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How useful is Sen's theory in interpreting historical famines? Illustrate your essay with specific examples.

Historical interpretation of famine, tied in with descriptions and analysis of hunger could be seen to seriously begin with the work of Thomas Malthus, who based his work on the relation between population and physical resources.  Another significant contributor to the field was Karl Mark, focusing on exploitation and the excess appropriations of capitalism (although, interestingly enough one of the reasons provided for many famines have been the conflict between urban demand for food and the importance of sustaining industry, Marx's political nursery for political collectivism).  Ester Boserup has highlighted the way in which technical innovation stimulates population increase and most importantly as far as this text is concerned, the work of Amartya Sen with his idea of entitlement as a right founded in law and tradition to provide access to food (Newman, 1990). 

Sen makes clear that his theory of famine is emphatic that their need not be a shortage of food for hunger to exist.  As he puts it,

Limitations to the entitlement approach have been clearly set down, in spite of its wide acceptance.  By limiting his analysis largely within a legalistic framework, Sen leaves out important, sometimes vital factors.  His theory is difficult to apply, to give just one example, where issues over landownership or connected market factors play a part in affecting entitlements.  As mentioned earlier, Sen's approach cannot either explain deaths which are not directly related to starvation (such as epidemics) and such elements may be more significant than Sen acknowledges (Newman, 1990).  Further to this, Sen does not take into consideration other important factors in his approach.  While he states that famine results from changes in entitlement, he does not explain in any detail why these changes come about, which would surely be a good first step in the prevention of famine.  Also, since famine invariably affects those on the edge of poverty the worst, only a slight change in entitlement can make a huge difference as to whether they go hungry or not.  Leading on from this is the criticism that Sen's method so broad based as to be useless in practical application. 

Amartya Sen's theory of interpreting famine has not only been recognized as a path breaker but it is significant of his work that he is one of few intellectuals to have meaningfully influenced and contributed to the way in which famine, hunger and starvation are dealt with around the world; evidenced by his notable input towards the Human Development Report produced by the United Nations Development Programme.  Not to mention his winning the Nobel Prize.  The relevance of Sen's entitlement approach to interpreting historical famine has had an influential impact in the field of famine analysis both academically and in terms of real policy and has contributed notably to the debate which continues to this day. 

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