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The 1985–88 famine amongst the Dinka is described and shown to have been rooted in the long term exploitation of the south by northern Sudanese and international interests. This process of exploitation served, and continues to serve, important functions for particular groups. Some of the ways in which the 1985–88 famine was functional – for the central government, the army and merchants – are outlined and the implications for relief operations considered. It is argued that international donors had considerable “room for manoeuvre” which they could have used to adopt more effective policies. They only did so after the worst of the mortality was over.