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Famine mortality, rational political inactivity, and international food aid

  • Thomas Plümper
  • Eric Neumayer

Famine mortality is preventable by government action and yet some famines kill. Amartya Sen has famously stated that no famine with significant excess mortality has ever occurred in a democracy. Yet, critics have argued that some countries have experienced famine mortality despite democratic governance and that Sen’s hypothesis cannot account for the conditions under which even autocracies may prevent famine mortality. We develop a political theory of famine mortality, which suggests that it can be entirely politically rational for a political support maximizing government, democratic or not, to remain inactive in the face of severe famine threat. Differences in famine mortality are due to differences in the policies democracies and autocracies adopt in responding to this political trade-off. Autocracies are more likely to compensate only affected elite members by targeted transfers, leaving other affected individuals outside the elite vulnerable to the potentially mortal impact of famine. Democracies, however, need to employ policies with quasi-public good characteristics due to the larger number of affected individuals with political influence. We derive the testable hypotheses that famine mortality is possible in democracies, but likely to be lower than in autocracies. Moreover, a larger share of people being affected by famine relative to population size together with large quantities of international food aid being available will lower mortality in both regime types, but more so in democracies. Our hypotheses find empirical support in a cross-country time-series analysis of famine mortality in non-developed countries over the period 1972 to 2000.

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Paper provided by London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library in its series LSE Research Online Documents on Economics with number 25169.

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Length: 46 pages
Date of creation: Feb 2007
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:ehl:lserod:25169
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  1. Bowbrick, Peter, 1986. "The causes of famine : A refutation of Professor Sen's theory," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 11(2), pages 105-124, May.
  2. Daniel Goodkind & Loraine West, 2001. "The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact," Population and Development Review, The Population Council, Inc., vol. 27(2), pages 219-238.
  3. Ullah, Aman, 2004. "Finite Sample Econometrics," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, edition 1, number 9780198774488, July.
  4. Ravallion, Martin, 1996. "Famines and economics," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1693, The World Bank.
  5. Barrett, Christopher B., 2002. "Food security and food assistance programs," Handbook of Agricultural Economics, in: B. L. Gardner & G. C. Rausser (ed.), Handbook of Agricultural Economics, edition 1, volume 2, chapter 40, pages 2103-2190 Elsevier.
  6. Eric Neumayer, 2005. "Is the allocation of food aid free from donor interest bias?," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 16689, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
  7. Sen, Amartya K, 1977. "Starvation and Exchange Entitlements: A General Approach and Its Application to the Great Bengal Famine," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 1(1), pages 33-59, March.
  8. Noland, Marcus & Robinson, Sherman & Wang, Tao, 2001. "Famine in North Korea: Causes and Cures," Economic Development and Cultural Change, University of Chicago Press, vol. 49(4), pages 741-67, July.
  9. Wei Li & Dennis Tao Yang, 2005. "The Great Leap Forward: Anatomy of a Central Planning Disaster," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 113(4), pages 840-877, August.
  10. Goldsmith, Arthur A., 2001. "Foreign Aid and Statehood in Africa," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 55(01), pages 123-148, December.
  11. Kjell Hausken & Christian W. Martin & Thomas Plümper, 2004. "Government Spending and Taxation in Democracies and Autocracies," Constitutional Political Economy, Springer, vol. 15(3), pages 239-259, 09.
  12. Lavy, Victor, 1992. "Alleviating Transitory Food Crises in Sub-Saharan Africa: International Altruism and Trade," World Bank Economic Review, World Bank Group, vol. 6(1), pages 125-38, January.
  13. Eric Neumayer, 2003. "Do Human Rights Matter in Bilateral Aid Allocation? A Quantitative Analysis of 21 Donor Countries," Social Science Quarterly, Southwestern Social Science Association, vol. 84(3), pages 650-666.
  14. Plumper, Thomas & Martin, Christian W, 2003. " Democracy, Government Spending, and Economic Growth: A Political-Economic Explanation of the Barro-Effect," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 117(1-2), pages 27-50, October.
  15. Sen, Amartya, 2001. "Development as Freedom," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780192893307, July.
  16. Stephen Devereux, 2001. "Sen's Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques," Oxford Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 29(3), pages 245-263.
  17. repec:oup:qjecon:v:117:y:2002:i:4:p:1415-1451 is not listed on IDEAS
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