Amartya Sen’s entitlement thesis muddied by history of China’s great famine: Food for Arms

Cover of Frank Dikötter’s book

Systematic genocide 

25 September 2010
Jasper Becker’s review at The Spectator

This book sheds light on many other aspects of the famine but its great importance is to remind us of why we need to revise our understanding of 20th-century history. If you add up the death tolls from the famines caused by communist leaders in China, the Soviet Union (Lenin and Stalin oversaw three mass famines), Cambodia, North Korea, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, you reach a figure of close to 90 million.You might think all this would merit serious study, but it has taken 50 years for a professional scholar like Dikötter to examine the Chinese famine in a major book.

Take Professor Amartya Sen, awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on famines and development. He chose to study the Bengal famine in 1943, when under British rule up to 3 million died, and the Ethiopian and Sahel famines in the 1960s and 1970s. He then developed the theory that ‘famine is a widespread failure of entitlements’. In other words, famine and poverty are not about governments forcibly seizing peasants’ grain and closing down markets but failing to intervene enough and provide them with their ‘entitlements’.

He later published, together with other scholars, a three-volume work, The Political Economy of Famine, which somehow finds no space to examine Mao’s famines or indeed any of those under other communist governments. Yet in the 1980s, we already knew that over 20 million had died in the Leap and Robert Conquest had published Harvest of Sorrow, the harrowing account of the Soviet famines.

In review of
MAO’S GREAT FAMINE: THE HISTORY OF CHINA’S MOST DEVASTATING CATASTROPHE, 1958-1962

Frank Dikötter
Bloomsbury, 448pp, £25

David Tribe

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

3 comments

  1. This seems like a complex topic, but it’s not.
    Human sacrifice remains an important element of nature-worship. Zambia starving citizens to save them from ‘poisonous’ GM corn is merely one example of many. Holdren, the Erlichs, the Club of Rome, for them, human mortality is key to ‘saving the environment’.
    They seem to prefer starvation over beheading, but the result’s the same.

  2. Sen’s theory basically says that famines typically are not “natural” occurrences – in which there is an absolute lack of food – but crises in which political factors (property rights) mal-distribute access to such food as exists. You proper concern for the sources of the Chinese and Soviet famines seems wholly consistent with his view. Just maybe he focused on less obvious cases (those in which there was no authoritarian regime expropriating food) because it might seem less likely that those cases proved troublesome for his view? Nothing in his work justifies Stalin or Mao.

  3. Dikotter says the GLF was the ‘worst catastrophe’ in China’s history. Clearly this is ridiculous, and is just hyperbole to advance his agenda.
    The average mortality over the GLF period was 27.58 / 1000. In the days of pre-revolutionary China, the average mortality was 30 to 35 / 1000.
    That is on average old China had 3 to 8 more excess deaths per year than during the GLF.
    This means proportionally less people died during the four year GLF period, than any other single four year period in pre-revolutionary China. And this was revolutionary China’s very worst period.
    Far from using the GLF period, tragic as it was, to condemn China’s socialist transformation under Mao, the communist should be praised for making the conditions of the GLF atypcial of New China, not typical as they were before the revolution.

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