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December 11, 2004


Frank McGahon

Plus: isn't it a rather simplistic assumption that the causes of famine are "natural", caused only by bad weather? Wouldn't it be truer to say that most famines are caused by (civil) war/ethnic "cleansing" and that food is used as a kind of weapon in such conflicts?

Abiola Lapite

Yes, but the idea is that one only hedges against those famines which can actually be pinned to drought conditions (which can be measured easily enough by satellites). The problem of course is that even a famine caused by a dearth of rain can be exacerbated by foolish or malevolent government policies.

Phil Hunt

"""it would be wise to carefully think through all the consequences. What perverse incentives might it create for bad governments to get even worse?"""

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a war in the 1990s. If they hadn't, but instead had saved the money, would they be able to afford enough grain to cover any shortfall in harvest now? I suspect the answer is yes.


The combined entity of Ethiopia and Eritrea had been in some kind of civil war since the '70s.
Moreover, that line that famines are generally caused by that mythical "civil war" and ethnic strife is reallllly getting tired.
There are severe structural problems that face agriculture in Africa all rooted in subsistence farming. In this kind of farming a family usually has about 4 acres of land and they try to grow everything on it, reaching for self-sufficiency.
This fails of course because they don't grow enough of each grain (maize, beans, etc) to last them the season.
Solution: Intense forced collectivization, industrialization and urbanization. Period!
Collectivization & Urbanization - Villages all pool their farms together and are moved to a central location, leaving the stupid little huts behind. The only foods grown by a farm are those that are approved by a responsible entity such as a Ministry of Agriculture.
Industrialisation - All areas that are less than viable where nevertheless people attempt to grow foodstuffs are turned into industrial centres.

This all would result in social upheaval such as has not been seen since the Bolsheviks took over but it would work. Naturally there would be compulsory national service to get interior troops to enforce this.

Frank McGahon

This is a joke right?

I mean forced collectivisation worked sooo well in the Ukraine didn't it?

"Tired" or not, famines are generally caused by political action. Either by incompetence, malign neglect or determined action (to ethnically cleanse, retain food for army use only and starve the target population) in response to the natural disaster whose effect would otherwise not have been so deadly.


No, it didn't work in the Ukraine.
But if forced industrialization hadn't been done, chances are we'd be talking about a completely different world right now.

But I am intimately familiar with what I was talking about and civil wars/ethnic strife play little part in it all. During the struggles for independence, there was war (in several countries) but no starvation.


I'm really not sure I should take anything c-blank
says seriously, but here goes...

"Solution: Intense forced collectivization, industrialization and urbanization. Period!
Collectivization & Urbanization - Villages all pool their farms together and are moved to a central location, leaving the stupid little huts behind. The only foods grown by a farm are those that are approved by a responsible entity such as a Ministry of Agriculture. "

This was tried in Tanzania under Nyerere (sp?) in 60's
and 70's. It was called Ujaama. It failed miserably
though not on a catastrophic scale like the Ukraine.

"During the struggles for independence, there was war (in several countries) but no starvation."

I believe you're confusing your antecedent.


When I said forced collectivisation people automatically got jittery due to the memories of Ukraine.
The problem of small subsistence farms that try to grow everything has to be combated and there is no way Africans will willingly give up their small acres of land! Some form of compunction has to be used!

Modern agricultural equipment also have to be used and it makes no sense to buy expensive equipment for little plots of land. Nomatter how you slice it, African populations are not sparse and there is no way subsistence farming with its attendant soil erosion can feed them!

Some eggs are gonna have to be broken at some point to make this omelet. The sooner people come to grips with this the better.

PS: Ujamaa did not involve FORCED collectivisation and modernisation of agriculture.


Ignoring the ridiculous part of your comment...

"PS: Ujamaa did not involve FORCED collectivisation and modernisation of agriculture."

Not at first. But since the farmers weren't too keen
on the idea, by the early and mid 70's the program
became more and more compulsory and, yes, forced.
As in, at gunpoint.

Actually, going back to the ridiculous part of your
comment, don't you think that there is some GOOD
REASON why small farmers, albeit subsistence level
and all that, DO NOT WISH to be collectivized?
(Come on, think really hard...)


I don't see a reason why I should continue a debate with a total self-absorbed moron.
1) Who cares why they don't want to be collectivised? Are you going to feed them when the famine comes or are you going to do what you probably usually do which is to point at their swollen bellies and indict the rest of Africa, waxing rhapsodic over corrupt leaders?
2) How come you can't think of the successes of Kibbutzim in Israel. Why should one failed example during the Cold War sink the whole entreprise?

Frank McGahon

Because the kibbutzim were *voluntary* - the difference between voluntary collectivisation and forced collectivisation is the same as that between voluntary sex and rape.

The reasons that forced collectivisation failed** everywhere and will predictably fail should it be attempted in the future are plain to see. It's not rocket science. Someone who owns land has an incentive to get the best yield out of it, conserve its utility and invest in it. Someone who is paid a wage by a big collective doesn't really give a stuff. This follow all the way up the bureaucratic chain of management in a state-run company right to the top - so long as blame may be deflected - and this buck-passing is an art form in large bureaucracies - failure is no big deal.

**and this is merely examining purely utilitarian perspective without even considering the abrogation of basic personal freedom associated with being marched off one's farm at gunpoint


Oh goodness, here we go again! Have you ever been in one of those village farms? Well, I have and not just as a visitor so let me tell you about it.

I said it had to be forced because of precisely the reasons you state - nobody wants to give up their land at all nomatter how small! But that is hurting the people at large.

Even though the govt sets up a ministry of agriculture that publishes guidelines on what crops are suitable for where, and provides subsidised seeds engineered for the different soils, the farmers don't pay any attention! They use previous season seeds and refuse to willingly buy the correct manure/fertiliser, only doing so for cashcrops and only because the cooperatives that are in charge of cashcrop farming won't accept produce from errant farmers!

"Someone who owns land has an incentive to get the best yield out of it, conserve its utility and invest in it."

This is laugable! Best yield, conserve utility, invest in it???? Suuuuuure! Give me a break! Nobody except the commercial farmers pays any attention to best yield and investment. The way it works is, if you don't get enough yield from present farmland, clear up more virgin terrain and f*ck up the rainfall patterns and feed the same damned cycle!

Folks, talk to rural Africans before you spout of all this packaged nonsense, NOT urbanised Africans.

Abiola Lapite

"Folks, talk to rural Africans before you spout of all this packaged nonsense, NOT urbanised Africans."

Well, I've met my share of rural Africans - some of them are even related to me - and I maintain that everything you've said is flat-out wrong. Forced collectivization has failed *everywhere* it has been tried, and West African farmers have done just fine when they weren't being screwed over by government bureaucrats who thought they knew better, whether via marketing boards, artificially strong currencies or unsolicited advice on what fertilizers and seeds to use when.

Nkrumah went out of his way to ruin Ghanaian cocoa farmers for selfish ethnic reasons, while Yoruba cocoa farmers were thriving until "Dutch disease" undermined them during the 1970s oil boom, and in neither case did slash and burn agriculture play a significant role - in fact, such agricultural practices aren't productive enough to support the high population densities that are typical of West Africa. As for Ethiopia, why don't you go look through Ethiopundit's archives before making pronouncements about the causes of famine in that country? He's written about the topic in quite some depth, and one would think he'd be in a better position to know about its roots than you or I.

Finally, your attack on subsistence farming is particularly ill-judged in light of the fact that in countries where collectivization *has* occurred, e.g. the Soviet Union or Communist China, most agricultural production has ended up coming from just such efforts, and their productivity has surpassed that of the collective farms many times over. This is something you could have discovered for yourself with even the slightest effort on your part to research the issue before commenting.


And Cocoa farming by Yorubas is supposed to prove what?
Cocoa farming by Yorubas is the precise consequence of Forced Farming and Collectivization.
Look - farming Cash crops under Colonial rule was almost always the result of Imperial fiat. In Ghana, Congo, Nigeria etc all the Cash crops were farmed because of Colonial might.
Farmers in Southern Nigeria werent thriving under colonial rule. In the 40s, the Colonial administration blockaded the production of common Cassava and Garri, Rationalized farming quotas, blockaded the movement of Garri from the South-East to the North; etc etc.
That Cocoa farming by Yorubas died out is not, like some say, the product of Dutch Disease or Crude Oil attack or some other thing like that - it is precisely because the agents of force (The British) became absent.

As for CaptainBlak - Your entire argument smacks of gas.

Forced collectivization is not the answer. It didnt work with the Yorubas or the Ethnics of Congo and it will not work today.
The political climate of most African countries has crap as incentives for Farmers - which is why there is little farming.
Furthermore, giving monopolies to Friends of the Government to Import Wheat and Rice and stuff like that isnt going to help local farmers. So they all want to become importers. But with what lousy foreign exchange?

There is nothing wrong with subsistence farming per se. When the market provides incentives, the Farmers are wise enough to know that they've got to move on. But what incentives are really available to Farmers when crony importers and their gangsters heckle the Govt into granting them virtual monopolies?

Nigerians eat so much gaddem rice, why is there so little rice farming in the country? (barring physical constraints).
Beans, rice, wheat, toothpicks, oranges, everything is imported - so why the hell should anyone farm?
Lower cost? But bad quality - so very few of the Lagos and Abuja elites with Cash to spend are going to buy it anyhow. They prefer to buy Thai rice.
So why should anyone farm?
Why farm for surplus when it can always be imported and good quality too?

Mick Fealty

Interesting conversation.

I looked at the Irish famine of the 1840s a few years back. There was no civil war as such at the time, though four years in we tried to join in revolutions of 1848 with the 'battle of the cabbage patch': when a group of Young Irelanders surrounded a police barracks in Tipperary, I think.

However, a few other things do stick in my mind. One, those worst affected were not wholly integrated into the cash economy. Sure they used small amounts of money (almost always in coin) to buy clothes and furniture, but their precarious balance was in trading their cash produce for the rent of their homesteads. There was nothing much in the way of a free market for the small farmer. Heating came from peat dug from nearby bogs.

A single staple, the potato, represented their self sufficiency. Peel's government was all for direct intervention, but Russell's Liberals were sure the market needed to remain open as possible, and cut back the famine relief to (as it happened) less than the bare minimum.

The results were multiple:

In the short term over a million people died of hunger and/or cholera or typhus. Cuts in famine relief in the third (and most severe) year, opened the flood gates of mass emigration that would see the population of the island cut in two over the next thirty years.

But it also spelt the beginning of the end of landlord power in Ireland. Those small farmers remaining were able to enlarge their farms and in poorer land in the south and west they were able to turn away from less suitable arable farming (dictated by landlords who had teaming numbers of peasants to work the land) towards the more profitable and efficient use of livestock.

Famine had been a recurring feature of Irish country life for a over century before - Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal was proof that it had been a fixed topic of political debate nearly a century earlier.

It was the last and possibly worst 'great famine' in western Europe. But it could also be argued that it forced an ugly but redemptive change on the country's human and agricultural economy.

I'm not sure what lessons can be drawn from Irish history for contemporary Africa. But I think it suggests that the answers are likely to be long term, and that without some great care, the economic correctives which are applied may have some extremely severe and unintended consequences.

Peter Nolan

O Captain, My Captain, whoever and wherever you are...

I'd stugggle to find an example of a country in which collectivisation worked. Ukraine, China, Cambodia, Ethiopa under Menghistu - shouldn't the fact that these were the biggest famines of the twentieth century indicate some slight implementation problems?

Certainly the Chinese case, which I've looked at in some detail, is probably the best rebuttal. Collectivisation killed about thirty million with "Intense forced collectivization, industrialization and urbanization". Since the end of the cultural revolution, agriculture has been a continual and dazzling success, allowing the Chinese to feed a fifth of the world's population on 6% of its arable land. Start of with Becker's Hungry Ghosts and eiter of Vaclav Smil's books on China before you starting writing garbage.


Reading some of these comments I get the distinct impression that most of you have never been anywhere close to the types of 4-acre plots of land that grow maize, beans, vegetables and coffee that I'm talking about.

Refer to my blog for more:


Surely the "weather derivatives" are a spare wheel on this idea? All the actual benefit is derived from the provision of aid, early, when and where it is needed. If this was as easy to achieve as it is to say, then, given that there is such a thing as a WFP and it is (reasonably) well funded, there should be much less of a famine problem than there is.

In any case, Amartya Sen won his Nobel for showing that famines are not typically linked to extreme weather conditions, didn't he?

Frank McGahon

But Mick, isn't it the case that the penal laws "artificially" created many of these tiny holdings in the first place by denying the right of primogeniture - farms had to be divided among sons and not awarded to (the first born) one?


Frank, that is correct. That's one reason why I'm not sure about what can be read across from the Irish experience.

The effects of the penal laws did not disappear overnight. My own grandfather's farm in northern Donegal was subdivided by his own great grandfather between six siblings. Of the seventeen acres he had, not much more than three or four were much use for growing anything. That the family survived the famine and kept their land was, I suspect, as much to do with their proximity to the sea (and a decent supply of fish) as anything else.

The only reason the family (and pretty much all of its neighbours) survived in the long term was the consistent flow of the kids off the farm and on Belfast, Liverpool and Philadelphia. Pressure was released from the land and the money sent back enabled later generations to attain educational and vocational qualifications.

I think the commonality between the Irish experience and the African experience is the immaturity of the market economy, and disportionately affecting those on the edge of the cash economy.

It is the peasant's inability to purchase the available food which leaves them vulnerable when the stable crop crashes. Most notoriously food trucks flowed past the famine stricken areas in 1973 on their way to those who had the means to buy in Addis.

Peter Nolan

Mick, no doubt you'll get a stern lecture from Frank, but you might like to have a look at this article written by a friend of mine from Donegal.

The lesson I took from Sen's Poverty and Famine and Cormac O'Grada's book was that the food, infrastructure and money were available to the governments in question, but that they never did anything effective to
relieve the fatal lack of purchasing power.

Even Malthus himself was quite optimistic about Ireland's prospects and I still don't see any reason why it was inevitable. I read an essay, which I think was from Peter Gray, which argued that there was simply no electoral payoff for any British politician in raising taxes on the British middle classes to pay for it. Who says Irish nationalism was a tragic mistake?

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