Geography Geography of Hunger and Famine
Peter Atkins
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0189


All people can agree that hunger and famine are evils that must be eliminated from the world. Indeed, in April 2016 the United Nations declared a Decade of Action on Nutrition in support of efforts to eliminate hunger and malnutrition and thereby meet Goal 2 of Agenda 2030: “No Hunger.” This is a tall order, given that 815 million people are currently undernourished worldwide. Worse still, there remain frequent incidents of acute and widespread food shortages that are either famines or major food emergencies. In addition, there have been disagreements about the definition of the terms hunger and famine, and about their measurement in the field. One justification for writing this bibliography is therefore to demystify the various debates by referring readers to a range of relevant literature, and encouraging them to go further by exploring the many perspectives now available for understanding hunger and famine, and for inspiring action to mitigate them.

General Overviews

There has been half a century of decline in the phenomenon of famine (Devereux 2000)—the result of greater global prosperity and a major humanitarian effort by the international aid community. The famines that do still happen tend to be in Africa (Devereux 2009), the most recent being declared in South Sudan in February 2017. In August 2017 the United Nations warned that twenty million people were at immediate risk of dying of hunger (Food and Agriculture Organization, et al. 2017). There were four countries at particular risk: Yemen, with 10 million at risk; Nigeria (North East), 4–6 million; South Sudan, 4–6 million; and Somalia, 2–4 million. A further eighteen countries were suffering a high magnitude of food insecurity or localized severe food insecurity (Food Security Information Network 2017). The literature on famine in recent decades has become more sophisticated, and in this bibliography we will consider not only natural disasters but also famines in the light of economic, political, historical, and cultural perspectives (Devereux 2008, cited under Accountability: Human Rights, Famine, and Fault, Ó Gráda 2009, Atkins 2012). The tools of famine analysis (Rubin 2016) and famine’s theoretical constructs have improved to the extent that some academic writings have influenced policy. Yet there remain disagreements and debates about the true nature of famine. These controversies are likely to continue because famines are exceptionally complex in their unfolding, and, because they are also geographically contingent, it is important for us to acknowledge at the outset that formulating general causal statements can be problematic. Fortunately, this is increasingly recognized in the technical literature and in most of the summary articles on famine that are available (Ó Gráda 2008, Atkins 2009, Prost and de Waal 2017, Alfani and Ó Gráda 2017).

  • Alfani, Guido, and Cormac Ó Gráda, eds. Famine in European History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    A historical perspective on famines from the Middle Ages until the present, compiled from a range of source material and analytical perspectives. Provides comprehensive geographical coverage from Scandinavia and Italy to Ireland and Russia.

  • Atkins, Peter J. “Famine.” In International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Vol. 4. Edited by Rob Kitchin and Nigel Thrift, 14–20. Oxford: Elsevier, 2009.

    Principally addresses an audience of geographers, but also provides a general conceptual genealogy of famine.

  • Atkins, Peter J. “Food Security, Safety and Crises.” In A Cultural History of Food. Vol. 6, The Modern Age. Edited by Amy Bentley, 69–86. Oxford: Berg, 2012.

    The paper is organized as a series of tropes, in effect figurative distillations that amount to framings of the key actors. This approach facilitates a novel cultural history of food crises, including famine.

  • Devereux, Stephen. Famine in the Twentieth Century. IDS Working Paper 105. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies, 2000.

    A widely cited working paper that compiles excess mortality data for more than thirty 20th-century famines, finding a total of more than seventy million deaths.

  • Devereux, Stephen. “Why Do Famines Persist in Africa?” Food Security 1.1 (2009): 25–35.

    DOI: 10.1007/s12571-008-0005-8

    Famines persist in Africa decades after they were eliminated from Europe and most of Asia. Is this because of some African difference? Devereux thinks not. He adduces a number of factors that have made African communities and nations susceptible, including poor governance, ineffective and inappropriate interventions, and a lack of accountability that is observable in some low-income countries that have weak democracies.

  • Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Food Programme, and World Health Organization. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017: Building Resilience for Peace and Food Security. Rome: FAO, 2017.

    This is the premier annual report on global food insecurity, providing analysis of trends.

  • Food Security Information Network. Global Report on Food Crises 2017. New York: World Food Programme, 2017.

    This report finds that in 2016 what are known as Level 3 situations accounted for 42.1 million people displaced by armed conflict, 23.2 million suffering from natural disasters, and 35.7 million at risk of famine (in Yemen, northern Nigeria, South Sudan, and Somalia).

  • Ó Gráda, Cormac. “Famines.” In The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics. Vol. 3. Edited by Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume, 263–268. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    Ó Gráda’s writing on famine is always interesting because of his willingness to discuss the balance among the causes of food emergencies between nature and human agency. His historical perspective indicates that food shortages have been more important than the modern literature acknowledges.

  • Ó Gráda, Cormac. Famine: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

    Ó Gráda’s work is important because of his interest in adding a long view to the literature on famine. Deploying the dispassionate eye of the economic historian, he is able to subject the (sometimes scant) evidence to rigorous economic and demographic analysis and so tease out conclusions that are occasionally at odds with accepted wisdom.

  • Prost, Marc-André, and Alex de Waal. “Famine.” In International Encyclopedia of Public Health. 2d ed. Edited by Stella R. Quah, 102–113. Oxford: Academic Press, 2017.

    An excellent short summary of past and future trends, famine theory, health and societal implications, prediction, and prevention.

  • Rubin, Olivier. Contemporary Famine Analysis. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-27306-8

    Rubin is less interested in the empirical detail of individual famines than in discovering a suitable framework of famine analysis. Nevertheless, the book is informed by 21st-century famines, such as those in Malawi (2002), Niger (2005), and Somalia (2011).

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