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Famines and economics

  • Ravallion, Martin

The author observes that famine, defined as widespread hunger or starvation, has occurred in most parts of the world in the twentieth century. Famines are more avoidable now than ever before. Famines defy simple explanations and geographic boundaries. They have occurred under both socialist and capitalist economic systems, with and without wars, or unusual political or social instability. Economic analysis can help explain famines. Under certain conditions, the threat of mass starvation can emerge from seemingly small economic shocks, or from a steady decline in average living standards. Similar shocks in similar settings can have very different consequences. Market and nonmarket institutions can fail under unusual stresses, making poor people highly vulnerable. Famine can be viewed as a tragic magnification of normal market and governmental failure. The factors that transform a shock into mass starvation seem to be intrinsic features of normal economies rather than peculiar features of highly distorted or badly managedeconomies. Normally hidden from view, they can surface in a number of ways. Certain elements increase a region's vulnerability to famine: poverty; weak social and physical infrastructure; weak and unprepared government; and a relatively closed political regime. Arguably the same factors constrain longer term economic development.

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Paper provided by The World Bank in its series Policy Research Working Paper Series with number 1693.

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Date of creation: 31 Dec 1996
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:1693
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  1. Datt, Gaurav & Ravallion, Martin, 1998. "Why Have Some Indian States Done Better Than Others at Reducing Rural Poverty?," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 65(257), pages 17-38, February.
  2. Bidani, Benu & Ravallion, Martin, 1995. "Decomposing social indicators using distributional data," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1487, The World Bank.
  3. Foster, Andrew D, 1995. "Prices, Credit Markets and Child Growth in Low-Income Rural Areas," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 105(430), pages 551-70, May.
  4. Binswanger, Hans P. & Khandker, Shahidur R & Rosenzweig, Mark R., 1989. "How infrastructure and financial institutions affect agricultural output and investment in India," Policy Research Working Paper Series 163, The World Bank.
  5. Lin, Justin Yifu & Yang, Dennis Tao, 2000. "Food Availability, Entitlements and the Chinese Famine of 1959-61," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 110(460), pages 136-58, January.
  6. Webb, Patrick & von Braun, Joachim & Yohannes, Yisehac, 1992. "Famine in Ethiopia: policy implications of coping failure at national and household levels," Research reports 92, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
  7. Alderman, Harold, 1996. "Saving and economic shocks in rural Pakistan," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 51(2), pages 343-365, December.
  8. Coate, Stephen, 1989. "Cash versus direct food relief," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 30(2), pages 199-224, April.
  9. Martin Ravallion & Gaurav Datt, 1995. "Is Targeting Through a Work Requirement Efficient? Some Evidence for Rural India," Monash Economics Working Papers archive-41, Monash University, Department of Economics.
  10. Glomm, Gerhard & Palumbo, Michael G., 1993. "Optimal intertemporal consumption decisions under the threat of starvation," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 42(2), pages 271-291, December.
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