Jeffrey Gettleman’s excellent article on the Somali famine presents a useful reminder of Amartya Sen’s famous insight that famines, chiefly, are human constructions. The persistence of famines isn’t a tragedy but rather a consequence of social and political breakdowns. In the Somali case, the country’s long civil war– and the tactics used by contending factions — means that famine is a tool of combat rather than the result of “food shortages” as such.
Because famines usually arise from dysfunctional distribution of food resources (rather than from an absolute shortage of food), aid agencies are inevitably limited in what they can do to alleviate famines. Moreoever, realities on the ground mean that famine aid inevitably benefits combatants as much or more than the truly needy. In Somalia, political dysfunction mocks the good intentions of relief agents. That famines are man-made does not obviate the need for famine relief efforts. However, the social construction of famines ought to give rise to a parallel public understanding of why famines persist and the limits of humanitarian aid.