Courtesy Reuters

Coping with Famine

Never throughout history has there been a time when there has not been a devastating famine in some part of the world. In our lifetime, widespread starvation in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America has taken the lives of millions of men, women and children. We know that somewhere, this year, there will be a new famine-the result of war or a major national catastrophe. Already there is starvation in the Sahel area south of the Sahara, and the threat of renewed serious crop failure in the Indian subcontinent. The presently bad-and worsening-state of the total world food supply, particularly the depletion of grain reserves in the United States and the shortage of the fertilizers needed to maintain the "green revolution" as a result of high oil prices, leads one to expect that the extent of any new famine will indeed be catastrophic. Historically we have proved ourselves ill-prepared to cope with famines. How well can we hope to deal with them in an even less propitious situation?

Up to now, individual nations, international voluntary agencies, and especially official international organizations have dealt with the specter of mass starvation as an unexpected crisis-as something to react to when it occurs rather than as a likelihood to be planned for in advance. Prevention has been the exception rather than the rule; Bihar in 1966-67, to be discussed later, remains the lone shining example of a large famine averted. Moreover, we act on the occasion of each famine as though mankind had no collective memory. Whoever is faced with the present famine usually acts as though there were no lesson to be derived from the melancholy succession of previous famines and previous efforts to cope with them.

Yet previous famines should have left one beneficial residue: there are individuals and organizations that have acquired firsthand knowledge of successful-and unsuccessful-ways of coping. So little is ordinarily taught of the physiological, psychological and social problems arising in famines, and of their solutions, however, that each

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