Making Famine Official



How many dead children make a famine? Apparently, four per 10,000 people each day. Also, if 30 percent of children have acute malnutrition, livelihoods are in “near complete collapse” and households have a “near complete lack of food and/or other basic needs where starvation, death, and destitution are evident.” The official declaration of a famine will then merit the following actions: “critically urgent protection of human lives, comprehensive assistance with basic needs” and “immediate legal interventions and political-economic negotiations, as necessary.”

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), the reference table used by aid agencies, has comprehensive and precise indicators for determining levels of food insecurity. Measuring death and hunger never sounded so clinical and scientific, down to the available calories and liters of water.

Since the latest crisis in East Africa made headlines, it has not been officially described as a famine, a phase five on the scale. Phrases like “food crisis” and “humanitarian emergency” were used instead. Under the IPC scale, crisis is phase three with child mortality rate of 1-2 per 10,000 people and 10-15 percent acute malnutrition. Emergency is a phase four: 2-4 dead children and 15-30 percent acutely malnourished.

Earlier today, the BBC and Al-Jazeera reported that the United Nations will declare a famine in some parts of Somalia in order to galvanize international attention and signal to donors the need for more aid. As a BBC source puts it: “It enables us to say to those who tell us: 'You're crying wolf' - look at this. The situation is deteriorating rapidly.”

The IPC scale was supposed to improve food security analysis and decision-making, thereby providing appropriate and timely response based on realities on the ground. Instead, it ends up as a screaming alarm that’s used as a desperate resort to wake the rest of the world from its collective lethargy. Famine should be a dire condition that we strive to prevent, not a tipping point on the scale that we wait to reach before doing something.

In a USAID-funded 2009 study on early response to crises in the Horn of Africa, a researcher reported that donors often wait for an “official emergency” before responding. Predictions are also disregarded in favor of a to-see-is-to-believe approach i.e. we have to see high child malnutrition before we believe there’s a crisis. No wonder early warning systems don’t work; the warnings are not taken seriously and are instead merely seen as crying wolf.

Do we have to wait for phase five before we recognize a hunger crisis for what it is? Is starvation, death and destitution a prerequisite for comprehensive assistance? Do we really have to reach a quota of dying children in order for the protection of human lives to be declared critically urgent?

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0203/Kate Holt, Somalia, 2011. Children and women receive food at a distribution point organized by the World Food Programme (WFP), near the port in Mogadishu, the capital.

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