Nobel winning economist, Amartya Sen has said:

"No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy," he wrote in "Democracy as Freedom" (Anchor, 1999)

Source: Does Democracy Avert Famine?

My question: Is there any documented evidence for this statement? A study proving that no functioning democracy has ever faced a famine would be an ideal proof.

Definition of famine:

While there are various definitions of famine, many experts say that there must be evidence of three specific outcomes before a famine can be declared:

  1. At least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope.
  2. The prevalence of global acute malnutrition must exceed 30 percent.
  3. Death rates must exceed 2 deaths per 10,000 people per day.

Source: Hunger

  • 13
    If we found an example of a famine in a democracy, could proponents of the claim simply say, "well, it wasn't a functioning democracy, then".
    – user5582
    Jul 29, 2014 at 18:40
  • 13
    @Articuno Only if they're Scottish. Jul 29, 2014 at 19:39
  • 1
    What do they mean by "global"? Worldwide? If so, why would that matter to the form of government? And 3 would muck with minimum state population levels... What constitutes a "functioning democracy"? Would ancient Athens count? What was the total population then? If you have somebody who was dying of malnutrition anyways, do you count them? And must the famine occupy the whole country, or do you count a localized one too? So yeah, this sounds like a definition issue... Jul 30, 2014 at 13:48

1 Answer 1


This is a "No true Scotsman" argument.

For example there was the great famine in Ireland in the 1850s when it was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland which was clearly a democracy.

Of course, this is explicitly excluded because it was not a "functioning" democracy.

Another example would be the home fronts during World War II. Although many countries were not democratic, a few were, and famine and malnutrition was endemic in Europe.

Of course, this was during a war, so it could be called a different case yet again.

Wikipedia's list of famines clearly shows that famines have happened in many democratic countries, including the United States.

My speculation is that this has much more to do with functioning economies than functioning democracies. Single-party states such as China, Vietnam or Eritrea have functioning economies but lack democracy, and as far as I know seem not to be having famines recently.

So, a functioning democracy is not needed to have a functioning economy.

Wikipedia has a section on the causes of famine: sure enough, government policy is a possible cause, but so are natural causes

Many famines are caused by imbalance of food production compared to the large populations of countries whose population exceeds the regional carrying capacity

This makes it clear why a functioning economy helps on both counts: a functioning economy is only possible if the government does not make economic policy mistakes (first cause), and a functioning economy generates, in all likelihood, a stronger agriculture and food abundance.

  • 1
    I would not accept your sentence "a functioning democracy is not needed to have a functioning economy" and suggest you to read Why Nations Fail ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Why_Nations_Fail ) by Acemoglu and Robinson.
    – Envite
    Jul 30, 2014 at 13:51
  • Democracies fail too. Eg Iraq. @Envite
    – Sklivvz
    Jul 30, 2014 at 13:52
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    The book explains Why Nations Fail, and it does not say that democracies do not fail. Democracy is only a requisite, not the solution.
    – Envite
    Jul 30, 2014 at 14:12
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    I've pointed out examples of failed democracies and successful single party states, so democracy is neither necessary nor sufficient. I don't really know what to do with your comment. Telling me to go read a book is nonconstructive feedback and does not convey, nor prove, a point.
    – Sklivvz
    Jul 30, 2014 at 16:22
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    All: this discussion is not really about my answer but about your opinions. It belongs in Skeptics Chat and not here.
    – Sklivvz
    Jul 31, 2014 at 7:53

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