Proposal preview

Revisiting the globalization of famine agency: 200 years of famine causation and relief in international context

One of the most salient of all modern generalizations concerning famines is the idea that given the political will to redistribute resources and to rely on international aid, famines are easily preventable – those that do happen are, essentially, allowed to happen.

This modern, politically motivated stance emerged gradually after the academic interest began to abandon the interpretations emphasizing food production and poverty, once held panacea in famine causation. Initially, during the 1970s and 1980s, food distribution and functioning of market mechanism were placed on the foci, whereas the second, more recent, shift has accounted for political actions behind the crises. Integration of world economy and globalization of food trade have brought increasing attention to the role the international markets and trade institutions play in the processes leading to famines and food insecurity. Transnational and internal political causes and international means of relief to counter famines are the hallmarks of the so-called new famine paradigm. Dubbing the food crises that take place in the modern developing world as ‘complex emergencies’ and ‘new famines’, the paradigm has introduced an implicit interpretation that historical famines were somehow simple and local in their essence.

With, for example, the American Relief Administration’s actions in Russia during the 1920s and food aid provided by the Allied states after the First World War, the international famine aid was well in place before e.g. the Sahelian famines in the 1970s and 1980s. Similarly, famines induced by wars routinely took place well before the 20th century, and especially the Marxian tradition has long held that the introduction of capitalist economy and linking over-seas colonies to world trade increased the colonies’ vulnerability to market fluctuations.

This session calls for a historical review of the ‘globalization’ and the ‘new famine’ paradigms. We present recent scholarship that sheds light on the historical roots of vulnerabilities prevalent in the modern developing world and we increase understanding of the structure and formation of international aid flows. We cover a coherent set of topics dealing with the transformation of famine relief from private charity to global aid, and demonstrate that over-seas trade routes and famine relief were connected already during the 1800s. We increase knowledge about the international structure of the relief networks well beyond a simplified focus on large rich donors and poor recipients, and we add layers of information to the emergence of famines under transnational conflicts and under global political systems, especially those of colonial and imperial in nature.

In addition, we open a call for presentations that trace the long-term development of international and national famine aid as well as transnational causes of famines and food insecurity. To apply please send a max one page abstract detailing aim of the paper, methodology and main conclusions to the session organizer.


  • Miikka Voutilainen, University of Jyväskylä,, Finland

Session members

  • Mary Cox, University of Oxford,
  • Ingrid de Zwarte, University of Amsterdam,
  • Antti Häkkinen, University of Helsinki,
  • Kersti Lust, Tallinn University,
  • Andrew Newby, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies,
  • Miikka Voutilainen, University of Jyväskylä,

Proposed discussant(s)

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