Saturday, December 4, 2010

Vaughn's "The Story of an African Famine"

Megan Vaughn's "The Story of an African Famine: Gender and Famine in Twentieth-Century Malawi," first published in 1987 and then republished in 2007 is a classic in the field of Malawian history. It might be better titled, however, the "stories" of an African famine because much of the book in concerned with delineating the various conceptual paradigms through which different people during and after the famine of 1949 in southern Malawi understood its causes. What impresses me about the book is how careful Vaughn is in her analysis and how admirably humble she is in making conclusions. While far from being confused the story presented is very complex and how one arranges all the pieces of the puzzle is often left to the reader's discretion. This is not a bad thing.
One of the many lessons that one can pull from the book is that distant attempts to engineer economies are rarely successful at achieving what they set out to do. This is not to say that they are always ineffective or impotent. But rather that the effects they do have are rarely foreseen clearly by their implementors. Agricultural economic policy seems particularly tricky to get right and although certainly not the only factor in the 1949 famine, its mismanagement was a contributor.

Are we doing any better today?


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