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Between the Stomach and the Purse: What we can Learn From the Great Irish Famine in the 1840s

Posted: 23/07/11 01:00

In East Africa a humanitarian disaster is fast unfolding with the spectre of famine looming. The worst drought for 60 years means that crops have failed and livestock has perished, leaving impoverished communities increasingly vulnerable to malnutrition and hunger-related diseases.

Poverty, climate change and rising grain prices are combining to tip an already vulnerable population into a state of crisis. An estimated 10 million people are affected across a vast swathe of Africa taking in areas of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Huge numbers of people are on the move, leaving their homes and walking hundreds of miles to seek food in camps and feeding stations. Harrowing media reports describe mothers having to choose between seeking medical treatment for their weakest child and nourishment for the others. They live in a situation in which their everyday decisions have the most extraordinary consequences.

An important question to ask today is: who is at fault for this awful tragedy of famine? Another way to frame this question is to reflect on the genesis and progression of past famines where the historical records are robust enough for us to draw some useful conclusion.

Fewer than 170 years ago, a devastating famine occurred within the British Isles, then the most economically advanced region in the world. In Ireland, at that time part of the United Kingdom as a result of the Act of Union in 1801, 1 million people perished in what became known as An Gorta Mór or The Great Hunger.

The rural Irish poor, many of whom were subsistence farmers renting barely viable plots of ground, were reliant on the potato for their staple diet. When a mysterious blight, later identified as Phytophthora infestans, ruined the potato harvest huge numbers faced starvation. The poorest - who suffered dreadfully even in 'ordinary' years - were soon reduced to digging the ground for seedlings so small 'that only hunger could see them.' Others fed on diseased carrion, noxious weeds, and other indigestible 'famine foods'. When the hunger became intolerable, thousands turned to the government's Public Works schemes or to the Poor Law workhouses where a combination of communicable diseases and punitive labour carried off already weakened frames. Millions more people fled the country with the population of Ireland dwindling from around 9 million in 1845 to 6.1 million in 1851.

When judged in terms of the mortality rate, the Irish Famine was one of the worst demographic tragedies of the 19th century and possibly the worst famine in recorded history. What might the Irish experience teach US about the present humanitarian crisis in East Africa?

Well, firstly, the Irish Famine offers some important lessons about how famines are caused and about the vulnerability of certain social groups. In my book, Human Encumbrances, I quote from a public lecture delivered in New York in 1847 by the Catholic Archbishop John Hughes (1797-1864). In his speech Hughes remarked on the importance of distinguishing between the 'antecedent circumstances' and the 'primary' or 'original' causes of the Famine. Hughes was, in other words, insisting on a difference between immediate 'shocks' and long-term 'trends'. While droughts, floods and other climatic events might 'trigger' a food crisis, the real cause of famine, he believed, was the colonial system that produced and maintained poverty by the denying the Irish poor ownership of the land.

The challenge therefore is to identify the trends that underlie the abject poverty experienced by certain groups throughout their lives. In thinking about the famine crisis in East Africa today we ought to begin by looking at how vulnerability is created and how poor communities may not be able to cope with 'shocks' such as drought resulting from climate change. Degrading poverty means that whole communities are, to adapt R.H. Tawney's classic formulation, 'standing up to their neck in water so that even a ripple is sufficient to drown them'.

History also teaches us that famines are rarely the result of an absolute shortage of food. This was the case during the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 when hundreds of thousands of agricultural labourers starved to death while Bengal produced the largest rice crop in history. Research produced by the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen on the famine in Wollo, Ethiopia in the early 1970s, similarly shows that sufficient food was available in other parts of the country. Those who died - pastoral farmers, women in domestic service occupations, tenant cultivators, artisans and petty craftsmen - were unable to purchase food because they lacked the means to do so. Sen argues that by focusing solely on food availability and supply we ignore the vital issue of distribution, access and the affordability of food.

Similar points to those made by Sen were elaborated in the nineteenth century. Shortly after the Irish Famine, for example, the nationalist and author John Mitchel (1815-1875) described how one ship sailing to Ireland with aid was passed by several more ships leaving Ireland carrying cattle, oats, wheat, and other commodities that were beyond the reach of the starving Irish. While Mitchel almost certainly overstated how much food was exported during this time, the historical record is unambiguous that exports continued throughout the famine years. It is also the case that the British government refused calls to implement traditional anti-famine measures - like prohibiting the distillation of alcohol (which requires grain), or ordering the slaughter of livestock to nourish the people - policies that doubtlessly would have saved more lives. These anti-famine measures were frowned upon by a vocal coterie of political economists who believed that interference by the government would only prolong the violence of famine. Thus the London Times was surely right to characterise the famine as a 'war between the stomach and the purse'.

Mitchel's remarks also urge us to examine the wider set of international relations that allocate resources often in highly unequal ways. Africa, a land synonymous with disease and starvation (if one goes by the standard news clippings), is actually a resource-rich continent that exports oil, gold, coltan (a mineral used in mobile phone technologies), diamonds, timber, biofuels, uranium and other valuable commodities. The historical study of famine shows that the people of countries that are nominally resource-rich can starve because those resources are extracted to meet the needs of a global economy rather than the nutritional needs of local populations. The recent use of African land to grow crops for biofuels is particularly instructive: filling the tank of a sport utility vehicle, for instance, uses 450 lbs of corn - enough food to feed one person for an entire year. Thus policies designed to enhance the 'food and energy security' of relatively affluent places, such as Europe, can compromise the security of peoples in Africa. Today, as in the nineteenth century, life and death decisions of a terrifying scale are woven in the fabric of international economic relations.

Finally history teaches us that 'food is power' and that aid can be used as a political weapon. In Human Encumbrances I discuss how the government used food aid to force political and economic change in Ireland. After 1847, for example, the poor who owned more than a quarter acre of ground were required by law to give up their land in return for food aid, which at the time was in the form of workhouse relief. The mechanism for delivering aid, in other words, was a charter for eviction and land clearance - a goal that some thought necessary for the depopulation and long term modernization of Ireland. It was thought that the poor had neither the fortitude nor the intelligence to better themselves, and Irish smallholders in particular were considered to be backward and immoral. Even the very diets that the people relied on were viewed in moral terms: the feckless and slothful Irish were potato-fed, whereas the thrifty and hard-working English were wheat-fed.

We can draw an analogy here with the present crisis in East Africa. On the one hand, the delivery of food aid is restricted by U.S. guidelines not to send food to areas controlled by Islamist militant groups. While on the other hand, in the past few days a Somali leader announced that there was no famine and no aid would be accepted. Unfortunately, aid is almost always tied into a broader set of political concerns - in this case U.S. involvement in Somali relief is being determined by the geopolitical prerogatives of the 'War on Terror' and the fear of leaking funds to terrorist organisations. Within Somalia, years of political instability and civil war have led to the situation in which the withholding of food to certain local populations is a way of maintaining political power. With tragic results, and not for the first time in history, the poor are being left starve for ideological reasons decided elsewhere.