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The Many Meanings of Famine

The United Nations provides the official definition, but famine’s effects aren’t so easily quantified.
Somali refugees queue in Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado camp. ACF-Ethiopia, S. Hauenstein-
Somali refugees queue in Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado camp during the food crisis of 2011. ACF-Ethiopia, S. Hauenstein-Swan

According to the United Nations, Somalia is no longer experiencing a famine. While we can and should cheer this news, to understand what it actually means we must examine how the UN defines famine—and how Somalia’s new status relates to our greater concern for the health of its people.

So, how does the UN decide whether to declare a famine in a country or region? There are three essential conditions:

  • 20% of households face extreme food shortages
  • Over 30% of the population are acutely malnourished
  • Every day, hunger causes two out of every 10,000 people to die

Despite the relative opacity of some of these terms (a helpful glossary can be found here), it’s not difficult—or wrong—to conclude that conditions need to be truly horrific before the UN definition of famine is met. For example, an acute malnutrition rate of 30% means that three out of every ten people is right on the verge of starving to death.

Clearly, an acute malnutrition rate of, say, 28% would very much be a crisis. It just wouldn’t qualify as a famine according to the UN’s technical definition.

We should bear this in mind when we consider Somalia. While recent harvests have been encouraging, thanks to plentiful rains late last year, there are still many communities where the acute malnutrition rate remains unacceptably high.

“The country is still in an extremely fragile state with at least 2.34 million people in need of life-saving assistance. The ongoing food crisis remains one of the most severe emergencies...in the world today,”

Jens Opperman, Director of Operations, ACF-United Kingdom

Indeed, a severe food crisis, would it be qualified as a famine or not, has massive, long-term impacts beyond the deaths and disabilities it causes. In countries like Somalia, where the majority of people earn money by farming or herding, famine brings poverty as well as hunger. Families lose entire harvests. Herds of cattle or sheep—as good as money—die in dry pastures. In a vicious cycle, very high levels of food insecurity can persist long after a famine is officially over, populations are unable to store enough food to overcome the next drought, and deadly malnutrition returns.

It’s tragic, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Action Against Hunger’s food security and water and sanitation activities complement our nutrition programs that save lives in emergencies like in Somalia. The goal is to break the cycle of drought, famine, and poverty by providing communities with the tools they need to produce more food more efficiently, store it for longer periods, and revitalize local markets that ultimately raise standards of living.

That being said, there’s still a long way to go in Somalia. Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group, retains control over vast areas of the country and has regularly prohibited humanitarian agencies from accessing populations in need. On the other hand, the Transitional Federal Government that controls the capital Mogadishu and a tiny part of the Somali territory is unable to insure security for humanitarian workers or victims of robbery, kidnappings, and murders. The international community will have to strengthen its commitment to resolving the conflict in Somalia before its people can hope to materially improve their lives.

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Is the UN’s definition of famine sufficient? How would you change it?

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About Alex Ruthrauff

Alex is Action Against Hunger’s Donor Engagement Officer. He helps our supporters stay informed and active in the fight against hunger.

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