The European Journal of Development Research

, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 699–717 | Cite as

The Merits of Democracy in Famine Protection – Fact or Fallacy?

  • Olivier Rubin
EJDR Prize Winner


Amartya Sen's assertion that democratic institutions together with a free press provide effective protection from famine is one of the most cited and broadly accepted contributions in modern famine theory. Through a mix of qualitative and quantitative evidence, this article critically examines whether indeed democracies do provide protection from famine. The qualitative research builds on analyses of democratic political dynamics in famine situations (in Bihar 1966, Malawi 2002 and Niger 2005), whereas the quantitative research looks for cross-country correlations between political systems and famine incidents. The article calls into question the strength of the link between democracy and famine protection. Famines have indeed occurred in electoral democracies where the political dynamics at times were counterproductive in providing protection from famine. The article concludes that to fully grasp the complexities of famine, one should replace monocausal political explanations (such as democracy protects against famine) with general tools for context-specific political analysis.

La déclaration d’Amartya Sen selon lequel les institutions démocratiques et une presse libre fournissent une protection efficace contre le risque de famine est l’une des contributions les plus citées (et acceptées) dans la théorie moderne de la famine. En combinant une approche quantitative et qualitative, cet article reconsidère le point de vue de Sen. La composante qualitative du papier se base sur la dynamique de la politique démocratique dans un contexte de famine (le Bihar en 1966, le Malawi en 2002 et le Niger en 2005) tandis que la partie quantitative se penche sur des corrélations, effectuées en coupe transversale entre les systèmes politiques et les famines. Nos résultats mettent en doute la robustesse du lien entre la démocratie et la protection contre la famine. En effet, des famines se sont produites dans des démocraties lorsque la dynamique politique du moment y était contreproductive. L’article conclut en notant que le phénomène de la famine est complexe, et appelle à remplacer les explications mono-causales par des outils plus généraux et sensibles au contexte.


Democracy governance famine food security Amartya Sen India Niger Malawi 


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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Olivier Rubin
    • 1
  1. 1.Assistant Professor, University of CopenhagenCopenhagen

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