Starving, and being starved, to death

by Sam Hawke

With the language of civil war now commonplace, the humanitarian crisis in Syria continues to tear its people apart. Tens of thousands have been killed, many thousands more face the threat of continued suffering and death. Much of the world has reacted as any sane, morally aware person would: with the utmost horror and anger. People have a right to life, which at the bare minimum lays down prohibitions on serious harms and threats to life, and grounds (to some extent) a derivative right to self-defence against such threats.

But there is a far greater humanitarian crisis impending elsewhere. Millions of people in the Sahel region of Central and West Africa live with threats on their lives. The region – comprised of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal – is facing a catastrophic food crisis that will leave 1 million children at the risk of severe malnutrition. It is set to be the worst famine in 60 years. 18.4 million people face the prospect of food shortages. The causes of the crisis are surely complex and myriad: Oxfam blames a lethal mix of “[l]ow rainfall and water levels, poor harvests and lack of pasture, high food prices and a drop in remittances from migrants”, alongside the recent conflict with which Mali is afflicted. But one thing remains obvious and simple: millions of people face the most unspeakable suffering and death by famine.

It may perhaps not seem so relevant to ask, whose fault is it? The best course of action may be simply to respond with aid and other efforts to save as many lives as possible. Anyway, the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Unicef have lamented what they have

The façade of the WTO

deemed the disaster’s chief cause: indifference. Obviously, this is a disgusting, reprehensible feature of much of the global rich. I remain convinced that if there is death and suffering wrought by severe poverty, we of the global rich have a positive duty to assist, whether by way of aid or any other humanitarian efforts, based on our very stringent duty to relieve suffering and prevent death. (Note that this claim isn’t in itself defeated by the oft-repeated assertion that foreign aid ‘simply doesn’t work’. Even if it were true (and I don’t think it is), it may nonetheless remain that we have very strong duties to do whatever else we might be able to do, including doing our utmost to find ways to make aid work, if possible, or to find alternatives.)

I would go so far as to say that those suffering severe poverty have a right to our assistance, which would be permissibly enforceable by a variety of coercive measures for the redistribution of resources to the global poor. But, regardless, is this the relevant moral issue in the Sahel crisis? Are we guilty of a mere omission, a failure to assist? Much commonsense moral theory takes it as given that you can’t violate someone’s right to life by merely doing nothing. In some cases, this is plainly false: I may deliberately fail to rescue my young nephew so as to take his inheritance, and this seems a violation of his right to life. It would certainly be a violation of someone’s right to life to kill them so as to receive £50 that you then spend on shoes. But many of us think that it’s not a violation of the right to life to spend £50 on a pair of shoes, instead of giving it to a malnourished child.

But, even on this common-sense morality, might we be violating the right to life of those stricken with famine? As the welfare economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has stressed, famines are usually human-made. As he writes in his celebrated work, Development as Freedom, “[a] person may be forced into starvation even when there is plenty of food around” (1999: 161). Famine depends very heavily on things such as food prices, consumer income, and – when there is not enough food around – the extent to which the share of food is less unequally distributed across a population. In what is proportionally the worst famine in recorded human history, the Irish famine of the 1840s, Ireland was an exporter of food (to England), “a common phenomenon in many famines” (1999: 170). The key point of Sen’s work on hunger (alongside the development economic Jean Drèze) is the connection between famine and agency: famine comes about not as an ineluctable natural process, but by purposive human action. Ultimately, as Sen concludes, “[p]eople suffer from hunger when they cannot establish their entitlement over an adequate amount of food” (1999: 162). This is determined, among other things, by a society’s prevailing system of property-ownership, market regulation, food prices, technological advancement and availability, and the exigencies of supply and demand in respect of the value and need of peoples’ labour and produce. In short, “the entire economic mechanism” of a country (1999: 164). These are all things that are in part determined by factors independent of human control. But a great deal are not, and represent particular and systematic choices made by those in power.

One particular lesson of Sen’s deserves special mention. Many of the inhabitants of the Sahel region form nomadic pastoralist communities, depending on the demand for animal products of various kinds for their subsistence living on cheaper energy-rich food such as grains. As Sen laments, “[t]hese fragile exchange equilibria can be ruptured by shifts in exchange rates. A fall in the price of animal products vis-à-vis food grains can spell disaster” (1999: 165). To focus on this one example a little more, there are multiple reasons for the prevalence of certain kinds of occupations available to individuals within a country such that individuals are more or less vulnerable to the various natural and human processes by which famine is caused. Some of these are processes for which people – especially those in, or with, power – can be held morally responsible, some not.

Think of the Bengal famine of 1943 in which several million people died. To the extent that the famine was caused by an increase in the price of rice such that Bengal’s fishing communities were unable to effectively trade their produce for enough rice to sustainably feed themselves, and this price increase was in part caused by the hoarding of rice by the British government, the authorities were guilty of killing people. It may have been a joint enterprise killing, sharing responsibility no doubt with other human economic forces, themselves mixed with the natural processes that may have kick-started the problem from the beginning. But it was a killing nonetheless, and on a vast scale. Indeed, there may well be justifications or exculpating excuses for such behaviour. It could have been that the British government hoarded the grain in the erroneous belief that there was more grain elsewhere available to the famine-stricken population. Mao’s horrifying famines after his ‘Great Leap Forward’ in which between 15 and 45 million people died were partly a result of the fact that party bureaucrats wildly over-estimated or misrepresented the supplies of grain across the country. Moreover, in situations of profound scarcity, terrible, heart-breaking choices may have to be made as to who to save and who to kill for the good of the many. Regardless, famines, in this regard, may not be mere omissions: where someone steps into the causal chain, so to speak, we may have strong reason to regard him or her as actively harming or killing those stricken with famine. The victims may thereby have had their rights to life violated by those who, without adequate justification, causally contributed to their deaths.

Indeed, there tends to be little difficulty elsewhere in thinking of the institutional choices rulers or elites make as actively starving people to death. One of the worst, although admittedly least-discussed, single atrocities of the 20th century is what’s known as the Holodomor, the period between 1932 and 1933 in which Stalin and the Soviet authorities deliberately starved millions of people of the Ukraine to death. Farm produce was immediately requisitioned, steep criminal penalties were levied on those who failed or refused to comply, and, almost worst of all, emigration was completely prohibited, condemning those dying of hunger to what effectively became a country-wide concentration camp. The estimates of those killed range between 1 million and upwards of 10 million. Certainly millions of the victims died as a result of natural and economic processes for which the Soviet government could not be held responsible. But this fails to excuse them for those who they did kill.

So famines can be created by human action. And to the extent that we make choices whose effects are known with reasonable certainty to contribute to famine, we may actively starve and kill people. We may not do so intentionally, as no doubt the perpetrators of the Holodomor did. But we may kill with criminal recklessness or negligence. Thomas Pogge, in his now justly famous book World Poverty and Human Rights, has been one of the most vocal advocates of this claim (although the issues are far more complex and theoretically nuanced than I’ve presented them here), with arguments presented before, for instance, by Onora O’Neill in her 1975 paper ‘Lifeboat Earth’ published in Philosophy & Public Affairs. The choices of the world’s most powerful can play precisely the same role of the economic, legal, and other decisions made in circumstances which permit us to describe, as in West Bengal or Ukraine, the inducement of starvation as a killing for which their agents are morally responsible.

One such cause has become more prominent in recent years, and this is food speculation. Oxfam and other groups have continually decried the creation of financial derivatives in food which, when traded by banks and hedge funds on global markets for significant profit, cause massive spikes in food prices which destroy the capacity of individuals to purchase food when it is available. Indeed, this is taken to have been a key cause of the horrifying East African famine that began last year. Obviously, the famine coming to the Sahel region will not be mono-causal, and when it occurs many of the deaths may not be so attributable. In the East African famine, for instance, some people may not have been able to get any food even if food speculation hadn’t occurred: the prices could have remained too high for extraneous reasons. Culpability may ultimately be shared, anyhow: their governments may have refused to purchase enough food at the high prices food speculation generates even when it has sufficient resources to do so.

Certainly, like so many killings, the killing of millions is not done alone and may be done in circumstances that provide justifications or exculpating excuses. But justifications and exculpations need to be compelling and powerful, and many won’t be. There are myriad other ways, in our increasingly globalised, interdependent world (although the world was highly interdependent even before ‘globalisation’), that the global rich may act to induce famine and so kill people, as well. For one, mining companies may leave vast areas of once-fertile arable land completely barren through the vast pollution often generated, a key cause of famine vulnerability. Or multinationals may buy up large tracts of land which locals are prohibited from productively using. And, of course, one of the largest causes of most, if not all, famines for which the global rich will remain responsible is global warming: even seemingly natural processes that result in environmental degradation in the Sahel may therefore be things for which we may be causally and morally responsible.

But the most worrying of the causes of famine are very general features of our global institutional system that may serve to actively impoverish millions of people, as Thomas Pogge has so forcefully claimed. Poverty of various kinds is obviously the key cause of greater famine vulnerability, as people, through their lack of resources, are unable to acquire food or the means of producing it, to leave the land from which famine arises, or, as discussed above, they may be condemned to occupations which are inherently more vulnerable to famine than others. Severe poverty may simply leave individuals in dangerously precarious health which hunger turns quickly to death. The causes of poverty are even more myriad than those of famine, but there are many for which the global rich may be morally responsible. I can only give a short list of the things that Pogge, alongside others, have catalogued in a shocking array of violently anti-poor measures. I can only recommend reading his illuminating book. Among other things, many rich countries provide massive agricultural subsidies to domestic producers that undercut farmers of the least well-off countries, or impose requirements on foreign lending which entail financial reforms that decimate public welfare and health provision, or demand conditions for accession to the World Trade Organisation which prohibit, through very powerful intellectual property rights standards, poorer countries from making cheap and widely-available medicines for the worst-off. These are all imposed, moreover, by the vastly greater coercive, persuasive, and economic power of the countries of the global rich.

So if we value life and, as we have seen in responses to Syria, seriously condemn violations of the right to life, we have, at the very least, a duty to stop actively killing those by means of our famine-inducing actions. We may then have a duty to compensate those we have harmed or the families of those whom we have killed. Again, our actions may only be part of the larger natural and economic system that brings about the horrors of famine. But if we are in any way culpable, our duties to those whose lives we threaten are very, very strong. Morally speaking, it’s difficult to see how any of this is controversial: we have a very strong right against being killed, and we are able to kill each other in complex ways. Indeed it’s much more interesting, for how much more controversial it appears, to think about what additional duties we may each have to save others from threats to their life where we have no causal role in the generation of those threats. The philosopher Peter Singer famously argued that just as I am obligated to rescue a child from a drowning pond, as a matter of simple humanity, I am obligated to give (much, or most, or almost all, of) my wealth to save children from dying by famine or disease across the world.

Where the disagreement may come, it seems, is in equivocations about our capacity to determine to a sufficient degree our causal contributions to famine deaths. Many may wonder how it can be asserted with any clarity or conviction that we, the global rich, do in fact kill the global poor. This is an interesting philosophical and empirical issue. But it is difficult to accept the wider pattern of reasoning this represents. When life is placed at serious risk, how sure need we be that our actions will not be a cause of death? As will be familiar when thinking about military strikes and ‘collateral damage’, or capital punishment and the risk of trial error, I think we need to be very sure. These analogous examples, however, grossly misrepresent the scale of what is risked. For the risks are larger than can really be imagined. Thomas Pogge draws on UN and other data to come to the most appalling set of statistics I think anyone could have the opportunity to see (2008: 2): 830 million people are chronically undernourished, over a billion people are unable to access safe water, over two and a half billion people are unable to access basic sanitation, two billion people lack access to essential medicine, 774 million adults cannot read, and there are over 200 million children in work. Around 39% of humankind, that is two and a half billion people, live in severe poverty, condemned to the most excruciating suffering and humiliation. And here is the most unbelievable thought of all: 18 million people a year, 50000 people each day (and 29000 children under five), die from poverty-related causes. These statistics, of course, are known to many through the work of aid agencies. But it is not often that we think of these figures as potential impoverishments, starvations, and killings. But these they are, at least in part. And if they are at all, we are surely complicit in what Pogge has rightly described as the largest human rights abuse in world history.

The imperative that we not kill people by inducing famines, or any severe poverty, is a pretty fundamental feature of common sense morality. We may be grossly violating it. Therefore, the protection of the people of the Sahel from the oncoming famine will not a matter of charity or humanity, and our indifference to its imperatives. It will be a matter of justice, and our refusal to be held accountable to its demands.

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3 comments
  1. Another one of Sen’s important insights is that there has never been a famine in a democratic country. This may have implications for the suggestion that the blame for famines can be laid at the door of the rich. Unless of course it can be shown (which I think it often can be) that the rich have done a lot to undermine a country’s democratic potential.

    All we can really do, at the most, is create a set of conditions in which these poorer countries have the freedom to choose some degree of prosperity. We cannot make them prosperous ourselves. Which is not to say we don’t still have a hugely long way to go even to reach this point!

    • Josh M said:

      Or rather, ‘we’ have to stop doing that which keeps them poor. It’s well know that ten times the capital leaves the average ‘developing country’ for the West than enters in the form of ‘aid’.

      • I completely agree Josh. At the very least, we are morally obligated not to actively impoverish people. Since poverty results in 18,000,000 deaths a year and massive, excruciating suffering, we no doubt in part cause that suffering and kill millions of people each year. Again, it may be a sizeable joint enterprise killing, and a killing describable as negligent or reckless manslaughter rather than murder, but it is a mass killing for which we are responsible nonetheless.

        At the very least, we fail to do a great deal that would be required to make sure our global institutions and activities do not actively impoverish people. Finding ways of stopping capital flight would certainly be something we’re duty-bound to do on this basis.

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