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Famines and Economics

Martin Ravallion

Georgetown University

December 1996

World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 1693

Factors that increase vulnerability to famine include poverty, weak social and physical infrastructure, a weak and unprepared government, and a relatively closed political regime. 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 managed economies. 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.

This paper - a product of the Poverty and Human Resources Division, Policy Research Department - is part of a larger effort in the department to better understand the economic and political factors that can make poor people vulnerable to aggregate shocks.

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Date posted: December 21, 2004  

Suggested Citation

Ravallion, Martin, Famines and Economics (December 1996). World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 1693. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=636107

Contact Information

Martin Ravallion (Contact Author)
Georgetown University ( email )
Washington, DC 20057
United States
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