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Week8_Sen on Famine-1 - I80 DEVELOPMENT AS FREEDOM helps to...

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Unformatted text preview: I80 DEVELOPMENT AS FREEDOM helps to alleviate hunger through a better sharing of the available 1 food.“ In the 1973 drought in Maharashtra in India, food production fell so sharply that the per capita food output was half that in sub- Saharan Africa. And yet there was no famine in Maharashtra (where five million people were employed in rapidly organized public pro- jects), while there were very substantial famines in sub-Saharan Africa.” Aside from these intercountry contrasts of experiences in famine prevention, which bring out forcefully the protective role of democracy, there is also some interesting intertemporal evidence relating to a country’s transition to democracy. For example, India continued to have famines right up to the time of independence in 1947. The last famine—one of the largest—was the Bengal famine in . the spring and summer of I 943 (which I had the experience of wit- nessing, in its full rigor, as a nine-year-old boy); it is estimated that between two million and three million people died in that famine. ' Since independence and the installation of a multiparty democratic 1; system, there has been no substantial famine, even though severe 1 crop failures and massive loss of purchasing power have occurred often enough (for example, in 1968, 1973, 1979 and 1987). INCENTIVES, INFORMATION AND THE PREVENTION OF FAMINES The causal connection between democracy and the nonoccurrence of famines is not hard to seek. Famines kill millions of people in differ- ent countries in the world, but they don’t kill the rulers. The kings and the presidents, the bureaucrats and the bosses, the military lead- ers and the commanders never are famine victims. And if there are no elections, no opposition parties, no scope for uncensored public criti- cism, then those in authority don’t have to suffer the political conse- quences of their failure to prevent famines. Democracy, on the other hand, would spread the penalty of famines to the ruling groups and political leaders'as well. This gives them the political incentive to try to prevent any threatening famine, and since famines are in fact easy to prevent (the economic argument clicks into the political one at this stage), the approaching famines are firmly prevented. The second issue concerns information. A free press and the prac- Famines and Other Crises I 8 I tice of democracy contribute greatly to bringing out information that can have an enormous impact on policies for famine prevention (for example, information about the early effects of droughts and floods and about the nature and impact of unemployment). The most ele— mentary source of basic information from distant areas about a threatening famine are enterprising news media, especially when there are incentives—provided by a democratic system—for bringing out facts that may be embarrassing to the government (facts that an authoritarian government would tend to censor out). Indeed, I would argue that a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have. The connection between political rights and economic needs can be illustrated in the specific context of famine prevention by con— sidering the massive Chinese famines of 1958-1961. Even before the recent economic reforms, China had been much more successful than India in economic development in many significant respects. For example, the average life expectancy went up in China much more than in India, and well before the reforms of I 979 had already come close to the high figures that are quoted now (nearly seventy years at birth). Nevertheless, there was a major failure in China in its inabil- ity to prevent famines. The Chinese famines of 1958—1961 killed, it is now estimated, close to thirty million people—ten times more than even the gigantic I943 famine in British India.36 The so-called Great Leap Forward initiated in the late I9 50s had been a massive failure, but the Chinese government refused to admit that and continued to pursue dogmatically much the same disastrous policies for three more years. It is hard to imagine that anything like this could have happened in a country that goes to the polls regularly and that has an independent press. During that terrible calamity the government faced no pressure from newspapers, which were con- trolled, and none from opposition parties, which were absent. The lack of a free system of news distribution also misled the gov- ernment itself, fed by its own propaganda and by rosy reports of local party officials competing for credit in Beijing. Indeed, there is evidence that just as the famine was moving toward its peak, the Chi— nese authorities mistakenly believed that they had 100 million more metric tons of grain than they actually did.37 182. DEVELOPMENT AS FREEDOM Interestingly enough, even Chairman Mao, whose radical hopes and beliefs had much to do with the initiation of, and official per- sistence with, the Great Leap Forward, himself identified the informational role of democracy, once the failure was belatedly ac- knowledged. In I 962, just after the famine had killed so many millions, Mao made the following observation, to a gathering of seven thou- sand cadres: Without democracy, you have no understanding of what is happening down below; the situation will be unclear; you will be unable to collect sufficient opinions from all sides; there can be no communication between top and bottom; top-level organs of leadership will depend on one-sided and incorrect material to decide issues, thus you will find it difficult to avoid being subjectivist; it will be impossible to achieve unity of understanding and unity of action, and impossible to achieve true centralism.” Mao’s defense of democracy here is quite limited. The focus is exclu- sively on the informational side—ignoring its incentive role, and also the intrinsic and constitutive importance of democracy}9 Neverthe- less it is extremely interesting that Mao himself acknowledged the extent to which disastrous official policies were caused by the lack of the informational links that a more democratic system can provide in averting disasters of the kind that China experienced. PROTECTlVE ROLE OF DEMOCRACY These issues remain relevant in the contemporary world—even in the economically successful China of today. Since the economic reforms of 1979, official Chinese pronouncements have provided plentiful admission of the importance of economic incentives, without making a similar acknowledgment of the role of political incentives. When things go reasonably well, this permissive role of democracy might not be greatly missed, but as and when big policy mistakes are made, that lacuna can be quite disastrous. The significance of the democ- racy movements in contemporary China has to be judged in this light. Famines and Other Crises I 8 3 1 Another set of examples comes from sub-Saharan Africa, which has been plagued by persistent famines since the early 1970s. There are many factors underlying the famine-proneness of this region, varying from ecological issues of climatic deterioration—making crops more uncertain—to the firmly negative effects of persistent wars and skirmishes. But the typically authoritarian nature of many of the sub-Saharan Africa polities also has had much to do with caus~ ing the frequent famines.4° The nationalist movements were all firmly anticolonial, but not always steadfastly pro-democratic, and it is only recently that assert- ing the value of democracy has achieved some political respectability in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa. And in this political milieu, the cold war in the World did not help at all. The United States and the West were ready to support undemocratic governments if they were sufficiently anticommunist, and the Soviet Union and China would support governments inclined to be on their respective sides no matter how antiegalitarian they might be in their domestic poli— cies. When opposition parties were banned and newspapers sup- pressed, there were very few international protests. One must not deny that there were African governments even in some one—party states that were deeply motivated toward averting disasters and famines. There are examples of this varying from the tiny country of Cape Verde to the politically experimental Tanzania. But quite often the absence of opposition and the suppression of free newspapers gave the respective governments an immunity from criti— cism and political pressure that translated into thoroughly insensitive and callous policies. Famines were often taken for granted, and it was common to put the blame for the disasters on natural causes and on the perfidy of other countries. In various ways, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, several of the Sahel countries and others provide glaring examples of how badly things can go wrong without the discipline of opposition parties and the news media. This is not to deny that famines in these countries were often asso- ciated with crop failures. When a crop fails, it not only affects the food supply, it also destroys the employment and livelihood of a great many people. But the occurrence of crop failure is not indepen- dent of public policy (such as governmental fixing of relative prices, or the policy regarding irrigation and agricultural research). Further, ...
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