Cover page

Title page

Copyright page

Tables and Figures


4.1 Distribution of great, calamitous and catastrophic famines

4.2 Catalogue of great and calamitous famines and forced mass starvation

4.3 Catalogue of great and calamitous famines and forced mass starvation, 1915–50

4.4 Catalogue of great, calamitous and catastrophic famines and forced mass starvation, 1950–85

4.5 Catalogue of great famines and forced mass starvation, 1986–2011

6.1 Famine crime endings, 1950–2010

8.1 Famines and food crises in Ethiopia

8.2 Life chances in Ethiopia


1.1 Mortality in great and calamitous famines by decade, 1870–2010

2.1 Causes of death in Darfur per month, 2003–5

3.1 World population and death toll from great famines, 1870–2010

4.1 Mortality in great and calamitous famines by continent and decade, 1870–2010

4.2 Numbers of famines per decade

4.3 Geographical distribution of famine mortality, 1870–2010

4.4 Economies of Western Europe, China and India as a proportion of world GDP, 1700–1950

5.1 Famine mortality by age group in Darfur

7.1 Humanitarian assistance budgets (all donors): 1971–2015

8.1 Ethiopian GDP per capita and famine mortality, 1958–2010

9.1 Number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day worldwide, 1990–2015 (millions)

9.2 Relative gain in income per capita by global income level, 1988–2008

9.3 Global cereal prices, 1990–2017

9.4 Index of real cereal prices (US), 1866–2008

9.5 Global population at risk of hunger, without climate change and with median and high scenarios for climate change


Almost all writing on famine seeks to explain why famines happen − exercises in the most dismal science − or how humanitarian responses succeed or fail. I began writing this book in 2016 by turning these questions around, asking why calamitous famines had become so rare in the contemporary world, and what could be done to abolish them entirely. These are still relevant questions, but over the course of writing this book my optimism faded. In 2017, famines came back. The head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O'Brien, said in May, ‘famine is knocking on the doors of millions tonight’.1 As this book goes to press, we are left to consider whether the starvation in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen represents a temporary setback or heralds a new era of famines and how we can best respond in either case.

Famine is a shapeshifter. Whether or not there are calamitous famines in the coming century, and where and how such famines will manifest themselves, depends on the forces that shape our global political economy. Let me highlight two elements and how they may interact to shape famine.

One is climate change and the societal transformations needed for humanity to live within the capacity of the planet. There is absolutely no good reason why global warming, and its adverse impacts on the natural environment and on food production, need cause famine.

The second element is the rise of transactional politics. Elsewhere I have called this the ‘political marketplace’2 − a governance system characterized by the exchange of political services and loyalties for material resources in a competitive manner, overwhelming any institutional forms of government. In such a system, private interest prevails over public goods and human lives are valued only in so far as they contribute to political gain. Humanitarian action is subordinate to political bargaining. It is no coincidence that each of the sites of mass starvation in 2017 qualifies as a political marketplace.

The logic of political power − ultimately, power over who is entitled to live and who doesn't enjoy that right − is often seen most clearly from the global margins. That is the case for Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen today. The mass starvation in these countries is both a scandal and a tragedy in its own right and also a lens for understanding global political trends. Security bosses and political entrepreneurs in these countries are candid that they are operators in a market in which political power is traded, and where people are commodities or bargaining chips. The same political logic is now recognizable in Washington, DC, and American political operators are using a political vernacular that is familiar to their counterparts in Khartoum or Kabul. President Donald J. Trump's security and economic advisors have written, ‘The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. … Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.’3

Transactional politics provides fertile soil for ‘counter-humanitarianism’ − the rolling back of the hard-won humane norms of the last seventy years. Among the counter-humanitarians are political-business elites, who use humanitarian actions only as part of power games, and ideologues, such as religious absolutists, who reject the norms altogether.

In so far as the Trump Administration can be said to have a humanitarian agenda or doctrine, it is tactical and instrumental. Consider the situations in Syria and Yemen in 2017. In both countries, military campaigns have inflicted starvation and destroyed the infrastructure necessary for sustaining life. In a remarkably candid address to the Security Council, O'Brien said:

The people of Yemen are being subjected to deprivation, disease and death as the world watches. This is not an unforeseen or coincidental result of forces beyond our control. It is a direct consequence of actions of the parties and supporters of the conflict, and is also, sadly, a result of inaction − whether due to inability or indifference − by the international community.4

Most of the USAID staff working on these countries are responding with the same commitment and professionalism as they did under previous administrations. Some are compromised by clandestine second jobs in intelligence or logistics for special operations.5 The bigger story is that their new political masters are whittling humanitarian action down to a matter of bargaining. This is evident from the statements of the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, on Syria and Yemen. Haley has repeatedly condemned the Syrian government for starvation as a method of war, even comparing it to the use of chemical weapons, different in so far as it is ‘a quieter, slower kind of death’.6 On another occasion, she said ‘the Assad regime − with help from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah − has attacked and destroyed medical facilities in a relentless campaign of destruction.’ But a few sentences later, her tone changed, ‘Turning to Yemen,’ she said, ‘the fighting has led to the rapid deterioration of the country's healthcare infrastructure.’7 It was rare for her to make any reference to a destructive and faminogenic campaign fought by US allies, using US weapons, and she did not acknowledge responsibility, express any readiness to curtail the infliction of starvation or concede that a universal principle was at stake.

Because it is funded by charitable appeals, the humanitarian business is particularly likely to succumb to such a transactional ethos. Apparently oblivious to relatively unsophisticated financial instruments such as insurance, international disaster relief is still financed by a mechanism akin to beggars sitting in a row pleading for alms, hoping that the benefactors’ coins or pity don't run out halfway down the line.8

In only one of today's famine crises − Somalia − has climate played a major role. The trend away from drought famines to political famines is not set to change: we are not going to return to subsistence agrarian societies in which people starve when the rain fails. Without doubt, climate change will cause food production fluctuations and shortfalls and will cause great stress to societies, and especially the poorest. But there is no reason why global warming should increase the risk of famine anywhere in the world. The key links in the chain that leads to famine are always political.

Unfortunately, transactional politics amid traumatic ecological change spells very serious danger. The Trump Administration is treating climate change negotiations in a political marketplace spirit, as if there were no such thing as a global commons. The similar transactional habitus for managing planetary resources and the survival of human beings is, I suspect, the main thread linking climate change and famine. As I repeatedly stress in this book, the knowledge, capacities and resources for preventing famine are sufficiently well advanced that it requires a combination of different adversities and political malfeasance to perpetrate mass starvation. Unfortunately, such combinations may be in prospect. The probable route to climate-related famine is not through extreme droughts reducing farmers in poor countries to starvation, or through drying wells causing pastoralists to fight over water for their camels. It lies through tactical bargaining over getting a better deal than one's rival, in pursuit of power, at the expense of human welfare. In the pursuit of transactional political gain, all other causes give way. Public goods, science and its policy prescriptions, and the survival of human communities other than one's own, become expendable. Until now, the major international efforts of confronting climate change have been in science and public policy. An equally important and difficult task is defeating transactional politics.

The most uncomfortable part of the book to write was the challenge to colleagues who work on climate change and the natural environment to scale back alarmism on the faminogenic properties of global warming. The evidence for climate change is irrefutable, but the evidence that it will cause conflict and starvation is less robust. I also worry that the study of the ecology of human populations has proven susceptible to Malthusian logic, which has in the past contributed to ecological justifications for inhumane policies, and could do so again.

Meanwhile, there are three major reasons for remaining optimistic that calamitous famines will not return. One is that today's reversal represents − so far − a deviation from a strong baseline. In the thirty-five years since I began studying famine, there has been a spectacular decline in famines and famine mortality. Today's deterioration is real, but it is from a level without historical precedent, in which people have been better fed, less poor and longer-lived than ever before.

A related reason for optimism is that we have learned much more about the famines of the last century, and in doing so we can sharpen our analysis of their political causes. As Andrea Graziosi9 points out, much famine theory − notably including Amartya Sen's seminal ‘entitlement theory’10 − was developed at a time when the greatest political famines of the age were still largely unknown. The historical exercise of re-assessing those military starvations and political famines not only helps explain why calamitous famines have declined but also sharpens the challenge of putting today's famines in today's global political-economic context.

A third reason is that the response to the 2017 crises has been prompt and (unevenly) effective. There has been a chorus of condemnation of the use of starvation as a weapon in South Sudan and Syria. Humanitarian efforts have been expanded. In June, the UN was able to withdraw its designation of ‘famine’ from the worst-hit districts of South Sudan, because humanitarian assistance had pulled people back from the brink − even though the overall number of people suffering hunger had increased.11 Humanitarians are better at appealing for as-yet-unmet needs than at providing a robust empirical defence of their record. And it is a remarkable record, worthy of protection.

The best form of defending a beleaguered commitment to global public action against famine is to take the political initiative and argue for what can be achieved and for what must be stopped. I propose that at the top of the agenda should be a campaign to criminalize starvation. This book is written in the confident hope that well-informed and targeted activism can make a difference. There are many injustices and failings that contribute to famine, and for every famine there are numerous culprits to share responsibility. But, as the debate on resurgent famine has unfolded in 2017, one course of action stands out above all others: branding mass starvation as a crime and expressly prohibiting it. Let the legal scholars debate on how best to find a legal mechanism: the most effective route, and also the quickest, is well-directed public outrage. An international convention (or, more likely, an addendum to an existing protocol or statute) might be useful as a focal point for mobilization. The fundamental task is to summon sufficient universal revulsion to make it unthinkable to perpetrate famine.



This book draws upon research and experience stretching back thirty years, and to give full credit to those who shaped my thinking across the span of my career would be an impossible task. Among those who most influenced my approach to famine were Alula Pankhurst, Ken Wilson, Meghan Vaughan, Wendy James, Amartya Sen, Jeremy Swift, Ahmed Karadawi, Hassan Abdel Ati, Dessalegn Rahmato, Angela Raven-Roberts, John Seaman, Tony Vaux, Mark Duffield, David Keen, Stephen Devereux, Barbara Hendrie, Susanne Jaspars, Helen Young, Michael Medley, Luka Biong, Meles Zenawi, Abadi Zemo and Tekleweyne Assefa.

The immediate stimulus for this book was an invitation to contribute a chapter on hunger and armed conflict to the Global Hunger Index 2015. In particular I want to thank Olive Towey, Connell Foley, Sandra Lin, Georges Hounga, Andrea Sonntag and Klaus von Grebmer for their contributions during the writing, editing and launch of the GHI and thereafter. A complementary stimulus was an ongoing conversation with Bridget Conley, Programme Director at the World Peace Foundation, about famine as mass atrocity, and in particular how the insights from her project on ‘how mass atrocities end’ could be applied to mass starvation: Bridget's influence is evident in many places in this book. My research assistant Aditya Sarkar has been indispensable on all aspects of the research, especially assembling and maintaining the dataset of historic famines. Others who have provided essential contributions include Stefan Dercon, Andrew Dusek, Charles Fogelman, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, Rachel Ibreck, Mary Kaldor, Dan Maxwell, Dyan Mazurana, Charlotte Morris, Sarah Nouwen, Jens Pedersen, Henry Radice and James Tyner. It was a delight to work with Louise Knight, Nekane Tanaka Galdos, Neil de Cort and Gail Ferguson and the team at Polity Press. The functioning of the World Peace Foundation – and my ability to take the time to write a book such as this – are wholly reliant on the dedication of our Associate Director Lisa Avery. Finally, this book could not have been written without the support and love of my family: Hannah, Adan and Nimco.

This book is dedicated to the memory of my beloved son, Hiroe.

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

Primo Levi 1996 (1958), p. 90.


Part I
Perspectives on Famine and Starvation

An Unacknowledged Achievement

The Biggest Picture

Something remarkable happened over the last thirty years. The risk of dying in famine has become much, much smaller than at any time in history. Calamitous famines – episodes of mass starvation that kill a million people or more – have vanished. Great famines that kill 100,000 people still occur, but they are rarer and less lethal. At least one hundred million people died in great and calamitous famines in the 140 years from 1870 to 2010, and almost all of them died before 1980 (see Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1    Mortality in great and calamitous famines by decade, 1870–2010
Source:  World Peace Foundation

The main purpose of this book is to explain why this happened. It is written in a spirit of sceptical optimism: today is the best time to be alive, but we also have reason to be fearful. I hope to explain the huge and under-celebrated success of nearly eliminating mass starvation from the world, with the aim of encouraging us not to casually abandon that achievement, but rather to appreciate and consolidate it – and take forward the eminently achievable goal of definitively ending famines.

This is a story of disastrous and exceptional episodes of famine and mass starvation. It is not about overall world hunger and under-nutrition, although the two stories will occasionally intersect. Nor is it a story of global food supplies, though food markets play an important part. These problems are complex and persistent, but over the last century have become less relevant to the question of famine. Rather, this book is the story of how massive outbreaks of starvation used to be a persistent feature of our world, how they became less so over the last generation, and why we should be worried that they could yet recur.

Great famines resulted from the actions of imperial conquistadors and ideological fanatics. Starving people to death was hard work. The near-eclipse of famine in the last three decades is the result partly of the positive efforts of humanitarians and others concerned with human welfare and development, but much more so of the decline of megalomania and of political attitudes that regard people as dispensable. To overcome famine in the modern era, our main adversary has been political leaders, not the weather or the poor state of the roads. In other words, we must include forced mass starvation in definitions of famine and regard it as a variant of mass atrocities. The word ‘starvation’ is not intended to imply that everyone who dies in a famine dies directly of hunger – the biggest killers are in fact communicable diseases. But the verb ‘to starve’ should be understood primarily in its transitive sense to indicate that some (powerful) people have starved other (powerless) people, leaving them to die – from hunger, disease, exhaustion or violence. Mass starvation ranges from the outcome of recklessness (pursuing actions regardless of the known dangers) through persecution to murder and genocide.

This book concludes with a warning that in so far as we see a resurgence of ideologies and practices that reduce people to instruments or impediments to other political ends, or exclude them from our political communities, we need to be deeply worried that mass starvation will return: we will not see a demise but an eclipse of famines. To explain this concern, and the career-long research on which my argument is based, I turn to my own encounter with famine.

Encounters with Famines

I travelled to Darfur, the westernmost region of Sudan, to begin my field research in September 1985. It was a traumatic time for the people of Darfur, in the depths of the most lethal episode of acute hunger for seventy years. But there were some blessings that I didn't appreciate at the time. At that time, Darfur was peaceful, and over the next two years I travelled the length and breadth of the region in complete safety, welcomed with whatever gracious hospitality that people could muster in every village or nomadic encampment.

I had originally intended to study refugees, drawing on the pioneering Sudanese researchers in that field. More than thirty years on, it is salutary to recall that the flow of intellectual capital was from the University of Khartoum to the University of Oxford (where I was registered for my doctorate), not the other way around. Ahmed Karadawi, my host and guide at the Commissioner of Refugees, advised me to go to study the Chadians in Darfur, as almost no one had done any research on them. He then changed his advice: the Chadian refugees were submerged within the wider problem of mass displacement due to the famine, so I should study the famine.

My first day of fieldwork was spent in a camp for displaced people on the fringes of the regional capital al-Fashir. Desperately hungry people had sought food in the city and had congregated in the abandoned camel market, making makeshift shelters out of branches and plastic sheets. People who were utterly destitute chose the place because it was close to the airport, where sacks of American sorghum were unloaded from aircraft onto waiting lorries. Every now and then, a sack would spill or burst, and the labourers would scoop up grain to give to the hungry sitting next to the perimeter fence. One of the drawbacks of the place, which had been a thriving camel market until just a few months earlier, was that big, ravenous camel fleas still infested the ground. During one interview, with a woman who said she was forty years old but looked much, much older, my translator and I were continually slapping our calves and thighs whenever we felt their bites. ‘How can you live in this place?’ I asked her, ‘Don't they eat you?’ She replied, ‘No, we eat them.’

The people who suffer and survive famine have a sense of humour, and more importantly, their own agency. I learned more from the people of Darfur than I could have learned from all the textbooks on famine. There was no theory or framework in the academic literature, which I had scoured so thoroughly in fourteen different libraries in Oxford, which explained the reality I found. Almost everything I had assumed about famine turned out to be wrong.

To begin with, I discovered that predictions of mortality were enormously exaggerated. Journalists who got news of the catastrophic harvest failure wrote that two million of the three million people who lived in Darfur at that time would soon be dead. That didn't happen: although food aid arrived only late, my estimate of famine mortality was 105,000.1 Death rates peaked at 40 per 1,000 in 1985, with the great majority of those who died being children. This was bad, but far, far fewer than the predicted millions. In my first book, I tried to explain why. Part of the reason was ‘disaster tourism’ and the selective exposure of outsiders to the worst, which led to exaggerated forecasts. The other part was people's own impressive resilience and capacity to cope.

I chose a short poem by Bertolt Brecht as the literary frontispiece for my book on that famine:

I have seen people

Who were remarkable –

Highly deserving of your admiration

For the fact that they

Were alive at all.

What I missed was the extent to which the famine caused a huge loss of social and economic capital in Darfur, helping set in motion the disaster of twenty years later. The short-term resilience shown by Darfurians came at a high price.

I completed my fieldwork in Darfur in early 1987. A year later, in the summer of 1988, reports came through of starvation on the southern borderlands of Darfur and the neighbouring region of Kordofan. The figures we heard showed death rates that were at their peak one hundred times greater than in Darfur during the worst of the drought-famine in 1985. The victims were displaced southern Sudanese, driven from their homes by war – specifically by raiding and pillaging by militiamen known as Murahaliin (forerunners of the notorious Janjawiid of the Darfur war), and crowded into displaced camps in the territory of their tormentors. Had the camp populations not been replenished by new arrivals from the war zones, they would simply have become graveyards within a few months. The Sudanese government was bankrupt and it ran its counter-insurgency on the cheap, declaring southern Sudan and its inhabitants an ethics-free zone in which the irregular militiamen and army officers could loot, burn and kill at will, and didn't need to report back.2 The southern Sudanese were first robbed of all their possessions and then, when they trekked northwards to find food or work, the militiamen confined them to camps where they prevented them from gathering wild foods or working for money. The militia and army also blocked relief railway wagons filled with food aid stood untouched in sidings just a few miles away.3 Deborah Scoggins, the first foreign journalist to visit those camps, wrote, ‘These are places so sad the mind goes queasy trying to understand them.’4

In trying to theorize these two famines, so close to one another but so different, I borrowed the metaphor of a thermometer, first used by John Rivers and colleagues. Famine isn't just extreme poverty; it is different in the same way that ice is different from freezing water.5 I adapted it to distinguish between different severities of famine: the Darfurian villagers and the displaced southern Sudanese were both suffering famines, but of radically different kinds. The Darfurians in 1984–5 had suffered a famine that killed, but Darfurian society had survived. The war-stricken southern Sudanese in 1988 hadn't just starved, they had been starved. Within the broader landscape of famine, there were horrendous pockets of outright, frank starvation, with death rates that were far, far higher. Starvation wasn't something that just happened; it was something that people did to one another.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I wrote two books and a number of reports and articles that tried to advance understanding of famines. There were four ways in which I helped move the debate, each time refracting what I had learned from poor and vulnerable people in places such as Sudan and Ethiopia into something accessible for students, aid workers and government officials.

One way in which I identified and described the agency of the afflicted was by their skills and capacities. They, I argued, were the true experts in surviving famines. My biggest shortcoming here was that I should have been more attuned to the gendered experience of famine and expertise in surviving it. Second, I reminded academics and practitioners that famines were public health crises as well as nutritional crises, and that reducing infectious diseases was a route to decreasing deaths. On this topic, I overstated the case and exaggerated the relative importance of the changed health environment compared to rampant malnutrition, but the point was valid. My third contribution was arguing that foreign humanitarians may possess distorted perceptions of what is going on and their actions may have negative unintended consequences. This contribution elicited most attention and controversy, but I think that is more because the humanitarians love to examine themselves, and journalists and the western public like a controversy over charities and their workers, than because what I had to say was particularly new or interesting.

My fourth and last contribution was that I coined the term ‘famine crime’ as part of an exploration of how human rights violations, including war crimes, censorship and repression, caused famines. I was one of a small vanguard of scholars and relief workers working in Sudan and Ethiopia on these issues.6 I spent three years at Africa Watch, and inserted famine into the agenda of its parent organization Human Rights Watch. For some years, of course, historians and geographers had recognized that famines were not natural disasters, like earthquakes or hurricanes, but were the product of politics – ‘silent violence’ in Michael Watts's apt phrase.7 Moving beyond the point that famines are man-made to detailing exactly how and why men make famine was the next stage in our intellectual and political project.

This book revisits some of the central arguments and evidence of Famine Crimes, twenty years after its publication. It is a good time to reflect. I wrote that book, and the various human rights reports on which it drew,8 as part of an effort to bring human rights attention to famines. I considered famines as both political crimes and a particular kind of war crime. But moving the study of famine into the arena of genocide and mass atrocity, a field defined by lawyers and their quest for prosecutions, was more problematic than I anticipated.9 For sure, humanitarians had much to learn from human rights advocates, but the learning needed to be reciprocal.

The topic of famine has the misfortune to be a political issue, but many specific famines are best relieved by treating them as if they were not. Aid workers are often obliged to maintain a disagreeable performance of neutrality, doing business with murderers in order to do their jobs.10 ‘I would sup with the devil to get food to Abyei,’ said a humanitarian worker struggling to feed a displaced camp in 1988. The ‘devil’ with whom he had to sup was an army brigadier named Omar al-Bashir, who the following year led a coup d’état and has ruled Sudan ever since. The question of whether to turn a blind eye to human rights violations – including those that cause starvation – and even to lend legitimacy to those who perpetrate such crimes is a perennial, with no good answer. But at least the terms of the debate can be refined. The scholarly critique of humanitarianism has focused on the ways in which emergency relief fails to address the political causes of famine and even consolidates those retrograde politics, in part by depoliticizing famines. The best scholarly defence of humanitarianism is, on the other hand, that assistance can massively reduce the human suffering caused by bad politics – and that transforming political systems is beyond the remit of emergency relief. This book provides evidence for both sides of the argument. My central thesis is that famine is a kind of atrocity, and that political and legal action is needed to complete the job of eliminating mass starvation. But the evidence also shows that the massive decline in famine deaths has been caused by reductions in not just the incidence of famines, but also their lethality. The fact that famines, when they do (still) occur, kill many fewer people is a laudable achievement of public health professionals and the humanitarian industry.

Organization of This Book

Chapter 2 provides the scaffolding for thinking of famines and mass atrocities together. I ask why these two terrible phenomena have been dealt with so separately, and what it would mean to treat them together. One means I use to tackle this question is by introducing the Nazi Hunger Plan of 1941 – the project of starving to death 30 million people in the western Soviet Union – as a canonical case of forced mass starvation.

Chapter 3 addresses the idea that famines are an inevitable outcome of an imbalance between population and food resources which results in a sufficient number of people starving in order to bring the two back into balance. This is the legacy of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus and his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. I call it a ‘zombie concept’ because it is so comprehensively refuted, yet tirelessly comes back to haunt us. There's a sound case that our species needs to live within our planetary means or face global disaster. But there's no solid case that actual historical famines occur because there are too many people for a limited food supply. Malthus's zombie conflates and confuses the two, to malign effect.

The remainder of the book examines what actually has caused famines and caused them to end. One way of conceptualizing the overall argument is with reference to Richard Tawney's apt description of the plight of the peasant in history as a man standing up to his neck in water, so that even a ripple threatens to drown him.11 We can expand upon this metaphor. Our man can drown because of a ripple, or because the water level as a whole rises, or because he has to stoop to carry a heavy burden on his back, or because someone knocks him off his feet. These would be the proximate causes of his drowning. Correspondingly, our man can have a better chance of surviving because the water recedes, or the waves lessen, or because no one pushes him over. These are the longer-term reasons he won't drown. The metaphor is usefully borne in mind when we address the proximate and structural causes of famines and why they have decreased. The fundamental point is that, as the water recedes, it requires more and more exceptional combinations of factors – bigger and more freakish waves – to cause famine.

Chapter 4 provides a brief history of ‘great’ and ‘calamitous’ modern famines and episodes of forced mass starvation from 1870 to 2010 (more recent famines, and newer operational definitions, come later). The fifty-eight episodes that meet the threshold of 100,000 deaths (according to the lowest credible estimate) constitute a play in four main acts: colonialism; total war and totalitarianism; Asian communism; and the period since approximately 1980 during which famines have been much smaller and associated largely with civil wars in Africa.

Chapter 5 examines one set of explanations for why famines have become less of a threat. These structural factors, which include demographic, economic and public health, are contributors to the success. In particular, they explain why famines are less murderous than before, but in themselves they are an insufficient explanation.

Chapter 6 turns to the political explanations for famines. These are proximate factors: political and military. This is the analytical heart of the book, where I develop the account of famine as a variant of mass atrocity.

Chapter 7 examines the humanitarian international: the international relief system and legal apparatus for relieving famine and ending mass atrocities. I discuss the enormous growth of the famine relief business and the legal regimes for criminalizing starvation, arguing that these are both the cause and the product of a worldwide norm that refuses to tolerate mass starvation.

Chapter 8 takes the case study of Ethiopia, applying these hypotheses to a country that has in modern times been identified as the land of famine. If famine can be conquered in Ethiopia, as appears to be the case, then this has encouraging lessons for the world as a whole.

The final chapters turn to the situation today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and the immediate future. Will great and calamitous famines return? Chapter 9 examines some of the most widely feared reasons why we may face famine in the coming century, including economic volatility and the impacts of climate change. I argue that populations are becoming less vulnerable to famine, but that the convergence of different shocks – economic, climatic, political – may create new risks.

Chapter 10 turns to what I see as the major threat of new famines: wars without end, fought without regard to the value of human life, especially at the nexus of realpolitik and the ‘long war’ on terror. I suggest that there is a ‘counter-humanitarian’ backlash. These reasons, I fear, are why the conquest of famine is stalling and may yet be reversed. The concluding chapter pulls the threads together and suggests some directions of thinking and policy, whereby the historic near-victory over famine could be consolidated.