Summary of Food, Economics and Entitlements by Amartya Sen

Summary of Amartya Sen, “Food, Economics and Entitlements.” World Institute for Development Economics Research, United Nations University, February 1986.

People establish command over food in two broad ways:

  • Direct ownership of food via production
  • conversion of wages into food

The problem of establishing command of food, or the problem of acquiring food in of itself, is central to the question of hunger but remains largely unappreciated by analysts.

Instead, since Malthus, an “undue prominence” has been given by economists to the metric of aggregate food output. As a result, many have fallen into a “Malthusian optimism” – solely interested in whether food output is growing faster or as fast as population growth. As a result, policies responding to growing hunger in the world have also reflected this limited view.

However, the Malthusian perspective cannot respond to the current phenomenon where global food production outpaces global population growth while certain parts of the world suffer from an intensification of hunger.

For instance: in the cases of the Bengal famine of 1943, Ethiopian famine of 1973 and Bangladesh famine of 1974, the food output in these regions saw a slight increase during the years of starvation.

But even when there is a decline in food availability, serious study is required to look at the behavior of the determinants of food acquisition in different sectors of society.

The approach recommended by Amartya Sen is called “The Entitlement Approach”

In a private market, an entitlement set of a person is determined by his original bundle of ownership (endowment) and additional bundles acquired; in this perspective, famine is seen through the lens of loss of endowment (land loss, loss of labor power) or loss of exchange entitlement (fall in wages, rise in food prices).

Cases of boom famines are where this new approach may be most useful in assessing the causes of famine. If economic expansion does not draw into the process a large section of the population, uneven development occurs and causes a decline in that population’s command over food due to their worsened position relative to groups favored by the boom.

Classic economists saw the importance of looking at disparities between economic groups.

Adam Smith took a fairly Malthusian perspective in one part of the Wealth of Nations

a dearth never has arisen from any combination among the inland dealers in corn, nor from any other cause but a real scarcity, occasioned sometimes, perhaps, and in some particular places, by the waste of war, but in by far the greatest number of cases, by the fault of the seasons

blaming crop failure (aggregate food output) for food crises – however, in another part of his magnum opus, he notes

But it would be otherwise in a country where the funds destined for the maintenance of labour were sensibly decaying. Every year the demand for servants and labourers would, in all the different classes of employments, be less than it had been the year before. Many who had been bred in the superior classes, not being able to find employment in their own business, would be glad to seek it in the lowest. The lowest class being not only overstocked with its own workmen, but with the overflowings of all the other classes, the competition for employment would be so great in it, as to reduce the wages of labour to the most miserable and scanty subsistence of the labourer. Many would not be able to find employment even upon these hard terms, but would either starve, or be driven to seek a subsistence either by begging, or by the perpetration perhaps of the greatest enormities. Want, famine, and mortality would immediately prevail in that class, and from thence extend themselves to all the superior classes

in essence taking into consideration the market-based entitlement of laborers (14).

David Ricardo also criticized the opinions of those who could only see aggregate food output when dealing with a food crisis. In response to a MP who suggested that Ireland could not be suffering from a famine because of the overabundance of food production, Ricardo refutes

the honble. gentn. thinks there is a manifest contradiction [in the occurrence of famine amidst abundance of food], but [I] could not agree with him in thinking so. Where was the contradiction in supposing that in a country where wages were regulated mainly by the price of potatoes the people should be suffering the greatest distress if the potato crop failed and their wages were inadequate to purchase the dearer commodity corn? From whence was the money to come to enable their to purchase the grain however abundant it might (be) if its price far exceeds that of potatoes. [I] should not think it absurd or contradictory to maintain that in such a country as England where the food of the people was corn, there might be an abundance of that grain and such low prices as not to afford a renumeration to the grower, and yet that the people might be in distress and not able for want of employment to buy it, but in Ireland the case was much stronger and in that country there should be no doubt there might be a glut of corn, and a starving people.

Here, we see that many people, much like the MP under Ricardo’s scrutiny, often confuse supply with command over food. This works in various ways – for instance, food production is often not only the source of food but also acts as the source of income.

When looking at the years 1969-71 and 1980-82, during the famine in the Sahel, Chad and Burkina Faso suffered a 5% decline in food production, 7% decline in Senegal, 12% decline in Niger, 17% reduction in Mali, 18% reduction in Ethiopia and 27% reduction in Mauritania. While these are serious figures that contributed to the starvation of millions, there is a larger picture than just the decline in food output.

During those same years, there was a 5% decline in food production in Venezuela, 15% decline in Egypt, 24% decline in Algeria, 27% decline in Portugal, 29% reduction in Hong Kong, 30% reduction in Jordan and 38% reduction in Trinidad and Tobago. These serious shortfalls did not cause similar conditions of starvation – the difference is that the countries of the Sahel primarily relied on food production, not only as a direct means of consumption but also as income for exchange – and when the agriculture sector collapsed, the entire economy followed and the people cascaded into starvation.

Of course Sen recognizes the limitations of the entitlement approach; many unforeseen events could throw off the assessment completely:

  • non-legal transfers via looting
  • disease and epidemics
  • tastes and values
  • inter-family distribution system

But this approach does give a new perspective on the problems of famine anticipation and relief.

In anticipating famine, the metric of food availability is clearly defective and a more holistic view is necessary – one that takes into account employment, wages, prices, etc.

In discussing relief, the traditional method of providing food must be reexamined from the entitlement perspective. Sen encourages policymakers to look at the “pull factors” instead of merely the direct distribution of food.

For instance, giving the destitute the ability to command food via cash relief is considered in depth with these advantages listed

  • avoid government inefficiency in transporting food
  • effective in preventing the movement of food out of famine zone
  • creating demand for trade and transport may help generate income for infrastructure
  • flexible usage of development investment
  • does not require people to move to relief camps and thereby disrupt the traditional flow of peoples and goods

Sen contends that Adam Smith’s question of food policy comes down to whether one should provide direct food aid or cash relief. While this is essentially an inflationary policy, cash relief may forward the best option.

In addition, Sen criticizes those who suggest that if famine is not caused by a decline in food availability then there is no case for food imports. In particular, in a boom famine where exorbitant prices disenfranchise those left behind by the uneven development, importing food dilutes prices for the vulnerable. Similar arguments can be made towards slump famines as well.

Sen concludes that long-run policy should focus on enhancing, securing and guaranteeing entitlements rather than expanding food output. These policies include improving public health and providing elementary education.

This is a valuable insight into famine that we should very much take into account as we look at the phenomenon in various contexts – especially North Korea’s.


About Yong Kwon

I develop trade advocacy strategies for a DC-based consulting firm. Studied economic history at the London School of Economics, and can be found on twitter at @ykwon88
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5 Responses to Summary of Food, Economics and Entitlements by Amartya Sen

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