3 Devastating Problems in Developing Countries

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What problems are developing countries facing? What are the causes of these problems?

Hunger, population control, and famine are among the most concerning issues in less developed countries. Amartya Sen in Development as Freedom says that the underlying causes might not be what you think they are.

Let’s look at these particular problems in developing countries and why Sen believes they became problems in the first place.

Hunger, Population Control, and Famine

Sen believes that hunger, population, and famine are the biggest problems in developing countries. Sen explains these problems, what’s wrong with current approaches, and how his approach to development addresses a rapidly growing population and food supply issues. But first, he explains how hunger and famine are becoming a mass issue because of overpopulation through the Malthus model.

The Malthus Model

Sen argues the answer to the pressures of a rapidly growing population lies in expanding freedom, not restricting it. Many poor nations with rapidly growing populations have adopted freedom-restricting policies based on a now-debunked population growth model developed by Thomas Malthus in the 19th century

According to Malthus, because population grows exponentially while the food supply grows linearly, famines are unavoidable. When the population grows too large for the food supply to sustain, he argued, people will starve. To prevent this, Malthus thought the only remedy was for the government to adopt policies of population control.

The Malthus model has been roundly refuted by modern economists for ignoring technological innovations, which have enabled sizable increases in food production. Despite this, there are still concerns about the impact of a rapidly growing population on food supply, because the logistics of getting food where it’s most needed remains a challenge.

1. Hunger

The first problem in developing countries is hunger. Given the pace of global population growth and the prevalence of hunger in the world, many people have speculated that there simply isn’t enough food to go around. But in Sen’s view, hunger is not a consequence of a limited food supply.

Sen shows that food production per capita has increased substantially since the 1970s in every region of the globe except Africa. What’s more, the largest increases came in China and India—the two regions that have experienced the most rapid population growth over the period.

So despite their growing populations, China and India have managed to increase the food available to their people.

As for Africa, which saw a reduction in food production per capita, Sen argues this problem is part of a much larger issue of political and economic mismanagement and not about food production itself.

The Global Price of Food

In addition to there being more food to go around, Sen notes that food is more affordable as well. Compared to 1950-1952, the prices of four staple crops (wheat, rice, sorghum, and maize) have all decreased by at least 60%.

Despite occasional fluctuations, the general trend has been for food prices to drop, meaning even the poor have more access to food than they did previously.

(Shortform note: Since 2000, global cereal production has increased by around 44%, and the percentage of underweight children in Sub-Saharan Africa has fallen from 25% to 17%. The world has enough food to go around, and it can be imported in places where changes in climate or economic arrangement have made growing food more challenging.)

2. Population Control

Despite an increased food supply, some nations have resorted to population control as a response to rising population growth rates.

In judging the effect of coercive population control, Sen asks three questions:

  1. Is this sort of coercion just?
  2. What are the unintended consequences of population control?
  3. What happens to population levels without coercive measures?

Sen’s preferred idea of justice considers both the intrinsic value and the instrumental value of freedom. Therefore, he weighs the freedom of families to choose how many children to have as well as the impact of that decision on society.

Unintended Consequences of Population Control

Sen says that China has become worse off due to its one-child policy. Since China implemented its “one-child policy” in 1979, its fertility rates have dropped considerably. By 1999, the rate was 1.9, slightly below the replacement level of two children per couple. By contrast, India’s was 3.1, while the average among other low-income countries was 5.0.

However, Sen argues the one-child policy had unforeseen negative consequences as well. China’s infant mortality rate is much higher than that of the Indian state of Kerala, despite both places having similar rates when China enacted its policy in 1979. Sen believes this is because the “one-child policy” in China, which has an anti-female bias, caused neglect of female babies. Additionally (as mentioned in Chapter 7), sex-selective abortion increased substantially under the one-child policy.

3. Famines

Sen believes all famines are avoidable. Rather than an imbalance between population and food supply, sudden food insecurity is a result of government failure to respond to fluctuations in the supply or price of food.

To reduce this particular problem in developing countries, Sen says it’s vital to understand three truths about how and why they occur: 

  1. Famines can occur even without a drop in the overall food supply. In 1974, Bangladesh suffered a famine despite having higher food availability per person than in the previous three years.
  2. Famines rarely affect an entire population. Sen says most famines affect less than 5-10% of the population.

Starvation is usually not responsible for most casualties in a famine. Diseases made worse by undernourishment, poor sanitation, and migration are most responsible for the suffering.

Famine and Alienation

Sen argues that when the government is alienated from the people it serves, this can lead to (or exacerbate) famine because the government isn’t as likely to intervene on their behalf. The Irish Potato Famine serves as an illustration.

Sen says the Irish Potato Famine could have been prevented through British intervention, but a British sense of superiority led them to neglect the Irish people.

The famine decimated Ireland in the 1840s when food production fell dramatically because of a potato blight. Despite widespread hunger, Ireland continued to export food. Market forces directed much of the available food in Ireland to where it could be purchased at the highest price: in this case, England, which was relatively richer.

3 Devastating Problems in Developing Countries

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  • The five types of freedom that are integral to economic development
  • How democracy can prevent famine
  • How empowering women helps communities

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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