Famine and Fraternity

Amartya Sen

The death of somebody one loves is unbearable not only because of its devastating impact on one’s life, but also because it is excruciatingly difficult for one to accept the victim’s own loss of everything he or she had. If one feels lacerated and burnt, this partly reflects the primitive agony of seeing the victim’s incomparable tragedy. The ‘self-regarding’ element in one’s grief at the death of a loved person is thus supplemented by an ‘other-regarding’ element concerning that loved person, even though the two elements may be extremely hard to disentangle.

The death of somebody one did not know appears to us as a different type of phenomenon altogether. We can read about victims of accidents or epidemics or famines with comparative equanimity, and we are evidently able to turn rapidly to the next news item, perhaps the latest cricket score. There is nothing perplexing in this contrast as far as the self-regarding element in grief is concerned, since our lives may not be at all affected by the deaths of distant and unknown people. But there is something that needs explaining in the altogether unmoved way we seem to be able to view the ‘other-regarding’ element when the victim has no relationship with us. To accept the legitimacy of this question is not the same as presuming that our agony at the dead person’s own tragedy must be independent of the personal relationship. There may be nothing perplexing in the fact that our ability to sympathise with, and grieve at, someone else’s tragedy may plausibly be diminished by distance. But there is something extraordinary in the almost total absence of sympathy and grief with which we are able to absorb massive news of premature deaths of victims far away. The varying intensity of our concern may not, in itself, compromise our humanity, but the near-absence of any concern for distant victims would do exactly that.

It is arguable that our indifference to distant deaths is part of a mechanism that ensures our own viability, which might otherwise have been strained by constant grief at ever-occurring tragedies, causing fruitless anguish in situations in which we can do nothing to prevent these tragedies. This view makes grief essentially an ‘intermediate product’, in which the end-product would be some helpful assistance that we may provide, spurred on by that grief. This is not a point of view that is easy to accept (grief can scarcely be only instrumental to action), even though some versions of the utilitarian philosophy have tended to push us in that direction. But even within its own general terms, the special use of this view to explain non-grief at distant suffering is defective in its taking for granted that our ability to affect distant tragedies is very nearly nil. In fact, in most cases, victims of famines and epidemics suffer and die over a longish time and can be substantially helped by others in their life-and-death battles. Indeed, there are many different ways in which we can help in tragedies occurring in distant places.

The nature of our indifference to distant suffering and death may be broadly explainable in one of two different lights. One is unconcern, and the other ignorance. The former hypothesis suggests that we really do not – possibly cannot – care about the suffering and death of people not connected with us, and while bonds of kinship, neighbourhood, class, community or nationhood may make us concerned, our common humanity is not, in itself, a potent force in generating solidarity. The other hypothesis attributes the explanation to our ignorance. We are myopic, and may not know exactly what happens far away. Even when we do know it in vague terms, we may not fully understand the nature and extent of the tragedy. But most important, we may fail to understand that we can make a difference – that we can effectively help.

The difference between these two points of view – unconcern and ignorance – may have far-reaching consequences in understanding what we are, and also in influencing the way we think about moral and political questions. In recent developments in moral and political philosophy, concepts of community or nationhood have figured prominently in some influential non-universalist approaches to the understanding of obligations and imperatives. Even in the universalist contractarian approaches, notions of equality or justice or fairness have frequently been seen in terms of hypothetical contracts between people living in the same society and tied to each other by bonds of an implicit political community. Some of the biggest advances in our understanding of the idea of justice in recent decades have come from powerful political and moral analyses within this approach. The most notable example is the great contribution to the theory of justice presented by John Rawls, who pioneered the revival of the contractarian approach, but has increasingly stressed the universalist concerns of a Kantian concept of ‘the person’ (especially in his 1980 Dewey Lectures[*]).

The recent emergence of the so-called ‘Bob Geldof phenomenon’ is a matter of some relevance for these arguments. Of course, the primary importance of this phenomenon lies in the substantial funds that these efforts have been generating. The Live Aid concert last summer produced a stunning $70 million or more. The more recent Sport Aid seems to be producing a larger fund still. Properly expended, these resources can help in reducing suffering and death in Africa. Even though the beneficiaries form a fairly small proportion of the total number of victims (as is bound to be the case, given the size of the suffering population), the achievements are by no means inconsiderable. There is also the achievement of producing spectacular social events – in particular, ‘the biggest concert the world has ever seen’. Geldof is understandably proud of this, as can be spotted easily enough in his eminently readable autobiography Is that it?

Geldof quotes Yeats: ‘I carry from my mother’s womb/A fanatic heart.’ He clearly does. It enlivens his contrary childhood in Dublin; drives him through passion and love (and the years with Paula Yates); moves him to New Wave music (and the Boomtown Rats); makes him travel across the world with devouring eyes. And then it engulfs him in the extraordinary moral enterprise of getting rock music and showbiz to tackle hunger and famine in Africa, while ceaselessly lecturing the political leaders of the world (Mrs Thatcher retaliated with what Geldof describes as ‘her death-ray glare’). It is an exciting story, well told.

Bob Geldof the man is interesting enough. The ‘Bob Geldof phenomenon’ is even more so. The public response to the extraordinary events organised by that ‘fanatic heart’ has been spectacularly warm and involved. The phenomenon also raises deeply interesting questions about the nature of human ties, and ultimately about what kind of social creatures we human beings happen to be. The interesting thing is not only that substantial contributions are being made to help relieve the sufferings of distant victims. The really significant point concerns the greater sensitivity to information that the phenomenon has brought out. A sharper understanding of the extent of hunger in Africa and a greater awareness of the possibility of making a difference to the situation through one’s own actions seem to have transformed the way a great many people think about what their responsibilities are.

The informational process did not begin with Bob Geldof. An earlier departure was the graphic television reporting of Ethiopian famines about two years ago. But Band Aid, Live Aid and Sport Aid have vastly expanded the sphere of involvement. More exposure has led to more awareness, and that seems to have led to more concern and to a sense of obligation which many people have felt they had to act on. The appeal is much more direct and is based on more fundamental human links than can be easily accommodated in a model of obligation based on a hypothetical contract covering members of a given community. Whether the hungry in one country and the affluent in another can be sensibly seen as sharing such an implicit contract seems almost a redundant consideration in the light of the force of direct appeals to our common humanity.

The ‘Bob Geldof phenomenon’ has also raised sharply some less fundamental but more immediately practical issues. The point has often been made that the promoters of these global events are long on publicity but short on analysis. It has also been pointed out that they have been far less concerned with understanding and explaining the causation of famines and hunger than would be needed if really effective policy intervention were sought. Bob Geldof himself has been accused of trying to silence criticisms of this kind with the emotional non-sequitur of bellowing: ‘People are dying.’ Geldof’s dislike of politics, and his evident inclination to abstain from discussing the relevant social and economic issues, have aroused the suspicion of economic planners as well as political and social activists.

No doubt there is a good deal of truth in these criticisms. The problem of poverty, hunger and famines is too integrally political and economic for it to be appropriate to abstract from these questions. Having expended, as an economist, a good deal of time and effort in trying to analyse the causes of famines and hunger (and finding these causes to be often very different from the ones that are usually given), I am certainly not unsympathetic to seeking solutions that rely on economic and political change. But at the same time, it is worth asking whether the ‘Bob Geldof phenomenon’ is not, in fact, more deeply political than either its advocates or its detractors accept.

Indeed, it is arguable that, in a broad sense, spreading information about the hungry is itself a political act. As the nature of the misery is forcefully presented to the general public, the possibility of politically ignoring the question becomes, to that extent, unviable. If the ‘ignorance’ rather than the ‘unconcern’ hypothesis is accepted, the political importance of a powerful exposition of basic facts about distant hunger must be seen as very considerable. The publicist is, in this sense, also the politician.

The point applies not only in the context of international assistance and of political pressures on the governments in rich, donor countries, but also in assessing the internal politics of the recipient countries themselves. I have tried to argue elsewhere that perhaps the strongest influence in preventing the occurrence of famines in India has come from a relatively free press. As soon as there are any starvation deaths at all, however small the number, the press can spread the news and generate a lot of political disquiet and of pressure to do something about the problem. Contrary to popular impression, food availability per head in India has not gone up at all dramatically. One reason there have been no famines since Independence is to be found in the nature of Indian democracy and its political organisation. The activities of the press and of political parties have played an informing role as well as a political one in making counteracting measures inescapable. A number of threatened famines have failed to materialise precisely because of this ‘political early warning system’ – in Bihar in 1967-68, Maharashtra in 1973, in West Bengal in 1978-79. While such relief has been feasible because of public storage of food grains and other state policies, the political antecedents of an interventionist programme are also quite crucial factors.

Despite China’s superior record to India’s in tackling the more chronic aspects of the food problem (in particular, widespread undernourishment), China, unlike India, did have an astonishingly major famine during 1959-61, with millions of deaths – nearly thirty million, it is estimated.[†] The policy mistakes were acknowledged later, but the absence of a free press helped to hide the terrible information and to mute the voice of protest. The famine continued uninterrupted for three years. Anti-famine policies not only require good economic plans of production and distribution, but also the generating of adequate political pressures which will act on the government and the leadership. The fact that most of the famine-stricken countries have nothing like a relatively free press is a matter of some significance. On the other side, there has rarely been a famine in a country with a free and active press.

The Geldof phenomenon can be more fully appreciated if it is seen in relation to the more general issue concerning the role of the media in preventing hunger and famine. In 1973, when Ethiopia as well as the Sahel countries was experiencing quite disastrous famines, the food output per head in Maharashtra in India was substantially lower than in Ethiopia or in the average Sahelian country. The prevention of the famine in India was almost entirely due to public action, involving both movements of food grains into Maharashtra, and, more important, the generating of purchasing ability through employment programmes. The process of famine relief was ‘activated’ by early information about the food situation and by pressures generated by the news media. As a result, there was, in fact, no famine, despite the unusually low availability of food grains in Maharashtra even after taking into account the food that was actually moved into Maharashtra as a part of public policy. The marshalling of internal distribution within the state of Maharashtra was crucial, and the role of media reports in ‘activating’ these policies was significant.

It is, of course, important not to overestimate the role that the press can play. In India, while the news media have been tremendously helpful in the prevention of famines, they have been able to do relatively little in removing the chronic undernourishment from which perhaps a third of the Indian rural population persistently suffers. Chronic undernutrition – as opposed to dramatic starvation deaths – is not particularly newsworthy, just as it would not be a natural subject for rock music. The dramatic things get the attention both of the media and of the pressure groups: the less sharp but more pervasive phenomenon of undernourishment cannot easily catch the limelight. If, however, it is correct to think that information is both politically and morally extremely important, then the need to give publicity to less dramatic but more widespread misery must be seen as crucial. The politicisation of the issue may be essential for a rapid solution, and may well be deeply dependent on the media.

The economic causes of hunger are quite diverse, and the common predicament of the hungry does not indicate a common causation. Hunger can result from one or more of very many different developments affecting the ‘entitlements’ of potentially vulnerable groups. It would be unfair to criticise Bob Geldof (or the ‘phenomenon’) for not going more deeply into the large variety of causes which have been responsible for famine and undernourishment in Africa. Indeed the causes of famines and starvation are now technically much better understood, and the crucial lacuna may, at this stage, lie in awareness, emotions and determination.

The ‘Bob Geldof phenomenon’ has certainly contributed to drawing our attention to a number of very basic questions. They include a re-examination of the moral nature of human concern, the political role of information, the social role of the media, and the power of public pressure. These questions may well make us think again about morality and politics in general. The Geldof phenomenon fits into a much larger story. ‘Is that it?’ Bob Geldof has asked. In a sense, it is. But there is also a lot more.

[*] Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, 1980.

[†] See ‘Famine in China 1958-61’ by B. Ashton, K. Hill, A. Piazza and R. Zeitz, in Population and Development Review, 10, 1984.