Democracy might not prevent famine after all

A few weeks ago I posted about Amartya Sen's entitlement theory of the 1943-4 Bengal famine, in the context of more recent work which paints a more complex picture. Now, here's an paper that calls into question one of Sen's other famous assertions: that a famine has never occurred in a well-functioning democracy. Here's the abstract:
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.
I think the world of Sen, and these recent findings don't in my view tarnish the legacy he will leave at the intersection of economics and philosophy; rather, they are adding layers of nuance to a body of work built on his foundations (and that would be impossible without his earlier contributions).

Via Duncan Green.

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