Telling stories about scarcity

swaziland-queue‘Scarcity’ is a key term in debates about the global rush for land and other resources.

A new working paper from our project on Land and Agricultural Commercialisation in Africa looks at different narratives of scarcity related to the future of food and farming in Africa and globally, and finds that political questions – about distribution, needs, uses and social difference – are often ignored.

Narratives of scarcity: understanding the ‘global resource grab’ (pdf, 1.4MB)


Global resource scarcity has become a central policy concern, with predictions of rising populations, natural resource depletion and hunger. Resulting narratives of scarcity drive behaviour and justify actions to harness resources considered ‘under-utilised’, leading to contestations over rights and entitlements and producing new scarcities.

Yet scarcity is contingent, contextual and above all political. We present an analysis of three framings – absolute scarcity, relative scarcity and political scarcity – associated with the intellectual traditions of Malthus, Ricardo and Marx, respectively. A review of 134 global and Africa-specific policy and related sources produced over the past six years demonstrates how diverse framings of scarcity – what it is, its causes and what is to be done – are evident in competing narratives that animate debates about the future of food and farming in Africa and globally.

We argue that current mainstream narratives emphasise absolute and relative scarcity, while ignoring political scarcity. We suggest a more political framing of scarcity requires paying attention to how resources are distributed between different needs and uses, and so different people and social classes. This requires, we argue, a policy emphasis for land and resource issues on rights and access, and distributional issues, centred on equity and justice.

Download the paper

Narratives of scarcity: understanding the ‘global resource grab’ (pdf, 1.4MB)
Ian Scoones, Rebecca Smalley, Ruth Hall and Dzodzi Tsikata
Future Agricultures Working Paper 76
February 2014

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Photo: U.S. World Food Programme food aid in Swaziland (breadfortheworld / Flickr)