When does a food crisis become a famine?


FOR MONTHS, aid agencies were warning about a devastating drought in the Horn of Africa. The lowest rainfall rates in half a century, failed harvests and fighting in parts of the region had led to mounting worries about food security for millions of people.

But last week, conditions were so dire that officials from the United Nations finally used a word they employ sparingly and very specifically: famine.

The UN declared that famine conditions existed in two regions of southern Somalia, with more than half of the children severely malnourished.

For many TV viewers, no such statistics were needed. The disturbing images of stick-thin children, too weak to cry, were a haunting reminder of other famines which have devastated Ethiopia in the 1980s and Somalia in the early 1990s.

But when does a food security problem become a famine? And who is in a position to judge when an emergency becomes a full-blown crisis? And does the wait for the official declaration of a famine mean that the international community ends up responding too late?

While many countries face food security crises from time to time – with large numbers of people hungry and unable to find enough food – only rarely do the conditions meet the humanitarian community’s formal criteria for a famine.

The last time it was used in Somalia, for example, was in 1991-1992, despite several periods of protracted drought and other problems in the intervening years.

A famine is declared only when a certain threshold of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. They are: at least 20 per cent of households in an area face extreme food shortages; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 people.

Other factors that were considered in these areas of Somalia, according to the UN, include large-scale displacement, widespread destitution, disease outbreaks and social collapse.

This definition of famine has been developed over time through a group called the “integrated food security phase classification”, which includes specialists from humanitarian agencies, the UN, charities and aid agencies.

The data used to determine whether criteria for a famine is met was gathered, in this case, by a UN-backed agency on the ground in Somalia. This information was then passed to a network of agencies who finally on Thursday announced – via the UN – that the criteria for famine had been reached.

This declaration of a famine doesn’t carry any binding obligations on the UN or member states, but it does serve to focus global attention on the problem. But many are critical of how long it has taken for the international community to mobilise.

“The crisis has been building for several months, but the response from international donors and regional governments has been mostly slow, inadequate and complacent,” Fran Equiza, the regional director of the aid agency Oxfam, said in a statement.

“There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world’s collective responsibility to act.”

He said there was still a shortfall of hundreds of millions of euro in funding, adding that by the time the UN calls it a famine, “it is already a signal of large-scale loss of life”.

The UN’s top official in charge of humanitarian aid to Somalia said about €200 million was needed within the next two months alone to help alleviate the crisis.

One of the biggest obstacles when it comes to aid, however, is whether it is guaranteed to end up in the right hands.

UN officials say humanitarian funding to Somalia has declined significantly over recent years. The US, for example – once the country’s biggest donor – has reduced its funding by almost 90 per cent in recent years.

This is due mostly to concerns over the diversion of aid by Islamic militants, who have previously placed restrictions on agencies working in parts of southern Somalia.

Ireland, like other donor countries, is routing the bulk of its aid to Somalia via the UN as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground such as Concern.

The Government announced last week that its €5.6 million aid package includes supporting Concern to provide food rations for 10,000 people and treat 1,800 malnourished children.

In addition, it is providing funds to the UN to help distribute food and shelter for Somalia refugees fleeing to Ethiopia and Kenya.

“The Government’s priority is to save lives and we are in ongoing contact with our partners in the region to assess how best to target Irish assistance,” said Minister of State with responsibility for development, Jan O’Sullivan.

The broader question of whether it’s best to send aid to governments, or to the UN, is a highly controversial one.

Governments in fragile states have the reach and the infrastructure to bring about deeper and longer-term change – but these are places that, by definition, have poor governance and high levels of corruption.

According to Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas, an umbrella group of 39 aid agencies, working with governments is crucial. “Development co-operation involves taking risks. If we want aid to be risk-free, we might as well give it to Switzerland, not to developing countries,” he said.

Mr Zomer said these fragile states needed assistance precisely because their governments were weak, disinterested or undemocratic.

“We can choose to ignore these failings, in the hope that the oppression and mismanagement will magically disappear, or we can choose to use our influence to strengthen the forces for change in those countries.”

In the case of Somalia, he said that without government, there would be no development and society’s ability to withstand unexpected setbacks would be seriously diminished.

Right now, though, the most immediate issue is simply getting emergency aid on the ground. Once again, another desperate race against time is unfolding.

Famine is stalking two regions of southern Somalia; any delays in getting vital food aid to the wider region could lead to a dramatic worsening of an already desperate situation.

“If we don’t act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious diseases,” according to the UN’s official for Somalia, Mark Bowden.

“We still do not have all the resources for food, clean water, shelter and health services to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis.”

For more information on development aid and how you can help, see howyou canhelp.ie

A famine is declared only when a certain threshold of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. They are:

At least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages;

acute malnutrition rates exceed 30% and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 people

World's five severe food shortages:

According to UN’s World Food Programme,five severe food shortages have been officially defined as “famines” in recent decades:

- Southern areas of Sudan in 2008;

- In Gode in the Somali region of Ethiopia in 2000;

- In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1996;

- In Somalia in 1991-1992; and

- Ethiopia in 1984-1985.

Role of media as vital now as it was in 1984

Korem, as the BBC’s Michael Buerk described it, was a dusty, insignificant town in the highlands of Ethiopia, but what he and his film crew witnessed there in the autumn of 1984 would make it a town of almost unimaginable suffering and the place that revealed to the world the scale and true meaning of famine for perhaps the first time.

It was one of the places where desperate people had migrated to, driven from their homes in the countryside by the effects of a disastrous harvest. They came, as they do now in the Horn of Africa, in small bedraggled groups and many of them died on the way.

Instead of relief, however, they found little or no food or succour. They had trekked many miles only to find themselves waiting for death in places such as Korem.

In one day, Buerk counted the dead at 37 and he estimated one person died every 20 minutes. Many of them were children, their foreheads marked with a simple felt pen stroke to indicate they were the most in need of nourishment.

When other journalists, including this writer, arrived in places such as Korem, a week or so later, it was even worse. Buerk had not been exaggerating when he spoke of a biblical famine in the 20th century or of people beyond the point of desperation. There were scenes of panic and chaos when what little aid there was did arrive. Some could not even summon the strength to run to the trucks.

The West had been disgracefully slow to acknowledge Ethiopia’s crisis. Many countries had no desire to get involved with a warmongering Marxist government in an area that did not really have much strategic importance for them. The aid agencies had been warning for months of the impending tragedy, but it was only when Buerk and others went to places such as Korem that the world was forced to respond. Eventually, Bob Geldof would barrack world leaders and then create the phenomenon that was Live Aid.

We see now from the work of Mary Fitzgerald in this newspaper and that of Jim Fahy on RTÉ that a lot has changed and a lot has not. The feeding stations are still the same, the methods of measuring body weight and malnourishment are basically the same, along with the fly-pestered faces of those who sit and wait. And so too are the anguished voices of aid workers, pleading for help.

For many, like the one million who died in Ethiopia, help has come too late. Many famines actually go largely unnoticed because they happen in remote and often dangerous areas.

Darfur is a good example of a lawless and dangerous place where aid workers and journalists find access at their peril. Even the US found Somalia too great a challenge.

Technology is now more sophisticated, and the age of satellites and the internet enable the media to operate in a way that was impossible 30 years ago. But even getting journalists into Mogadishu last week was a fraught and dangerous operation. The media cannot really be anywhere for very long because of resource issues and the rolling news agenda. But that is why the media always needs to remind itself that its role is as vital now as Buerk’s was in 1984. Buerk and the BBC invested heavily in his reporting and his dispatches were given unusually lengthy airtime – it was a brave decision but one that changed history and saved many lives. That is worth reflecting on.

DONAL BYRNEcovered the 1984 famine in Ethiopia for this newspaper and is now a news editor with RTÉ.