Famine Research

In the seven decades since World War II, the number of people who died from famines fell spectacularly. The drumbeat of 10 million starving every decade faded to a small fraction of that toll, and the near-elimination of famine mortality is one of the great achievements of our time. Today, however, the global decline in famines and famine deaths has suddenly halted and is being reversed. The increase is not due to climate or natural disaster; it is driven by war, blockade, hostility to humanitarian principles, and a volatile global economy. This WPF research project, led by Alex de Waal, presents a history of modern famines: their causes, dimensions, and why they ended. Through our ground-breaking dataset on famine trends and analysis, starvation is revealed as a crime and an instrument of genocide and war. Political decision or political failing is an essential element in every famine, while the spread of democracy and human rights, and the ending of wars, were major factors in the near-ending of this devastating phenomenon. 

The Program includes:

Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine

Alex de Waal’s book, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (Polity Books) details how the world almost conquered famine. Available through Polity Books.

The Famine Trends Dataset

This includes great famines, defined as a food crisis that causes elevated mortality over a specific period of time for which the upper estimates of excess death exceed 100,000, and episodes of mass intentional starvation between 1870 and 2010. This is a dataset of historic famines and episodes of mass intentional starvation.

Mass Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law

This collaborative project with Global Rights Compliance will develop the local, regional and international capacity to identify, avoid, prevent and seek accountability for starvation in furtherance of humanitarian protection for millions of women, children and men.


Gender, Famine and the Female Mortality Advantage

During times of famine, sex, gender and age differences matter. But precisely how and why these factors intersect with famine conditions is an issue of much debate.

Reports Chart Path to Accountability for Mass Starvation

WPF with Global Rights Compliance published a series of reports that clarify how international law applies to starvation crimes.

Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War

This report by Martha Mundy provides comprehensive analysis of patterns of targeting civilians, agriculture and fishing sites by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

Related video

Alex de Waal discusses some of the main points from his book, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (Polity 2018).

Image Gallery

Is it possible to create a new image of famine that does not solely point towards the all-too-real suffering of victims, but also towards the political and military processes that create conditions in which entire populations are at risk of dying? How might one convey decision-making, responsibility and, ultimately, culpability for famine?

Here we introduce four political cartoons that offer new ways of imagining famine today. The cartoons were created as part of a collaborative project with Cartoon Movement. Among many excellent and some more conventional contenders, this gallery presents the four images that we thought best captured the idea of famine crimes.