No two famines are the same, yet, superficially at least, most have a lot in common. The usual symptoms might include high food prices beyond the reach of the poor; increases in evictions, and in crime and antisocial behaviour; vagrancy and migration in search of employment and charity; rising unemployment; hunger-induced reductions in the birth and marriage rates; protests and resistance that give way to apathy and hopelessness as the crisis worsens; early philanthropic efforts that, in the more protracted crises, give way to donor fatigue; fear of, and lack of compassion towards, the victims; and, above all, increases in mortality from disease and starvation.
There has probably never been a famine where a more caring ruling elite could not have saved more lives. But there are differences too. The context may be economic backwardness and crop failure, but the shortages of food or purchasing power that can lead to famine need not require a big harvest shortfall: war or human agency may be enough.
Some famines last only a few months (Somalia in 2011-12, the Dutch Hongerwinter of 1944-45), while others straddle several years (Ireland in the late1840s, China in1959-61). All famines bring out the best and the worst in people, and generate attitudes and actions that are difficult to pass judgement on.… Worldwide, famines’ve laid bare the dark, ordinarily hidden side of human nature.
From “Eating People is Wrong, And Other Essays on Famine, Its Past and its Future”