Monday, January 2, 2012

Democracy, hunger, aid

The famine in Somalia this fall received a fair amount of press, which likely helped increase aid flows to the country. Aid efforts appear to have helped forestall a worst-case outcome, which is great. Of course, the fact that a famine erupted at all is due in large part to the absence of a functioning government (and continual fighting between groups aspiring to be the government) in the country.

Amartya Sen famously pointed out in his classic Poverty and Famines that famines are exceedingly unlikely under a functioning, democratic government. Hunger, however, does happen; moreover, being less extreme than famine, hunger is generally under-reported. The New York Times performs a valuable service today, highlighting hunger in the Democratic Republic of Congo (in an article by Adam Nossiter).

Congo is, at least nominally, a democracy. Indeed, elections were held in November, albeit with lots of problems and irregularities. The article gives a striking illustration both of Sen's thesis and of one mechanism that might undermine it.

On the one hand, Nossiter notes that the government is interested in enriching itself, not its citizens, investing nothing in the agricultural sector. In fact, one expert suggests that all agricultural projects undertaken in the country are funded by foreign aid donors rather than the national government. This is the kind of behaviour one might expect from autocratic governments that need not rely on public support. Moreover, it is the kind of behaviour that one could imagine leading to a famine at some point in the future.

On the other hand, Nossiter suggests, the daily struggle for sustenance may make it possible for such blatant disregard for the lives of citizens to co-exist with regular (albeit rather flawed) elections. So is a famine possible in democracies with rulers who have farmed out the "caring for the survival of our citizens" to foreign aid organizations? And if so, what can/should aid organizations do about this?

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