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Famine, Legitimacy, and Do No Harm

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Famines put extreme pressure on the legitimacy of formal and informal authorities. Food is more than just a commodity. It is life itself. Scarcity at the level of a famine is a serious breach of the social contract between people and authority. The breach can be sufficiently severe that it cannot be healed and the authority is often driven from power within a relatively short time span.

The steep decline in legitimacy takes place regardless of whether the authority structure has any regard for the population under its aegis. Authoritarian or bandit groups can be subject to a loss of legitimacy as much as democratically elected authorities.

This paper elaborates on the implications of the Do No Harm concepts of “Legitimization” and “Substitution”, two of the key Resource Transfers identified by the DNH Program. Aid agencies, by possessing and providing resources in the midst of scarcity, “transfer” power and authority along with food. As they work with local governing authorities they can reinforce (or undermine) the power and authority of those governing authorities. This paper identifies the components of legitimacy (as found by DNH), discusses the process of how legitimization and substitution take place in famines, and ends with three cases that demonstrate that there are always options.