Poverty And Famines An Essay On Entitlement

Poverty And Famines An Essay On Entitlement-38
This isn’t to criticise Sen’s perspective – which is a powerful corrective to the official line on the famine’s causes.(“The Famine Commission’s view that the primary cause of the famine was ‘a serious shortage in the total supply of rice available for consumption in Bengal’ provides the standard explanation of the famine.” (pgs 57-8.) Sen definitively refutes this idea.) Nonetheless, I think Sen’s approach can provide only one aspect of a more comprehensive analysis of the causes of famine and deprivation.I mean no disrespect when I approach his text with my usual ignorant belligerence. Each link in this chain of entitlement relations ‘legitimizes’ one set of ownership by reference to another, or to some basic entitlement in the form of enjoying the fruits of one’s own labour.” (pgs 1-2) The problem with this approach is that it focuses exclusively on legal or social entitlement – and thereby neglects many of the most powerful factors that determine how commodities are actually distributed.

This isn’t to criticise Sen’s perspective – which is a powerful corrective to the official line on the famine’s causes.(“The Famine Commission’s view that the primary cause of the famine was ‘a serious shortage in the total supply of rice available for consumption in Bengal’ provides the standard explanation of the famine.” (pgs 57-8.) Sen definitively refutes this idea.) Nonetheless, I think Sen’s approach can provide only one aspect of a more comprehensive analysis of the causes of famine and deprivation.I mean no disrespect when I approach his text with my usual ignorant belligerence. Each link in this chain of entitlement relations ‘legitimizes’ one set of ownership by reference to another, or to some basic entitlement in the form of enjoying the fruits of one’s own labour.” (pgs 1-2) The problem with this approach is that it focuses exclusively on legal or social entitlement – and thereby neglects many of the most powerful factors that determine how commodities are actually distributed.

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Sen knows all too well that the legal framework he uses as the basis of his analysis can be a tool of oppression.

The book ends on this ringing note: “The law stands between food availability and food entitlement.

(“I had been struck by its thoroughly class-dependent character…

it was not a famine that afflicted even the lower middle classes – only people much farther down the economic ladder”.) The famine was largely the product, Sen argues, of Bengal’s war economy.

Sen’s book’s moral power comes from his belief that our legal economic framework neglects the most important form of entitlement – emphasising, as it does, property rights over human life.

But this conviction, which is the book’s heart and soul, plays little part in its economics – in which “entitlement” refers to the legal mechanisms that are the very source of the mass starvation Sen’s humanity revolts against.Harvest failures, reductions in food imports, droughts, etc, are often contributing factors – but far more important are the social systems that determine how a society’s food is distributed.Absolute scarcity – insufficient food to feed everyone – is extraordinarily rare.When such extra-entitlement transfers are important, the entitlement approach to famines will be defective.On the other hand, most recent famines seem to have taken place in societies with ‘law and order’, without anything ‘illegal’ about the processes leading to starvation. 49) Those scare quotes indicate Sen’s scepticism about the phrases he deploys.Here he is at the very start of the book: ”An entitlement relation applied to ownership connects one set of ownerships to another through certain rules of legitimacy. Why is my ownership of the bamboo umbrella accepted? Sen is frank about the limits of his approach – but I worry he underestimates their importance.It is a recursive relation and the process of connecting can be repeated. Because I made it with my own labour using some bamboo from my land. “[W]hile entitlement relations concentrate on rights within the given legal structure in that society, some transfers involved violation of these rights, such as looting or brigandage.This is dubious in any context – but especially given the case studies that form the bulk of Sen’s book.‘Poverty and Famine’s longest chapter concerns the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 – which, Sen tells us in his Nobel autobiography, was one of the formative experiences of his life.I wish that, having established his approach, Sen had moved beyond it to examine the forces that create the social framework he is operating within. Sen, Poverty and Famines, an essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982, ix-257 p.

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