On an Empty Stomach. Two Hundred Years of Hunger Relief

Scott-Smith, Tom
Anzahl Seiten
XVIII, 268 S.
$ 35.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Mario De Prospo, Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna

This monograph is the result of an ambitious and lengthy research project by Tom Scott-Smith, Associate Professor of Refugee Studies and Forced Migration at the University of Oxford. The subject of his study is a history of humanitarian approaches to hunger in the last two centuries. Following a thorough diachronic narrative arc, the text is structured in ten chapters, conceived by the author as the main episodes of this evolving and entangled story. On an Empty Stomach relies on a vast array of sources – records from archives of national (mainly British) and international institutions or NGOs and an extensive use of handbooks prepared for those who carried out humanitarian work – together with a comprehensive and multidisciplinary bibliography.

The book conceives humanitarianism as a “set of practices […], which can be relatively stable at any particular historical moment, while shifting a great deal over time,” referring in particular to hunger, understood as “a variety of situations that are caused by insufficient food” (p. xiii). Given this premise, the author makes it clear to the reader that “aid reflects the age,” not following “a simple, linear path of improvement and refinement.” On the contrary, humanitarianism is “shaped by the conditions in which it takes place” (p. 11). Likewise, the other keyword of this work, hunger, was chosen because the author considers it to be more inclusive than malnutrition or starvation for its capacity “to describe both social and physical processes” (p. xiv).

This framework leads to a strict connection between the “technical humanitarian practice” and its surrounding “institutional environment” as a product of a peculiar and changing “sociopolitical context” (p. 12). In an ever-changing environment, the story reconstructed by Scott-Smith also tells of a series of illusions, failures, and an increasingly global scope. Furthermore, the author identifies “four underlying shifts that have had a profound impact on the contemporary relief”: bureaucracy and rationalization, equality and universalism, the growing influence of commerce and capitalism, and the rise of science and technology (p. 13).

In the first part of the book, the author guides the reader from the Victorian-age soup kitchen in the slums of London and famished Ireland to the birth of modern nutritional science and the quantification of food energy through the discovery of calories, along with the common thread of the search for the right and most efficient food for the malnourished. The following decades of the 20th century witnessed more aggressive and shifting attempts to tackle the issue. In contrast to the holistic, social, and state-centered approach proposed by the League of Nations, the author acknowledges the rise of a narrower and medicalized focus linked to emergencies. This process was accelerated by a radical change of perspective, relying first on the experience accumulated during the Second World War in military operations but also matched by a narrative dominated by the high-modernist quest for a synthetic miracle food to solve famine problems once for all.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, an expanded community of international aid professionals became aware that technology and “one-fits-all” solutions alone were far from having the answers to recurring humanitarian food crises. In the final part of the text, the author therefore recalls the emergence of a more pragmatic low modernist approach, characterized by a significant openness to small-scale operations and culturally acceptable, commercially viable solutions. The book concludes in a consistent and coherent manner concerning the prefatory setting. In the concluding remarks, Scott-Smith makes a final appraisal, recalling the initial four underlying shifts and, from them, identifying gains and losses confronting the “Faustian bargain of modernity” (p. 14), which “produces incredible results, but exacts terrible costs” (p. 175).

The author started this research from his direct field experience with humanitarian nutritionists in South Sudan. Moreover, during the book’s preparation, he had always sought an open dialogue with humanitarian professionals, aiming to find valuable lessons and recommendations to share with them for their future activities. In particular, understanding the overall point of this two-hundred-year-long history of fighting hunger, Scott-Smith calls for more openness and the ability to listen to the people in need of assistance, acknowledging their cultural differences – first of all, their tastes – with the ambition to deal with complexities, aiming to reject “oversimplification in all its forms” (p. 183).

Overall, as acknowledged by the author, the book remains an academic work, but it can stimulate further discussion and surely new research paths. Without a doubt, the clear-cut framework proposed by Scott-Smith reflects an equilibrated and mindful attitude toward historical narrative. He describes this as a form of “ethnographic skepticism”1, rejecting the “extremes” of both progress and decline, trying instead to navigate in the middle, finding and showing to the reader complex trade-offs. This sensitivity is underpinned by the author’s deep acquaintance with the fundamental critical thinkers on modernity and the relationship between knowledge, power, and society, such as Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, and James C. Scott.

Indeed, from the point of view of a historian, On an Empty Stomach is a book that commands attention in a field of study that has only recently started to develop and gain relevance. It must be stressed that this work was not an easy endeavor; no one has performed a similar study before, and the ability to follow the main narrative thread – in such a potentially vast and often dispersed field – by focusing on the carefully selected stories on which the book is based is valuable in itself. Moreover, it was challenging to find the right sources, considering that most humanitarian aid institutions are often not interested in keeping their records for posterity, preferring to focus on their current business.

By proving himself able to bridge anthropology and history, but also driven by a sincere will to increase awareness among humanitarian nutritionists of the genealogy of their field of work, Tom Scott-Smith has written a convincing book, able to captivate a curious reader. In perspective, this valuable work opens the way to more extensive and promising research paths. In the introduction, the author defines his book as “deliberately a study of Western humanitarianism” (p. xiv). Upon finishing it, one gets the impression that it has narrated – with very few exceptions – an Anglo-Saxon story, which is not necessarily detrimental considering the contribution of this part of the world in shaping humanitarian efforts. A growing transnational interest in the history of humanitarianism and food security2 has developed in the last decade and could help to fill this gap. Throughout the last decades of the 20th century, new and relevant actors have appeared on the stage. Focusing on the “West” alone, there are a number that deserve attention for future studies. Noteworthy examples include the rising role of the European Union in this effort and the growing success of the Slow-food movement, first in Italy, then globally.

1 ‘Ethnographic Skepticism’. A Conversation with Tom Scott-Smith, in: Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History 18 (2021), pp. 331–345, (30.10.2022).
2 See: Silvia Salvatici, Writing the History of Food Security since 1945, in: Contemporanea 18 (2015), pp. 347-354.