Cornell University Press

The Humanitarian Approach to Hunger

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Over the past century, the humanitarian approach to hunger has redefined food as nutrients and hunger as a medical condition. Aid has become more individualized, medicalized, and rationalized, shaped by modernism in bureaucracy, commerce, and food technology. On an Empty Stomach focuses on the gains and losses that result, examining the complex compromises that arise between efficiency of distribution and quality of care. Here’s our Q&A with author Tom Scott-Smith and further insight into his research on hunger relief.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

In chapter eight of my book I describe how a wave of 1960s high modernist fervor swept through the world of humanitarian nutrition. There was a sense that new, super-efficient foods could be created to feed the world: protein derived from algae, fungi grown on oil, food spun from insects. One fascinating man called Norman Pirie developed the idea that Third World populations could be fed from ordinary grass and tree leaves, boiled into a protein curd and dried into a powder. It was a space-age idea, but the product tasted like pondweed and made feces turn an alarming bright green color. 

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

That some ideas never go away. Specifically, the idea of perfectly balanced food in a powder or pill just keeps returning. A few years ago the idea of Soylent swept through Silicon Valley—a liquid diet to keep your body going without having to deal with the perceived irritation of cooking and eating. More recently there have been ecological arguments in favor of “farmfree” foods, grown in laboratories, which are again presented as the only way to sustainably feed the world. I did not have a chance to discuss these contemporary examples in my book, which is a shame because there is much to learn from similar failures in the past.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of Political Science?

By encouraging more small-scale historical or ethnographic studies of policy interventions and the way they unfold in practice. We can learn so much from how big policy agendas translate into technical projects on the ground, and the way these then butt up against local cultural realities and often fail for that reason. There is also not enough historical work that traces how similar policy ideas are reconstructed with slightly different emphasis and jargon. Academics can be guilty of this too, putting old wine in new bottles to sell books rather than tracing cycles and repetitions in the policy world.

*Featured photo by Austrian National Library. Description: “Food aid from the United States, 1947.”


Tom Scott-Smith is Associate Professor of Refugee Studies and Forced Migration at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford. He previously worked as a professional in humanitarian and development organizations. Follow him on Twitter @tomscottsmith.

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