Course 2 Who suffers most?

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You are wrong!

Famine worsens existing inequalities and vulnerabilities.

We all need to eat. So, many people think that famines impact all groups in society equally. After all, if there is no food, no one will eat and everyone will starve, right? Wrong! Since famines are a problem of access to (enough) food, and not simply of food shortages, some people will have more access to food than others.

Usually, vulnerable groups like the poor, landless, and discriminated minorities become even more vulnerable during famines. Other factors like gender, age, class, and where people live also affect how famine hits them.

It all varies depending on the situation. For instance, in the Hunger Winter (1944–45) in the Netherlands, urban areas suffered most because of transportation issues, preventing sufficient food supplies and fuel from entering the cities. In contrast, during the Irish famine those in the countryside were hit harder. Rural areas suffered more because of potato harvest failures, leading to loss of income for farmers. They could no longer pay rent and were evicted from their homes, causing many of them to starve. The higher classes ran up debts but did not suffer from hunger.

There are real differences in how famine affects different populations. Meanwhile, imagined differences are often used to divide people, or to falsely blame one particular group for the famine. As you can see in the materials below, food and famine are popular themes in propaganda.
Anti-kulak propaganda

During the Soviet Union’s collectivisation period in the late 1920s and early 1930s, propaganda demonised kulaks. The term “kulak” was used to denote well-off peasants who were claimed to exploit poorer peasants and fight against Soviet politics. They were the scapegoats for agricultural problems such as food shortages. Their crop and livestock were confiscated, and their farms collectivised. Some were deported or even executed. In reality, anyone resisting Stalin’s policies could be called a kulak.

Poster showing the kulak as fat and greedy (1930)

In propaganda, kulaks were depicted as gluttonous capitalists who were to blame for the misery of other peasants. The text on this propaganda poster reads: “Kulaks are the most savage, the most uncultured, the most uncivilised exploiters, having more than once in the history of other countries restored the power of landed gentry, tsars, priests, and capitalists” and “Get the kulak out of the weakened kolkhoz.

Black market

Black markets are illegal trading networks where goods are exchanged outside of government regulations. They are often blamed for causing famines, even though many people had to rely on them to access food. For instance, during the Franco regime in Spain, black marketeers were blamed for high costs and food shortages, but the real cause was Francoist policies. Ironically, the regime tolerated black market food to ensure Spain’s youth could survive and grow.

Advertisement in magazine
'Y Revista para la mujer' (1942)

In a propaganda picture from 1942, a wealthy Spanish family is shown at a table full of food during the famine years. The picture asks the mother of the family: ‘Would you be capable of doing this?’, warning her that consuming black-market food is dangerous to the health of her loved ones.

© Collection of the Ethnographic Museum of Terque

This educational postcard from post-war Spain is also targeted at mothers, advising them: ‘If you want to see your child happy / ensure that they eat well / even if it’s from the black market.’ With this propaganda, the dictatorship aimed to promote good nutrition for children, even if mothers had to get it illegally from the black market.


Satire uses humour to criticise people, events, or institutions. It is often directed at politicians, policies, or political parties. In the nineteenth century, satirical magazines like Punch became very popular among readers.

Union is Strength
© Punch (1846)

This cartoon, published in the British satirical weekly Punch, represents the popular opinion on the Irish famine at the time: It happened due to flaws in the character of the Irish poor, such as indolence, and due to landlords evading their duties. The magazine advocated that Ireland, including its landowning class, should take responsibility for its situation rather than relying on the United Kingdom of which it was part.


Panic-buying and hoarding are common forms of behaviour during times of food insecurity. When people feel the food supply is threatened, they may buy and store excessive amounts of goods because of fear and uncertainty.

Max Eschle
‘Hoarder, shame on you!’ (1942)
© Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

During and directly after World War II, food insecurity affected much of Europe, including Germany. Many Germans, especially women and children, went to the countryside or to the black market to buy or barter for food items, away from government regulations. This propaganda poster discourages the hoarding of food. The luxurious products in the baskets suggest that hoarding was an act of greed, rather than need.

Interestingly, Nazi propaganda often portrayed Jews with a similar hunched posture, reinforcing the prejudice that they exploited economic situations for personal gain.

In conclusion

People do not suffer equally during famines.

Famine increases existing vulnerabilities. Those who are already poor or otherwise disadvantaged are likely to be hit the hardest. In families, difficult decisions may arise regarding who gets priority for food, often favouring children, or employed men, over the elderly. In societies, aid distribution may also favour certain groups over others.

Imagined inequalities between people can be exploited for political gain, to blame a specific group, or hide a regime’s responsibility for the famine. Involvement in the black market is stigmatised, but for many people it is the only way to access food and survive.

What’s this like today?

Today, vulnerable groups such as children, (pregnant) women, refugees, and marginalised communities struggle to access adequate food and nutrition during crises. In Yemen, years of conflict have left thousands of civilians dead, and another 17 million in food insecurity. 4.5 million people are internally displaced. More than three quarters of these are women and children, with some of the world’s highest malnutrition rates: 1.3 million pregnant or breastfeeding Yemeni women need to be treated for acute malnutrition.

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