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'Three Famines': A Struggle Shared Across The Globe


Famines, like the one today in the Horn of Africa, share common threads with each other, even when they happen on different continents or in different centuries. Author Thomas Keneally's most recent book is "Three Famines: Starvation and Politics." He joins us from the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney.

Thomas Keneally, welcome to the program.

THOMAS KENEALLY: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Now, your book examines three famines in history: the so-called Great Hunger in Ireland in the 1840s, the famine in Bengal in the early 1940s, and the Ethiopian famines of the '70s and '80s. Thomas Keneally, tell me to start, how did you get interested in this topic?

KENEALLY: I come from the driest continent on earth, Australia.


KENEALLY: And we have heartbreaking, long-running climate change sort of droughts. And there's struggle and there's heartbreak, and the farmer has to sell up and come to the city and become a security guard or bartender or cab driver. But there's not starvation.

So I'm naturally drawn to the question of why does a drought in Africa seem inevitably to produce some famine. Well, my argument this morning is it's not inevitable because when there was a more stable, even though undesirable, government in Somalia in the past, in the 1980s, Somali suffered drought but did not starve.

CORNISH: What's the conventional wisdom about why famines occur?

KENEALLY: Well, the conventional wisdom is that they're due to food shortages and phenomenon such as drought. But increasingly, this idea is under attack. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, says that food shortages don't cause famine, human agency is what causes the famine. And the armies that have rampaged across Somalia, and particularly southern Somalia, the Ethiopian army in recent years, the al-Shabaab militia now create a state of instability in which the livestock die, the price of the ones you sell falls, while the price of food - even if you can get to it by going to Mogadishu - goes up and up.

CORNISH: In effect, you've traded one argument that, you know, it's the conventional wisdom about it being the weather. You've basically traded it for something else, which is political instability; something else that seems sort of inevitable in our world. What did you learn from your research that could help us avoid future famines?

KENEALLY: Our reaction has to be quicker, obviously, when a serious drought hit in an unstable area. And in these societies where famine occurs there is also a problem of logistics. There's a problem of getting to the trucks together. There's the problem is that these governments have not provided proper roads for their people, proper storage facilities against the day when catastrophe strikes. And there are great storehouses of food in Mogadishu which through corruption and inefficiency, lack of infrastructure, the fact of al-Shabaab in the countryside are not getting out to people.

We have to try to make sure that that situation is amended. And another problem that needs to be addressed as that in the three famines I write about work partly caused as well by early denial of their seriousness by governments and agencies. And we have to react quicker.

CORNISH: Thomas Keneally, author of "Three Famines: Starvation and Politics." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KENEALLY: Not at all, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.