D. St. Germain's Reviews > Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine

Mass Starvation by Alex de Waal
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it was amazing
bookshelves: food-scarcity

In the early 2000s, famine as we know it had been largely eradicated, thanks to changing demography, improved public health, efficient humanitarian monitoring and relief efforts, and a relatively stable global political stage.

However, the US led War on Terror sharply curtailed these gains, particularly through the PATRIOT Act. This Act criminalized any relief efforts by individuals or agencies to provide humanitarian aid (“material or symbolic”) that could fall into the hands of any organization deemed ‘terrorist’, including aid that could be stolen by said ‘terrorist’ groups. “The agencies affected by the prohibition included not only American organizations but any organization that received US funds, or expected to do so, or did any kind of business with the United States – a group that included the UN agencies and just about every sizeable international aid agency.”

de Waal goes on the document the famines (defined as episodes of “heightened mortality associated with hunger”) that have occurred since then in Darfur, Northern Uganda, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and Northern Nigeria. Darfur and Northern Uganda were political famines, caused by military uprisings.

Somalia’s crisis was caused by vulnerabilities caused by global interdependence: the international price of food doubled the cost of imports, while US money laundering rules curtailed the remittances coming in from overseas Somalis sending money home to their family at the same time drought conditions resulted in not enough domestic production. Over six months of negotiation with lawyers from the US government about how aid could be provided without running afoul of the PATRIOT Act, “scores of thousands” of Somalis died.

The Yemen famine of 2015 was unique in that it affected most of the country, rather than just particular war-torn areas of it. Saudi Arabia believed a political insurrection in Yemen was backed by Iran, and so began a bombing campaign that destroyed the functioning of markets and distribution networks for food; de Waal maintains their campaign was particularly targeted “economic warfare”. According to UN estimates, 82% of the population needed food assistance due to this conflict.

And on it goes. de Waal shows that the major famine-related crises in recent times have been tied to the ongoing Wars on Terror and financial shocks caused by a global system. The fact that countries in the MENA region are the ones largely affected has also led to the rise of what he terms “counter-humanitarianism” : a widespread rejection of humanitarian norms, an “array of political and ideological practices that deny the value system of humanitarianism….(that) legitimizes political and military conduct that is indifferent to human life or subordinates human life to other ends.” This is a cause for concern; as he suggests, the rise in war-related conflicts since 2006 coupled with a decline in regard for humanitarianism almost guarantees mass starvation will begin again to be more frequent.

Climate change and extreme weather events, coupled with further economic globalization, pose additional risks to local food markets and can spur resource conflicts and mass-distress migration. Unfortunately, he notes, the single-issue global institutions (trade, health, refugees, etc) are not well-equipped to deal with compound/complex-issue threats such as these. de Waal arguess that political decisions in the face of complex issues is what ultimately influences whether famine occurs or not.

This is a comprehensive look at the history of famines and their potential near-term future. Anyone hoping to understand the forces behind mass starvation and the responses needed to curtail them in the future would be well served to read this book.
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Reading Progress

June 6, 2019 – Started Reading
June 6, 2019 – Shelved
June 7, 2019 – Shelved as: food-scarcity
July 9, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Libby (new)

Libby Sounds like a truly scary future and lots of food insecurity, especially as climate change begins to grow worse. Thanks for your excellent and informative review, D!


message 2: by Charlene (new) - added it

Charlene Spectacular review! This book wasn't on my radar but is now at the top of my list.


D.  St. Germain Awesome Charlene! I'd love to hear what you think about it.


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