What makes a famine ‘official’?

It has been shocking to read about the food crisis in Somalia and other parts of East Africa. This week the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network officially declared a state of famine in two regions of southern Somalia, Bakool and Lower Shabelle (see UN news report here and FAO statement here).

Up to 12 million people are caught up in the region-wide food shortage brought about by drought (possibly a result of La Niña) and generally high food prices in the region and globally. In Somalia in particular, the situation is exasperated by political instability: the country has been racked by internal violence and conflict since the early 1990s.

You can keep track of the situation via the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) web site, which provides an updated snapshot of what has been going on. All the major charities are running appeals, so we can help out by donating.

The question I want to tackle here is just when does a grave food shortage become a famine; and then what difference might its official designation make to people on the ground?

At issue here is the unfortunate fact that budgets to deal with humanitarian crises are limited. Rich-world governments don’t allocate enough of their national budgets to fund the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization or the United Nations; nor, I think it’s correct to add, do the world’s billionaires redistribute enough of their riches. What organizations such as the FAO need to do, therefore, is identify priorities; as such, defining when a food shortage becomes a famine is of critical importance.

The UN and other agencies and stakeholders use a ‘standardised scale that integrates food security, nutrition and livelihood information into a clear statement about the nature and severity of a crisis’ laid out by Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. The scale has five phases:

1) Generally Food Secure

(2) Moderately/Borderline Food Insecure

(3) Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis

(4) Humanitarian Emergency

(5) Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe

According to Oxfam, the fifth phase is reached when ‘more than two people per 10,000 die each day, acute malnutrition rates are above 30 percent, all livestock is dead, and there is less than 2,100 kilocalories of food and 4 liters of water available per person per day’ (see also a post on the New Scientist blog here).

This point was reached this week in southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, Somalia. Indeed, according to Mark Bowden, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, ‘malnutrition rates in Somalia are currently the highest in the world, with peaks of 50 per cent in certain areas of the country’s south’. It seems likely that further areas will reach phase five soon.

What difference might it make if a famine is officially declared? It’s hard to say. Certainly the FAO seems to be stepping up its efforts by calling an emergency meeting in Rome for this coming Monday (July 25th, 2011), although exactly what will come of that is unclear. Responding to a famine requires money – the ‘FAO has appealed for $120 million for response to the drought in the Horn of Africa to provide agricultural emergency assistance’, which seems like a lot but is actually a tiny amount relative to the sorts of figures banded about amidst the current economic crisis in Europe, say, never mind the US – but is there any willingness to help? (Calling Mr. Rupert Murdoch: how about you distract us from your current concerns by digging into your pockets?)

Alistair Fraser

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One comment

  1. For some posts on what light the history of the Irish famine might throw upon modern famines see David Nally, a geographer at the University of Cambridge, on the causes of famines, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/david-nally/between-the-stomach_b_907350.html, and Gerry Kearns on its consequences, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gerry-kearns/famines-legacies_b_921419.html

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