A Re-assessment of Entitlement Theory in the Light of the Recent Famines in Africa


  • Alex de Waal

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      Alex de Waal is a research associate of Queen Elizabeth House, 21 St. Giles Street, Oxford OX1 3LA, England, and research consultant of Africa Watch, 90 Borough High Street, London SE1 ILL, England. He is author of Famine that kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984–5 and other articles on famine in northeast Africa. He is currently monitoring human rights abuses in Sudan and Ethiopia, including an investigation of the use of starvation as a weapon of war.


This paper is an attempt to re-assess the nature of famines, as conceptualized in Professor Sen's entitlement theory, in the light of empirical evidence concerning the recent African famines. The paper identifies two critical phenomena that entitlement theory fails to explain. First, during famines, many people choose not to consume food rather than sell vital assets. Secondly, most famine mortality is not directly related to undernutrition, but is caused by outbreaks of disease. Sen's more recent work on poverty provides a framework for understanding these phenomena. The price of this is that entitlements themselves form only part of a larger account of famine. Some aspects of a revised account include coping strategies of famine-affected people, social disruption, and violence. In this account, less severe famine is not theoretically distinct from acute poverty, and severe famine is distinct largely because of the severity of social collapse, which in Africa usually follows violence.