Working Paper

IDS Working Paper 582

Challenging the Normalisation of Hunger in Highly Unequal Societies

Published on 19 December 2022

This paper starts from an empirical observation that levels of hunger or food insecurity in middle-income and high-income countries are often higher than might be expected, and in some cases are rising rather than falling in recent years.

We document levels and trends in selected food security indicators for three case study countries: Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. We argue that, given the availability of resources and state capacity to eradicate hunger in these countries, a process of ‘normalisation’ has occurred, meaning that governments and societies tolerate the persistence of hunger, even when a constitutional and/or legal right to food exists that should make hunger socially, politically, and legally unacceptable. We further argue that one driver of normalisation is the way food (in)security is measured; for instance, the assumption that structural hunger cannot exist in countries that are self-sufficient or surplus producers of food. We suggest that high levels of structural hunger are predictable outcomes in societies characterised by high levels of income and wealth inequality.

Next, we develop a simple analytical framework for exploring the normalisation of hunger. Just as famines occur because of failures to intervene to prevent them, so hunger is tolerated because key stakeholders do not exercise their power to eradicate it. We identify four sets of actors who potentially hold such power, but whose failure to act effectively allows hunger to persist: the state; civil society; the public; and hungry people themselves. In each case study country, we ask four questions. Firstly, why are public interventions by governments and opposition parties to combat hunger inadequate, even in upper-middle and high-income countries? Secondly, what advocacy is being done by civil society actors (non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, the media, academics) on behalf of those suffering hunger? Thirdly, what attitudes towards hunger and hungry people are held by members of the public? Fourthly, why do not hungry people themselves take direct action (e.g. protests or food riots) to demand action by governments? We conclude by outlining a research agenda to explore the issues raised in this paper further.

Cite this publication

Devereux, S.; Haysom, G.; Maluf, R.S. and Scott-Villiers, P. (2022) Challenging the Normalisation of Hunger in Highly Unequal Societies, IDS Working Paper 582, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, DOI: 10.19088/IDS.2022.086


Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

Gareth Haysom

African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Patta Scott-Villiers

Research Fellow

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies


About this publication

Programmes and centres
Food Equity Centre

Related content