Africa

21st century famines have nothing to do with a lack of food

A sick child lies in a bed in a UNICEF supported hospital in Juba, South Sudan, January 24, 2017. In 2017 in South Sudan, ongoing insecurity, combined with an economic crisis that has pushed inflation above 800 percent, has created widespread food insecurity with malnutrition among children having reached emergency levels in most parts of the country. In 2016, UNICEF and partners admitted 184,000 children for treatment of severe malnutrition. That is 50 percent higher than the number treated in 2015 and an increase of 135 percent over 2014.In February 2017, war and a collapsing economy have left some 100,000 people facing starvation in parts of South Sudan where famine was declared 20 February, three UN agencies warned. A further 1 million people are classified as being on the brink of famine. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) also warned that urgent action is needed to prevent more people from dying of hunger. If sustained and adequate assistance is delivered urgently, the hunger situation can be improved in the coming months and further suffering mitigated. The total number of food insecure people is expected to rise to 5.5 million at the height of the lean season in July if nothing is done to curb the severity and spread of the food crisis. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) update released 20 February by the government, the three agencies and other humanitarian partners, 4.9 million people – more than 40 percent of South Sudan’s population – are in need of urgent food, agriculture and nutrition assistance. Unimpeded humanitarian access to everyone facing famine, or at risk of famine, is urgently needed to reverse the escalating catastrophe, the UN agencies urged. Further spread of famine can only be prevented if humanitarian assistance is scaled up and reaches the most vulnerable. Famine is currently a

Famine killed nearly 75 million people in the 20th century, but had virtually disappeared in recent decades. Image: © UNICEF/UN053461/Modola

Daniel Maxwell
Professor of Food Security, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
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Africa

Famine killed nearly 75 million people in the 20th century, but had virtually disappeared in recent decades. Now, suddenly, it is back. In late February a famine was declared in South Sudan, and warnings of famine have also recently been issued for Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.

Moreover, in January the Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) – a U.S. government-funded organization created in 1985 specifically to predict famines and humanitarian emergencies – estimated that 70 million people affected by conflicts or disasters worldwide will need food assistance in 2017. This number has increased by nearly 50 percent in just the past two years.

What explains this rapid rise in the number of people who need emergency food assistance? And why, in an era of declining poverty and hunger worldwide, are we suddenly facing four potential famines in unconnected countries?

What are famines?

Famines are extreme events in which large populations lack adequate access to food, leading to widespread malnutrition and deaths. More of these deaths are caused by infectious disease than starvation because severe malnutrition compromises human immune systems. This makes people much more susceptible to killer diseases such as measles, or even common conditions such as diarrhea. Young children are especially vulnerable.

Experts now agree on three characteristics that define a famine:

- At least 20 percent of households in a given group face extreme food deficits, with no ability to cope;

- At least 30 percent of children in a given group are acutely malnourished, meaning that their weight is dangerously low compared to their height; and

- Mortality rates exceed two people per 10,000 population per day. For comparison, a noncrisis rate in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa would be about 0.3.

People affected by famine may also experience other impacts, including widespread hunger, loss of assets, the breakdown of social support networks, distress migration and destitution.

The last large-scale famines affected the Horn of Africa in 1984-85 and 1992, and North Korea in the mid-1990s. Since that time, only one large-scale famine has occurred: a devastating crisis in southern Somalia in 2011 that killed a quarter of a million people.

Image: US Aid
Human-made emergencies

For many years experts believed that famines were caused by a shortfall in food availability. Then in 1981 economist/philosopher Amartya Sen published “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation,” which showed that famines actually resulted when food was available but some groups could not access it. Although many people believe today that famines occur mostly in Africa, the deadliest famines of the 20th century were in Europe (Ukraine) and Asia (China).

Today we recognize famines happen only with some degree of human complicity. Some analysts assert that famines are crimes of either commission or omission, because human decisions and actions determine whether a crisis deteriorates into a full-blown famine. They also contend that we cannot eradicate famine without holding people who cause it accountable.

Famines typically have multiple causes. They can include climatic factors such as drought, economic shocks such as rapid inflation, and violent conflict or other political causes. Their impacts are more severe when underlying factors make some groups more vulnerable.

Mortality during famines may be exacerbated by conflict and displacement. Deliberately cutting off access to food is often a means of war. It is not a coincidence that the threat of famine in South Sudan, northeastern Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia is occurring in the midst of protracted, violent conflicts.

For example, the 2011 famine in Somalia was caused by a severe drought, a dramatic spike in the cost of food and devastating loss of purchasing power, and conflict. These occurred on top of long-term environmental degradation, deteriorating opportunities in agricultural and pastoral livelihoods, and the absence of a central state authority.

One party to the conflict, Al Shabaab, was an armed group that the United States and other countries labeled as a foreign terrorist organization. Al Shabaab controlled people’s movements and access to markets, and excluded or directly threatened many humanitarian agencies.

External donor governments prioritized containing the terrorist threat, and warned that any stolen or diverted aid that ended up in the hands of Al Shabaab would be treated as a criminal offense. These policies made it extremely difficult for humanitarian agencies to assist groups affected by the famine.

This combination of human-made factors thwarted adequate prevention or response measures until the famine declaration provoked a more vigorous response. By then, the number of people being killed by the famine had already peaked. Not surprisingly, the most marginalized groups within Somali society were the worst affected.

Famines are recurring today because once again, conflicts and natural disasters such as drought are converging in vulnerable areas. Shortened recovery cycles between recurrent crises – due partly to climate change – leave ever-larger groups more vulnerable.

Better warning systems

Famines result from cumulative processes we can observe and predict. That means we can prevent them through timely public action.

Early warning systems such as FEWSNET monitor agricultural production and rainfall trends, commodity markets and price trends, and conflicts. They also track trends in food access, malnutrition or mortality, and labor migration among at-risk populations.

Governments and humanitarian agencies can use this information to prevent or limit famines. Since the 1950s, food aid has been the main tool for responding to famines. Producer countries ship food to countries in crisis, and humanitarian organizations like the World Food Programme deliver it to affected populations.

Now we are paying more attention to protecting people’s livelihoods to help them cope with crisis and recover afterwards. Cash transfers have become the primary form of aid, although the U.S. government also provides food aid.

Ready-to-use therapeutic foods – high-energy pastes typically made from peanuts, oils, sugar and milk powder – have significantly improved treatment of acutely malnourished children. Actions in other sectors, including water and health, are helping the humanitarian community prevent and respond to famines.

Acting in time

Nonetheless, even when famines and food access crises are predicted, governments, donors and humanitarian agencies often fail to head them off – a pattern known as the “early warning/late response” problem. Sometimes it is due to negligence or bureaucratic inertia. More frequently there are political reasons, or armed conflict blocks access to affected populations. And donor nation policies may limit where assistance can go for political and security reasons.

Today the situation is urgent. Humanitarian aid budgets have not kept up with needs in recent years.

Some governments in affected countries and donor nations are gearing up responsibly to meet this problem. Others are not, or are sending unclear signals. While the U.S. is responding to the current crisis, foreign aid is one of many areas in which the Trump administration has proposed major cuts.

Even when enough resources are available, more must be done to deliver it to people who need it. This means working out measures to ensure access before crises deteriorate into famine. National governments and even rebel groups should renew their commitment to International Humanitarian Law, which guarantees civilians caught in conflict the right to assistance, expressly forbids the use of food as a weapon of warfare and provides support for efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts. Timely action based on early warning can avert major crises and save resources and lives – but it requires political commitment and constant vigilance.

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Related topics:
AfricaFuture of the EnvironmentBehavioural SciencesHumanitarian ActionInequality
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