Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine

About the Book | Additional Resources | Book Events

The world almost conquered famine. Until the 1980s, this scourge killed ten million people every decade, but by early 2000s mass starvation had all but disappeared. Today, famines are resurgent, driven by war, blockade, hostility to humanitarian principles and a volatile global economy.

(In this 4.36 mins video, Alex de Waal explains some of the main themes of Mass Starvation).

In Mass Starvation, world-renowned expert on humanitarian crisis and response, and WPF Executive Director, Alex de Waal, provides an authoritative history of modern famines: their causes, dimensions and why they ended. He analyses starvation as a crime, and breaks new ground in examining forced starvation as an instrument of genocide and war. Refuting the enduring but erroneous view that attributes famine to overpopulation and natural disaster, he shows how 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. 

Hard-hitting and deeply informed, Mass Starvation (Polity Books, 2017) explains why man-made famine and the political decisions that could end it for good must once again become a top priority for the international community. You can purchase the book in the UK starting in November 2017, and elsewhere beginning in January 2018











Additional Resources:

  • de Waal’s research on famine trends that helped inform the book: a dataset of 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, including key tables and graphs.
  • Additional writings by de Waal on famine from our blog.
  • Recently published essays: “The Nazis Used it, We Use it,” London Review of Books (39:12, June 15, 2017). “Operation Starvation“, an Occasional Paper published by the World Peace Foundation (June 16, 2017). On the November 22, 2017, the Guardian published an article citing Alex de Waal’s argument that the UK, US and others on the Security Council; and a podcast interview with de Waal.
  •  “What Everyone Should Know about Famine” (World Peace Foundation, March 2019) is a 12-page educational resource, intended for a general audience. It provides a concise over of famine and demonstrates how modern famines are man-made and the result of political choices. It consists of: three case studies of famine; a review of common myths about famine; a summary of the history and contemporary trends in famine; and a discussion of what can be done about famine today.

Book Events (2018-2019)


Dec. 6: Mass starvation: tackling the political causes of famine, Overseas Development Institute


Nov. 19: The Future of Famine, Sussex Center for Conflict and Security, University of Sussex


Oct. 10: Council on African Studies Lecture Series, Yale University

Oct. 25: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine


July 3, 2018: Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, Rift Valley Forum, Nairobi


May 4: MA:  The Return of Famine, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

May 9:  Mass Starvation: 21st Century Crime, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, sponsored Trócaire and Concern Worldwide

May 10: Cork:  The Memory and Utility of Mass Starvation, UCC Center for Global Development


Apr. 18: “Fighting Famine: Hindering Hunger, Malnutrition, and Mortality”, a Conversation with Alex de Waal, United Nations University, Japan

Apr. 19: National Defense Academy of Japan

Apr. 26: Global Health Initiative, Brown University, RI


Mar. 1: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Mar. 15: NY: International Rescue Committee


Feb. 1: DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies

Feb. 22: The Hague: Leiden University, 5:30 book signing, event 6 p.m

Feb 26: Galway:  National University of Ireland


Jan. 18: Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies

Jan. 25: London School of Economics