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Fredrik Mansfield

March 15, 2015

Final Paper

Amartya Sen on Food Entitlement

Since the start of the 19th century, Thomas Robert Malthus’s understanding of

famine was the reigning voice in economics on the subject matter. Malthus proposed that

starvation is the result of a lack of food, which itself is due to a faster growing population

than food production rates (MacRae 2015). However, in 1980, an Indian economist by

the name of Amartya Sen critically assessed this theory and proposed a new concept of

food entitlement.

In his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Sen

goes into depth on his theory of food entitlement, a theory for which Sen later won the

Nobel Prize in economics in 1998. Amartya Sen’s food entitlement theory looks at

starvation and famine as not being the result of a lack of food, but rather a lack of access

or entitlement to the available food. His theory states that a person’s ownership of food is

reliant upon the network of actions such as trade or production that lead to one’s

entitlement to the food (Sen 1982). In his theory, there are four primary forms of


1) Trade-based entitlement

2) Production-based entitlement

3) Own-labor-based entitlement

4) Inheritance entitlement
Trade-based entitlement is being entitled to the commodity for which one trades.

Money is a type of commodity with assigned value, which is often used for trade.

“Trading” the money for the desired food entitles someone to said food. Production-

based entitlement is the entitlement to what one produces. Ownership of a farm, for

example, would yield the produced crops to be entitled to the farm owner or the share-

croppers, as is often the case. Own-labor-based entitlement allows one the fruits of their

own labor. This can be the value of labor force (getting paid for the time one works) or

for the work of one’s hands outside of a job context, like making art or other

commodities. Finally, there is the inheritance entitlement, which recognizes inheritance

as being a method of transferring entitlements to another (Sen 1982). These four forms of

entitlement are the framework of entitlements and access to food and other commodities.

Sen’s theory looks at the relations between the different forms of entitlements to

understand how it is that people have access to food. He calls this analysis “exchange

entitlement mapping,” which traces the transfers of entitlements between people. If the

transfers cannot lead an individual to a sufficient amount of food, the individual is

susceptible to starvation (Sen 1982). A person’s exchange entitlement is based on many

factors; employment is one. A person’s ability to retain a job provides them with own-

labor-based entitlement (money), which can then be traded for food. Employment is also

affected by wage rate and duration of employment. If wage does not increase at the same

rate as food prices, a fully employed worker can still face starvation. Likewise, if the

worker only has one more month of work, finances will be rationed heavily and

starvation will likely face them. Beyond employment, people are also entitled to their

non-labor assets. Everything an individual owns could potentially be traded for food. The
cost of taxes and other required payments is also essential to include in an assessment of

someone’s exchange entitlement. Finally, the role of social security benefits is essential

factor for the at-risk populations. Social security is a government-provided entitlement,

be it food stamps or other methods of payment (Sen 1982). I shall more fully articulate

the necessity of social security later on in this essay.

Sen’s argument of a lack of entitlement being the primary cause of starvation and

famine questions the former accepted theory of the root causes of starvation, noted by

Malthusian theory as being a lack of food. By Malthusian logic, the primary method of

solving hunger was to control population growth, as it is much easier to limit than it is to

expand food production in a short amount of time (Kuriawan 2015). The target of

population control in the mid-20th century became the developing world, because the

average family size in the developing world was much larger than that of the Western

world (Rust 2010). However, Malthusian theory fails to recognize that large family size

may be the result of food insecurity and not the other way around.

Sen debunks Malthusian theory by examining instances when food production

actually increases in a time of famine, or when food production rates during the famine,

while decreasing, are higher than they were before the famine. One of the strongest

examples he gives of this is of the Great Bengal famine of 1943, about which he writes in

his essay titled Famine:

“While the food availability did go down in 1943 compared with the year

immediately preceding, it was substantially higher than in 1941 when there

was no hint of a famine. The total availability in the famine year was around

11% higher than in 1941, and the per capita availability 9% higher. There
was nothing like a famine in 1941. And yet while these figures stood high,

people fell and perished. The explanation has to be sought in something

other than FAD” (Sen 1980).

FADs, short for food availability declines, is central to the Malthusian method of

explaining famine. In the case of the Great Bengal famine and several other famines that

he analyzes, Sen argues that food availability was not the issue as much as food access.

This distinction in the cause of starvation is not merely the difference between

how starvation is viewed. It holds great significance, as the operating theory determines

how the government and NGOs will address instances of starvation across the globe.

Under a Malthusian perspective, governments would provide the countries in need with

large surpluses of food to ensure that the country is not lacking food. However, this does

nothing to change the exchange entitlement of the poor who are the ones starving. They

still have little to no access to the food, no matter how much is imported. Rather, Sen

argues that the best way to help people facing starvation is to provide them with cash


Cash relief arguably has many benefits over food relief. First, it bypasses the

inefficiency of government transport of the food to the areas of need. Secondly, it hinders

the exportation of food from the famine zone (Kwon 2012). In the case of the great Irish

famines of the 1840s, for example, Ireland was still exporting food despite the starvation

that was rampant in the country (Sen 1980). While this is the result of political economic

issues rather than of food relief, the problem of exportation in a time of dire food need is

still an issue that cash relief addresses. Third, cash relief will theoretically stimulate the

economy more, thus generating income that will improve the infrastructure of the area.
Finally, cash relief is more flexible than food relief, in that it can be used for more than

just food (Kwon 2012). Cash relief provides the individual with the freedom of choice,

which is foundational to empowering the individual to access what they recognize as

their own need (Sen 1988; Sen 1989). Although the issue is about not having access to

enough food, there are still development investments that can take precedence over

immediate food consumption. For instance, imagine a poor rural farmer who struggles to

pay her taxes and other dues. She needs to sell the food she produces in order to pay her

taxes and other costs, but cannot make enough to also buy enough food to survive: Cash

relief would allow her to skip the entire first step of needing to sell her food in order to

pay her dues, and she could enjoy the produce grown from her farm.

This is the reason why social security is so essential – it allows the poor to be

entitled to make development investments and/or purchase food in times of severe

deprivation. The reason why more developed countries do not experience famine despite

recessions and high unemployment rates is because of the social security system that has

been established to take care of the poor. There will always be a poor class in every

country (until GINI coefficients drop significantly due to political economic changes),

but the poor do not need to die of starvation so long as a social security system is in

place. As Sen describes in his concept of exchange entitlement mapping, employment –

as the primary if not only source of income – is an essential requirement in order to be

entitled to sufficient amounts of food. If not for a social security system, unemployment

could lead to a lack of access to food and thereafter starvation, even in wealthy countries

such as the United States.

In 1998, Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his food

entitlement theory. Yet despite this achievement and the influential presence his theory

now has in food economics, his theory is not fully accepted by all; there are many

critiques of his thinking.

First and foremost, it should be stated that, when first publishing his theory, Sen

was aware of several of the flaws of his idea. One issue he mentions is that of starvation

by choice. Access to food does not always mean consumption of food. There are

numerous reasons why someone would choose not to eat – being too preoccupied with

extreme amounts of work, having too many dependents to care for, extreme fatigue, and

apathy, to name a few. Sen also notes that disease-driven famines are also prevalent

issues that are not addressed by his theory of food entitlement. Thirdly, there are the

ambiguities of entitlement specification. If land is shared, there are ambiguities about

entitlement that are not addressed by the lens of private ownership Sen takes in his food

entitlement theory. Finally, there is the issue of illegal possession transfers, such as theft

and looting (Devereux 2001). All of the aforementioned examples are rooted in political

economic issues, which is fundamentally the reason for famine that is not addressed by

either Malthusian or food entitlement theory. I will go more into depth on this later in this


Another strong critique of Sen’s food entitlement theory is that he denies the

reality of food shortage. Peter Bowbrick, a fellow economist with conflicting views,

agrees with the more straightforward Malthusian theory. He claims that the famines are

primarily the result of food availability declines, and he argues that Sen’s theory could

exacerbate famines by abstaining from food importation (Bowbrick 1986). Sen responds
that his argument stands, claiming that Bowbrick’s data regarding food availability in the

Great Bengal famine of 1943, the famine he uses to critique Sen, comes from less

reputable sources (Sen 1986). Bowbrick is not alone in this opinion, however – many

other economists agree. Economist Mark Tauger, for instance, suggests that a major

natural disaster in 1942 is responsible for low crop yields that led into the Great Bengal

famine of 1943 (Tauger 2003). Sen later accepts that the data he used may be biased, but

holds that the relative increase in food availability from before the famine in 1941 to

1943 is still valid, proving that food availability was not the issue (Sen 1987). The claims

from both sides of the argument are difficult to prove or disprove, as food availability in

historical famines is difficult to confirm one way or the other. However, this is an

important critique in and of itself, because increasing entitlement and therefore access to

food is only successful if there is enough food available. A perfect distribution system of

an inadequate amount of food would still lead to starvation. Consider once again the

Great Bengal famine of 1943: Sen argues that there was no lack of food availability, only

decreased access to the food for the poor. The government operated under a Malthusian

famine relief program, importing grain for distribution to the poor. Approximately three

million people died as a result of the famine, half of whom died from disease as a result

of a weakened immune system from a lack of food and nutrition (Bowbrick 1986). The

casualties of the famine were significant, and Sen’s theory may have been able to avoid

the catastrophe. Had Sen’s theory of food entitlement been able to be applied in Bengal in

1943, the government would not have focused on any food relief, but instead focused on

increased entitlement for the poor. However, if FADs were in fact a significant factor in

the famine, this would have only aggravated the widespread starvation.
From the perspective of critical medical anthropology, however, the entire issue

of starvation and famine is assessed at the root causes of the issue rather than the

immediate relief. Economists typically examine economic issues to find their immediate

remedy, rather than examine the entire structure that is causing the issue. The lack of

scope is one of the major critiques of Sen’s food entitlement theory, and it is where

anthropologists with a political economic approach step in.

Amartya Sen’s theory of entitlement is an economic perspective on access to food

and the flow of resources that makes up an economy. However, economies take place

within the broader spheres of political institutions, and as a result, economies cannot be

understood nor theorized upon in a vacuum. A Critical Medical Anthropologist would

look at the structural issues that take place within the political sphere that affect food

availability as well as access to food. In the context of the previously stated issues that

Amartya Sen recognizes about his own theory, I mentioned that they are all rooted in

structural, political issues. For example, disease-driven famines result from a deficient

investment in health infrastructure. Contemporarily, this is most notably the result of the

International Monetary Fund spreading neoliberal globalization and creating debt

bondage with developing countries, requiring them to pay much of their annual

expenditures on debt repayment and prohibiting them from investing in health and other

public services. Health has to do with much more than healthcare – equality, public

education, and other structural ideals are fundamental in improving global health (Sen

2008). These necessities, arguably human rights, are social determinants for health that

political economic injustice can negate.

Political economic injustices are the primary reason there is poverty at all, and as

long as the amount of food available and the technology for making food production

efficient remain ahead of the global population, such injustices must be addressed by

some method of income distribution, thereby distributing entitlement (Sen 2000). In a

hypothetical world without political economic injustice, there would be no lack of access

of food for anyone, because even when some become afflicted with unemployment or

health distress or other personal issues, the political system will support them until they

are back on their feet again. Therefore, the focus of critical medical anthropology should

be to address the political economic injustices that are causing poverty and food

disentitlement. Ethnography can be done in poor areas to illuminate the need, and this

research can be brought into advocacy for policy reform. Anthropology takes place in the

real world with real inequities and global problems; affecting policy change to best

address these global problems would be the aim of an anthropologist coming with a

political economic lens.

An anthropologist working to improve upon the implementation of Sen’s theory

would endorse long term policies that assure entitlements for the poor. This would best

be done through investing in the social structures such as healthcare systems and public

health, education, and social security.


Bowbrick, Peter. "The Causes of Famine." Food Policy 11, no. 2 (1986): 105-24.

Devereux, Stephen. "Sen's Entitlement Approach: Critiques And Counter-

Critiques." Oxford Development Studies 29, no. 3 (2001): 245-63.

Kurniawan, Budi. "Food Security and Entitlement: A Critical Analysis."

2015. Accessed March 15, 2015.

Kwon, Yong. "Summary of Food, Economics and Entitlements by Amartya Sen." Rice

Iron. August 31, 2012. Accessed March 15, 2015.


MacRae, Donald Gunn. "Thomas Robert Malthus | Biography - English Economist and

Demographer." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. January 29, 2015. Accessed

March 16, 2015.


Rust, David L. "The Ethics of Controlling Population Growth in the Developing World."

Intersect 3, no. 1 (2010): 69-78.

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Income Distribution, 59-85. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Elsevier, 2000.

Sen, Amartya. "Famines." World Development 8, no. 9 (1980): 613-21.

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Sen, Amartya. "Freedom of Choice." European Economic Review 32, no. 2-3 (1988):

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Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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Sen, Amartya. "The Causes of Famine." Food Policy 11, no. 2 (1986): 125-32.

Sen, Amartya. "Why And How Is Health A Human Right?" The Lancet 372, no. 9655

(2008): 2010.

Tauger, Mark B. "Entitlement, Shortage and the 1943 Bengal Famine: Another

Look." Journal of Peasant Studies 31, no. 1 (2003): 45-72.