28 April 2012

The Hunger Games and The Hunger Rules

When I first saw the ads for the film Hunger Games I was pretty appalled. Hunger should not be the topic of a violent reality game show, even in a dystopian future. So I read the book, despite my 10 year old son telling me that all the kids in his class had already done so.

The book is clever. It is one of those stories that different people can read into it what they want to. For some a love story, others an action flick, others a tale of survival, others a warning of what the future might bring.

For me the book was all that, but the theme of hunger really does run strongly through the tale. The protagonists spend an incredible amount of time on food: thinking about it, looking for it, conserving it, plotting over it and, of course, doing without it. If it gets kids in Europe and North America taking food less for granted, then that can't be bad.

The book is also a reminder that hunger is created. Not by games, but but by the rules of the game. Hunger is caused by lack of political representation, weak rights to land and water, technology that does not reflect the needs of the most vulnerable, gender discrimination and financial systems that will not take risks on the poorest.  These rules of the game are the outcomes of power asymmetries and they are all stacked against the poorest and most hungry.

That is why we at IDS are doing so much research on practical ways to create a more enabling environment for hunger and undernutrition reduction.

It is the hunger rules that need to be contested, not the hunger games.


  1. A brilliant piece, Lawrence. I'm grateful for it. My question is how you, that is to say, how any of us, can reconcile the rules of the game as we know them to be, with our modus operandi (collectively, I mean) which is based on believing the Hillary Clinton's, the HMG's, the Bank and the IMF, are ever going to be willing to change the rules of the game sufficiently to make the difference we all hope and, in our different ways, work for. Now you may say that what other choice is there? And this is something critics like me need to reflect on, and too often dismiss. But I put it to you that people like you need to consider whether the fundamental asymmetries of power of which you speak are not at the heart of the system to which the (very decent people) in Western governments with whom work are completely committed. Surely, this is the problem with actually existing development (the phrase is Colin Leys's): because the system depends on power asymmetries --- on hegemony, as we would have said in my youth, and that I think I'll be saying till I'm in the ground), the reforms will always be insufficient, and never get at the root of the problem. I believe this is why technical fixes a la Gates, or the chimera of civil society, are so attractive: they allow one not to think that the system a USAID or a DFID serve is fundamentally, that is to say, intrinsically unjust, unjust in its DNA.

  2. Great blog Lawrence! I too found myself lured to this book, not by the media hype surrounding it and its film, but by my 11-year-old’s reaction to reading the first few chapters “ it makes me realise how much we have and how lucky I am not to be poor and hungry”. Could this be the beginning of change in the system’s DNA David?
    You omitted a crucial piece in the Hunger Games message Lawrence – that no matter how skewed the power dynamic might seem to be, carefully targeted civil action can lead to profound change. For the children DID manage to change the rules of the Hunger Games – seemingly against all the odds - by … no, you should read the book for yourselves! And if you’re interested in more inspiring, real, examples of how ‘the system’ was thwarted by civil protests, read “Small Acts of Resistance” by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson.

  3. A thought provoking piece! You have made me read the book and I am looking forward to seeing the movie. I like that Lola has pointed out the role of the civil society in bringing about change.. however, for those of us in Africa, the main problem lies in the lack of political will, lack of enabling policy environment and private sector buy-in, lack of indigenous technologies that take into account the peculiarities of the African soil, climate and weather conditions, that have further exacerbated the decline in agricultural productivity thereby increasing the number of food insecure populations across the continent. At the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) we are doing our best to facilitate agricultural research that will help countries increase their total factor productivity and lead to growth but the afore mentioned points remain stumbling blocks.

  4. Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the WFP30 April 2012 at 15:25

    You should also know, the Movies executives partnered with the World Food Programme and Feeding America. While the title is challenging you appropriately recognize that as a result of this story/movie millions of people have been made aware of hunger through this partnership. As the new WFP ED I am sincerely appreciative that thanks to the partnership thousands have made financial contributions to WFP, in turn helping us feed more hungry children! For more information about WFP and the partnership please go to http://hungergames.wfp.org/

    Thanks Ertharin

  5. Thanks everyone for the great comemnts

    David: I agree with you up to a point--I think agencies like DFID and IDs can support an unjust system by engaging with it, but engagement can also be challenging and transforming--but I agree it is all too easy to the former and justify it as the latter (unwittingly or otherwise)

    Lola, great point, and something that speaks to David's point. I should have mentioned that. It is a small challenge the rules, but enough to annoy the authorities in the book and mass movements oftern start with small things.

    Idowu: fair points, the role of civil society in challenging these rules is vital, as Lola notes

    Ertharin, great that the movie executives are putting some of the revenues into fighting real hunger...perhaps there should be a $1 surcharge on tickets for each of the next 2 films that come out in the trilogy.

  6. I agree with you, Lawrence, about the issues of power and inequalities. We can end the real hunger games once and for all. To do this, all governments need to step up tackling the root causes of hunger e.g. high food and energy prices, conflict, inequality, trade barriers, land grabbing, low investment in agriculture, climate change.
    These are depicted in an infographic, inspired by the arena in the Hunger Games, that shows why hunger still persists all over the world in our day and age, despite there being enough food for everyone.
    You can view the infographic at www.tearfund.org/hungergames

    I loved reading the books which reminded me of the many heroes and heroines in the real world of hunger that I’ve met, who battle against hunger on a daily basis. For example farmers, pastoralists and aid workers who are caught up in the conflict and military coup in Mali that has exacerbated the food security situation. But donors can’t wait to act until we see starving children on our TV screens in a few months time, as if it were a televised version of The Hunger Games. Longer term, we need strategies to prevent predictable food crises and tackle the reasons that increase people’s vulnerability in the first place.