blackboard economics”, and you end up with nightmare ideas like “rights-based lending.
And second, by pointing out that there are two real issues here – the ability of the government to act as well as than its willingness – we draw attention back to an important caveat in Sen’s original formulation of the slogan which is not always preserved in quotation; that history does not provide examples of famines in functioning democracies. There are lots and lots of non-functioning or barely-functioning, kinda-sorta democracies in the world (Africa is full of them), and they have famines just like their neighbouring states. Since my cynical assessment is that the mission to the world which the neoconservative movement and its allies on the “decent left” have embarked upon is likely to leave us with a lot of non-functioning democracies which are not in physical control of the territory assigned to them on the map, we probably shouldn’t be surprised when they continue to have famines and should make plans to deal with them when they do.
Plain speaking bores who were just winding up for a long post about “Hah! The postmodernist fool Davies thinks that malaria is a social construction!” are cordially invited to go and have a wank instead. Malaria is a disease caused by an organism spread by mosquitoes. The condition of being vulnerable to malaria is a property possessed by some people and not others. The chief influences on whether someone has the property of being vulnerable to malaria are what kind of house they live in, where it is located and whether they have access to antimalarial measures like treated mosquito nets, DDT sprays and chloroquine. The factors which determine whether you live in a mud hut or a house with windows, and whether your pharmacist will give you chloroquine are in general related to your wealth and social status and these in turn are determined by social facts, not physical ones.
Democracies can sometimes get the opposite problem; not so long ago, Senegal had to hand back a load of aid and apologise to the donor community after local media reports had got out of hand and led the government to believe that the country was facing famine when it wasn’t.
This link, and the one in the introduction linked to the word “Zimbabwe”, are to previous CT posts by me on various subjects. I seem to remember that Timothy Burke added very useful comments on the opposing side to both of them and hope he will again.