The major causes of famine are poverty, trade barriers, corruption, mismanagement, ethnic antagonism, anarchy, war, and male-dominated societies that deprive women of food. Local land depletion, itself a consequence of poverty and institutional failure, is also a factor. Those who are too poor to use sound farming practices are compelled to overexploit the resources on which they depend.
The problem of famine is manifold. 1. Once a famine has reached the proportions of a major disaster, it is too late to mount a fast and efficient relief operation. Supplies rushed to a country often get held up at the country's ports, unable to be distributed by the existing infrastructure. 2. Governmental organizations which issue relief aid are not set up to respond quickly or effectively, and volunteer agencies (which, not being bogged down in governmental bureaucracy, are quicker to respond) are neither designed nor equipped to cope with starving masses. 3. Information inadequacies exist. Although there are numerous statistics on crop failures or droughts, the study of more finely-tuned data such as the movements of local prices or mass migrations of people from their homes, is still in its infancy. 4. Attention must be paid to the governmental idiosyncracies, and to preferences of the donor countries; sometimes no action may be undertaken before an invitation is extended. 5. The governments of stricken countries may be unaware of or unconcerned with a rural famine; they may be unable to assemble, in enough time, the necessary technical case for aid; they may be unwilling to broadcast their problems to the world; and they may be hostile to western intervention.
Equally manifold are the problems confronting possible remedies. 1. Strategic stockpiles are needed in those countries usually most unlikely to be able to afford to keep such reserves, and they may well be prey to thievery or spoilage. 2. Too much developmental aid poured into an area can be impossible to absorb and/or can make farmers dependent upon such aid rather than their own resources. 3. Aid programmes are often tied to restrictions and priorities that are either impossible or fruitless to achieve. 4. Too many helpers often cause confusion with their conflicting 'solutions' or their jealous rivalries.
The African continent in the mid 1980's suffered from famines on a scale never before witnessed. As of April 1985, 10 million people had abandoned their normal homes in search of food and water; 20 countries had been critically affected by drought; and 35 million lives were in danger.
In the 1990's, notable famines have been man-made and in war zones like Kosovo, Nicaragua, Tajikistan, Sierra Leone and Congo-Brazzaville.
Famine is not a condition of lack of food but of inadequate planning, inadequate notification, slow response, government pride, misdirected aid, uncoordinated relief agency field work, politics, lethargic bureaucracy, ignorance, and incompetence. It is a grave problem which shakes the entire political, economic, and social foundations on which the stable and prosperous future for developing countries was to have been built.
Famine relief efforts are little more than a panacea until the next, and perhaps more profound, famine occurs; and indeed, may be a futile attempt to deep alive those people which nature is culling off in an attempt to remedy a surplus situation.