The links between certain kinds of political systems and protection against famine are investigated in this paper. The starting-point is a critique of Amartya Sen's observation that famines are unknown in countries with a free press and competitive elections. This holds true only in India because of a unique political history in which freedom from famine became a right, upon which political legitimacy was founded: an anti-famine ‘social contract’.
The rise and decline of anti-famine systems in Africa is charted. Major reasons for decay include neo-liberalism and the international humanitarian system, both of which undermine relationships of domestic political accountability that underpin effective famine prevention. A number of politically regressive tendencies in ‘actually existing humanitarianism’ are identified that work against any nascent anti-famine social contracts in Africa. This is possible because famine prevention has not been established as a right in Africa.