Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review

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Review Article: Revisiting the Entitlement Approach to Famine: Taking a Closer Look at the Supply Factor – A Critical Survey of the Literature

G Alemu


Sen's (1981b) entitlement approach conceptualises famine as the
characteristics of some people not having enough food to eat but not of there
being not enough food to eat. Famine from this perspective is one that
occurs without a decline in the macro level supply of food and, hence, it is
all about demand failure/shift in the demand structure. The grand
contribution of this approach can be summed up in two: it throws light on
the possible misleading suggestions encompassed in the popular belief that
famine is caused by just shortage of food, and has also generated a huge
debate since.
In this paper it is argued that it is highly unlikely to assume that all
famines have the same genesis. There are mainly two types of famine: famine
without decline in the aggregate food supply and famine with food
availability decline at macro level. The former is considered as discrete event
caused by demand failure as a result of exogenous factors which are termed
as precipitating factors while the latter can be taken as a process caused by
supply failures resulting from structural, institutional, and policy related
issues which are termed as underlying vulnerability factors. The study
categorises the understanding of famine in two nexuses: demand failurefamine
as a discrete event and supply failure-famine as a process; it also
shows that Sen's entitlement approach can best fit to a famine caused by
demand failure. Understanding all famines as an event has a serious danger
not only for its explanation but also for designing policies to deny famine a
future. The overall argument of this paper is that an event is just a historical
reality and an analysis of an event with a weak grasp of history disregarding
matters such as what constitutes the onset of famine certainly lacks a
penetrating insight into the understanding famine.

East African Social Science Research Review Vol. 23 (2) 2007: pp. 95-130
AJOL African Journals Online