Famine numbers are staggering—one in four people vanished, a third of a country’s population claimed in another, seven million children orphaned in just a few years—but the true horror lies in the details of government ineptitude and indifference. In Three Famines: Starvation and Politics, Thomas Keneally illuminates that famine victims are not suffering just because of drought or blight or cyclones, but because of their place in societies that do not value the importance of their way of life—or their very lives. In fact, Keneally predicts more mass starvations with global warming, but they will actually be the result of continuing unrest in certain areas of the globe, unrest based on ideological and political motivations.
Best known for the book Schindler’s Ark (a Booker Prize winner and later made into the Academy award-winning movie Schindler’s List), Keneally has written ten other works of nonfiction and many novels including The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest and Confederates (all three shortlisted for the Booker Prize). In Three Famines, the author examines in detail three haunting food shortages: the potato blight in Ireland during the mid-1800s; the wartime famine in British-ruled Bengal in 1943; and the successive catastrophes in Ethiopia during the 1970s and 1980s.
Keneally writes that the droughts and blights blamed for food shortages are, in fact, preceded by “Seasons of need and marginal survival…”. Desired changes in centuries-old systems of land tenure most decidedly inflamed the crisis in Ireland. When farming practices began to favor landowners working larger fields and committing tracts to grazing purposes, both the landowners and the government (since many of the estate holders were government officials) saw the benefits of hard circumstances forcing subsistence workers to emigrate, or at least migrate to the cities.
Another commonality revealed in this authoritative study is the initial denial of serious problems by governments in charge. Sometimes it was to cover up ineptitude, sometimes it was the result of developing a “blind eye” to a distasteful sight, sometimes it was to prevent other countries from having access into the country. Sometimes it was to support the fallacy that a particular leader was successfully guiding his populace; in the case of Bengal it was due to the distraction of World War II.
The unimaginable depth of need during a famine is difficult to fathom. Keneally makes it impossible to forget, describing how in Ireland families would survive by cooking cow blood siphoned secretly, and “Insane mothers began to eat their young children who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England.” A Russian peasant even claimed that cafeterias served up children during the famine of 1920. In Ethiopia, hyenas helped prevent the spread of disease by devouring the dead—but sometimes ate the weak as well. Also in Ethiopia, sufferers tried to stay warm in their rags by sleeping in shallow graves but often could not leave them when morning came.
In general, government responses are designed to achieve a political end rather than rescue a starving populace. Often it is the intent of those in power to permanently drive an impoverished or rebellious population from an entire region by “relocating” during times of crop failure. As Keneally succinctly states, this sets up an inevitable chain by reducing “the number of people planting and harvesting that want could beget want, and food prices based on one shortage created by nature could be compounded by yet another created by the disruption of normal farming life.”
In Ethiopia, “The military budget in 1984, just as the famine reached its height, consumed 60 per cent of national income…”. Any form of taxation and appropriation, even if not for military usage, can also contribute to famine devastation, notes Keneally, pointing to the Russian famine of the 1920s. Subsistence farming had become the norm since residents had ceased to collect communal reserves they feared the government would confiscate. When drought and then rats and locusts struck two harvests in a row, the result was catastrophic. Similarly, China’s Great Leap Forward was one of the contributing causes of China’s 1958-61 famine as the shift to heavy industry left fewer field workers.
While all aid generally makes those donating feel better, not all aid is wholly beneficial to the starving. “Roads to Nowhere” is not a modern-day political phenomenon but, according to this volume, can be traced back to the 1800s. Ireland’s soup kitchens, operated by local Boards of Guardians, while excellent examples of properly administered aid, led to scurvy due to poor nutritional content. Trying to feed masses with unfamiliar grains also resulted in more sickness than health. Religious coercion connected to aid continues to be a distressing trend; in just two Ethiopian provinces there were almost 700 places of worship built by Western sects.
Another concern, Keneally relates, is the amount of money spent ensuring top-rate travel accommodations for government officials and aid administrators. Distribution nightmares sometimes led to food being ruined before it could be consumed, and to deals with crooked politicians as well as food diversions to military troops. For centuries, other countries have disappointingly profited from food sales headed to famine areas.
The Ethiopian famine had the distinction of capturing the world’s attention because of graphic television coverage. Recordings such as 1984’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” from the organization Band Aid basically changed the future of appeals for aid; “We are the World” followed in 1985. But, around the same time, the author reveals that: “400,000 bottles of whisky were being shipped from Britain to Addis Ababa for the tenth anniversary of the revolution.”
At times, particularly early on in the book, readers may think Keneally is being slightly obvious or simplistic, but what he does with an expert hand is build his case that famines may start with crop disease or changes in rainfall, but become entrenched and far-reaching because of politics. By the conclusion, Keneally has drawn a blueprint for future avoidance of certain famine directives that, unfortunately, looks like it will be needed.