Access Failure: Explaining Climate-Related Migration in the Sahel

By 1980, Amartya Sen demonstrated that hunger and famine do not result from mere shortage – they are not an outcome of crop failure. He showed that all modern instances of hunger and famine occur where there is sufficient food to feed all. In short, food crises are outcomes of various forms of maldistribution. At times deprivation is a result of violence (direct or structural). Usually, however, it is because well-functioning markets allocate food away from the hungry – as the hungry have no effective demand. Sen explains famines as ‘entitlement failures’ – situations in which farmers cannot obtain enough food based on their legal entitlements (legal means) made up of initial assets (land, labor, cash, stocks) and social protections (formal and informal networks of support). As a good economist, Sen does not explain the origins of assets and protections, he takes them as given initial conditions. Many scholars since have explored the broader political-economic relations that produce these initial asset distributions. Watts wrote on empowerment as the ability to shape the political economy that shapes’ one’s entitlements. Blaikie wrote about the political-economic drivers of access to markets, finance and land. Building on this past work, this article will outline a method for identifying the causes of crisis by starting with instances of ‘access failure’ – moments in which people fail to derive necessary flows of benefits to nourish their bodies and support their aspirations. These are failures of access to markets, finance, land and representation. Access failure analysis will be illustrated through cases of ostensibly climate-related migration in the Sahel. The cases show that access failures cause the vulnerabilities that enable climate events to push people into crisis. ‘Access failure’ thus provides a broader lens than ‘entitlement failure’ by identifying the political-economic and institutional production of the precarity we hope to reduce. Access analysis identifies the proximate and structural, as well as legal, extra-legal and illegal, causes of deprivations and attainments.

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