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Democratic Famine Theory Sucking Wind

“No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”, said Amartya Sen in 1999.

Sen needs a quick trip to Kenya, where the worst drought in sixty years has forced people to survive on wild fruits and food aid.

Or perhaps the theory was that two countries with famines will never go to war? Either way,  social science theories and grand generalizations are dropping like flies these days. But as Dan Drezner says, “The thing is, international relations theories are kinda like…zombies. Even if you think you’ve killed them off, they can be revived.”

Kenya has it bad; only one fifth the usual rain has fallen in central Kenya. Food is expensive, and the people are poor. Theory won’t save them. More rain would be nice, and so would better irrigation systems, like this one from a California company called Driptech.  They use it in (undemocratic) China, where it helps to keep famine at bay.

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  • Luke Lea

    But is Kenya a democracy?

    More to the point famines are almost always local or regional phenomena whose relief depends on access to distant places with an exportable surplus of food. That usually means communication, transportation, and . . . money! Or, lacking money, an authoritarian empire that can order food from point A to point B by fiat.

  • Kris

    No true Scotsman engages in International Relations theories.

  • Michael Baxter

    According to Freedom House, Kenya is not an electoral democracy.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Ambivalent definitions of ‘democracy’ are one of the many reasons why these theories are so vapid.

  • Kris

    I’m a democracy, and so’s my wife!

  • hanmeng

    China’s a great model–it’s responsible for the greatest man-made famine in history.

  • John

    Dear Prof Mead: I understand your skepticism as to many such theories. However In the case of Kenya there is very clear reasons why Sen’s claim wouldn’t apply. A basic feature of democracy (common to most definitions of the term in Social Science literature & in common parlance) is the peaceful transition of power between competing parties & the incumbents being willing to step down when he or she loses the election. The last time when this was a possibility in Kenya, in the 2007 presidential elections, it led to significant fraud by the incumbent, followed demonstrations riots and interethnic clashes which cost the lives of hundreds of Kenyans. Only a major intervention on the side of the international community was able to create a power sharing agreement (in which the incumbent stayed in power despite probably losing the election)& prevent a possible escalation to civil war (see wikipedia link below) Accordingly until Kenya has such a peaceful transition supporters of Sen can rightly argue that Kenya isn’t yet a democracy & that this claim wasn’t disproven in this particular case

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