NEWS Here’s Why There’s a Searing Ethiopian Drought Without an Epic Ethiopian Famine

Inter­est­ing piece by Andy Revkin on famines: Amartya Sen was right!

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I hope you’ll read “Is the Era of Great Famine Over,” an Op-​​Ed arti­cle by Alex de Waal, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the World Peace Foun­da­tion at Tufts Uni­ver­sity, which has a pro­gram track­ing famine trends.

Fil­ing from Ethiopia, which is in the midst of a potent drought but — for a change — not a calami­tous famine, de Waal made these core points: 

How did Ethiopia go from being the world’s sym­bol of mass famines to fend­ing off star­va­tion? Thanks partly to some good for­tune, but mostly to peace, greater trans­parency and pru­dent plan­ning. Ethiopia’s suc­cess in avert­ing another dis­as­ter is con­fir­ma­tion that famine is elec­tive because, at its core, it is an arti­fact and a tool of polit­i­cal repression.

It’s worth stress­ing that last line:

[F]amine is elec­tive because, at its core, it is an arti­fact and a tool of polit­i­cal repression.

Please read the entire arti­cle and con­sider the trend against what has been learned by schol­ars like Joshua Gold­stein and Steven Pinker about death rates from war and vio­lence; declines in deep poverty as shown by Max Roser; and child mor­tal­ity rates from the World Health Organization.

There’s a valu­able deeper dive on global famine trends on the Tufts website.


The World Peace Foundation at Tufts University has found that governance and democracy are prime factors in cutting famine losses. A “great famine” is defined as one killing at least 100,000 people. Learn more at <a href=""></a>.

The World Peace Foun­da­tion at Tufts Uni­ver­sity has found that gov­er­nance and democ­racy are prime fac­tors in cut­ting famine losses. A “great famine” is defined as one killing at least 100,000 peo­ple. Learn more at World Peace Foundation

Over all, human prospects con­tinue to improve.

Set­backs are nearly always the result of rup­tures in gov­er­nance or unchecked extrem­ism and vio­lence. Click back to Nick Kristof’s sear­ing com­men­tary from South Sudan last year for another exam­ple. Here was his con­clu­sion, even as he wit­nessed peo­ple col­laps­ing on the street:

You might think that what’s needed to end a famine is food. Actu­ally, what’s essen­tial above all is an inter­na­tional push of inten­sive diplo­macy and tar­geted sanc­tions to reach a com­pro­mise peace deal and end the civil war.

While the gen­eral pic­ture is bright­en­ing, trend is not des­tiny, and, of course, the non-​​human world is not doing nearly as well.

But with sus­tained cit­i­zen engage­ment, increased mon­i­tor­ing and trans­parency, more “mun­dane sci­ence” (in the best sense, as con­veyed by Dan Kam­men and Michael Dove) and pres­sure on despots and other bad actors, chances of up-​​side sur­prises remain high.

Post­script | Don’t miss the slide show on the polit­i­cal roots of a host of great famines that accom­pa­nies the de Waal article.

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