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Effectively Communicating About Famine

–Guest post by Helen Wong, American University graduate student.

In August 2011 the United Nations (UN) officially announced that Somalia was under famine. According to Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary general of the UN, 11 million Africans were suffering from food shortages caused by “the combination of catastrophic conflicts, high food price, and drought.” Climate, weather, and population pressures are the common causes of famine. However, if a country does not suffer from these problems and has abundant food, does it mean famine will not occur? More specifically, has our tendency to frame famine in connection to climate, weather, and population pressures deflected our attention away from other causes and solutions?

According to the article “Food, Economic, and Entitlement” written by economist Amartya Sen, if people answer “yes,” they are biased by Malthusian Optimism, which means they believe that food shortage is not a problem as long as growth of food is faster than the world population. In fact, based on Sen’s concepts of “Boom” and “Slump” and the “Entitlement Failure,” famine can occur anytime and anywhere even with a superabundant food supply.

Boom means famine occurs during times of economic prosperity and Slump means the opposite. For example, the Boom situation of famine happened in the Bengal regin in 1943 driven by the massive economic expansion related to the World War II effort.

Another concept is the Entitlement Failure, a condition where people no longer gain a reward based on their investments. For instance, if a government intentionally takes away farmers’ harvest and never rations enough food back to them, people will eventually suffer from famine even if they continue to invest in farming their land.

When Governments Fail

Several scholars believe that Entitlement Failure is the chief mechanism driving famine in North Korea and Africa. Food emergency has been a major issue in North Korea for decades, and one million people died from famine in the 1990s. Climate and weather factors surely played an important role in the famine. However, Entitlement Failure remains a fundament cause.

According to the article “Famine and Reform in North Korea” by Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the poor rationing system and military policies in North Korea reflect the Entitlement Failure proposed by Sen. First, because goods are initially distributed through a politically determined rationing system, and people cannot affect the government’s decision by petitions or votes, they have little to no access to important resources, equipment, and land for producing food.  Making conditions worse, North Korea’s large military is given first priority for food. As a result, no matter how favorable the climate conditions, North Korean farmers given political conditions may still not have enough available food.

In scholar Jenny Clover’s article “Food and hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Entitlement Failure is also a driver of famine in Africa, a cause overlooked with the stronger focus typically on climate change and population pressures. First, few African countries adopt policies or take action to prevent famine or to respond to natural disasters. Second, many countries do not believe that investing in agricultural and rural development can reduce poverty, so agriculture is often under-funded. Effects of Entitlement Failure are even more obvious for the poorest and most socially disadvantaged groups. Without their own government’s support, the poor are often forced to rely on international relief efforts.

Altering the Frame of Reference to Catalyze Action

The United Nations does indeed recognize the role of Entitlement Failure as a driver of famine in Somalia, for example. However, this emphasis is not always obvious as Ban Ki-Moon, for example, only mentions the terms “catastrophic combination of conflict” and “high food price” as the causes of the famine in his letter mentioned in the opening to this post. To a degree, this may be an effective approach.  Ban emphasizes the mutual interests between donors and aid receivers.   He relates the famine to everybody by saying that we are all members in the “human family.” This can resonate with the international public by connecting the mutual interests between the victims and us.  As a group, the victims’ suffering may affect us, so as possible donors to the food aid effort we are in fact partly benefiting ourselves.

Scholar Joseph Fletcher also suggests other useful methods for framing famine to engage a greater number and diversity of possible donors in his article “Chronic famine and the immorality of food aid: A bow to Garrett Hardin.”  According to Fletcher, in order to increase credibility, in Ban’s letter the sustainability projects run by the UN in Africa and their improvements should have been backed up by figures such as how much money was spent in the project and how many people were helped instead of only mentioning the number of people dying from famine.

Also, an emphasis on the responsibility of the Somalia government to its people should have been paired with the appeals for international aid and donations to the country. If people know that their donations are used effectively and the government promises in a transparent and accountable way to prevent famine from happening again, then people are likely to be more willing to donate.

However, the UN should be careful of using statistics because overusing them can cause “psychic numbing” according to scholar Paul Slovic. In his article “Psychic Numbing and Genocide,” Slovic argues that most people experience a strong positive response to the prospect of saving or making a difference relative to a single person. As the total number of victims increases, the act is not as appealing because people “will likely not ‘feel’ much different.”

On the other hand, using a story about a single identified individual such as the narrative of Halima Omar found in the letter mentioned in the opening of this post can appeal to more donors. In comparison to a statistical presentation on the scope of the problem, it is much easier for audiences to imagine the tough situation in Somalia after reading about the desperation of Omar as her four children died in front of her. 

–Guest post by Helen Wong, an MA student in Public Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.  

Read other posts from her project team examining public attention to social problems such as famine as well posts from other project teams in her course on Public Communication Theory.


Sen, A. (1986). Food, Economic, and Entitlement. WIDER Working Papers: 1-34.

Fletcher, J. (1991). Chronic Famine and the Immorality of Food Aid: A Bow to Garrett Hardin. Population & Environment 12(3): 331-338.

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Noland, M. (2004). Famine and Reform in North Korea. Asian Economic Papers 3(2): 1-40.

Clover, J., (2003). Food and hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa. Africa Security Review 12(1): 5–15.

Slovic, P., (2007). “If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act”: Psychic Numbing and Genocide. Judgment and Decision Making. Vol.2. No.2.


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