Somalia hunger crisis raises the question: When is a famine a famine?

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Somalia hunger crisis raises a question for the world: When is a famine a famine?

Famine. It is one of the most evocative words in the English language, conjuring images of malnourished children, their ribs visible, bellies swollen from hunger. The earliest recorded famine is believed to have occurred in Egypt in 3500 B.C. In the 20th century, more than 70 million people died because of famine.

But it was not until this century that a common definition was adopted by the world’s humanitarians — one that is now under a spotlight as hunger stalks millions of people in Somalia. A fifth consecutive rainy season has fallen far short of the levels needed for farming and for sustaining human life, a drought that comes amid an ongoing civil conflict. As if that was not enough, Russia’s war in Ukraine has hit supplies of imported grain in many parts of the world: Before Moscow’s invasion, more than 90 percent of Somalia’s wheat supply came from Russia and Ukraine.

The devastating upshot of all this: More than 8 million people, or around half of Somalia’s population, face the prospect of severe food shortages by the middle of this year. According to the United Nations, the current drought has “surpassed” recent crises “in duration and severity” — including the drought in 2011 that led to a declaration of famine.

As one 38-year-old farmer from southwest Somalia told aid workers recently: “For four years we have not seen rains. We lost our animals and there’s nothing growing on our farm.”

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Hers is one of millions of stories borne of a still-spreading devastation that seems to point clearly to one unquestionable conclusion — that Somalia, which suffered through a famine in 2011, is once again in the grip of a similar crisis. The images emerging from the country would appear to confirm this: In photo after photo, men, women and children appear with those swollen bellies and ribs poking out of their torsos.

And yet, technically, that is not the case, at least for now, according to the global body responsible for making such declarations.

Known as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC for short, its experts are responsible for ringing the global alarm bell when famine occurs, and in their reading, Somalia hasn’t yet crossed the threshold.

The IPC is a partnership between the U.N. and various local and international NGOs, and its assessment has divided opinion and not for the first time prompted questions about how and when a famine is declared. Applying the label isn’t just a technical matter; it would bring much-needed global attention to the crisis unfolding in Somalia — and that in turn could unlock fresh funds to help the millions struggling to access basic nutrition.

“IPC is about classification, so there have always been these thresholds” to guide its assessments, said Daniel Maxwell, an expert on food security at Tufts University, who, before moving to academia, spent two decades working for humanitarian agencies in East and West Africa. “And there have been a lot of controversies about whether these thresholds are correct or not.”

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Two women hold a child as a humanitarian worker examines, measuring the kid's arm.

Measuring hunger

When is a famine a famine?

The word itself dates back to the mid-14th century, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a lack of food during a long period of time” in a given region.

But the technical definition used by the IPC is less than two decades old.

According to its scale, the designation involves a combination of factors: 20 percent of a given population must be suffering from extreme food shortages, and 30 percent of children must be experiencing acute malnutrition. In terms of death rates, two people (or four children) out of every 100,000 in the area must be dying of hunger each day. Somalia at the moment falls just short of these levels.

Assessing these facts on the ground falls to local and international aid groups, and to the U.N. A special IPC group, known as the Famine Review Committee, then gathers reports from the various organizations and makes its judgments. For famine to be declared, there is an additional wrinkle: A consensus is required, not just among humanitarian workers but also among the local authorities — and this is where things can often get complicated, according to experts who work in the field.

Take the example of Ethiopia, where mass starvation in the country’s conflict-ridden northern Tigray region led to calls for a famine declaration in 2021. That summer, the U.N. World Food Programme said that, following more than a year of armed conflict in the region, almost 40 percent of people in Tigray were suffering from an extreme lack of food.

By the various IPC metrics, Tigray appeared to be experiencing a famine. In June 2021, Mark Lowcock, then the U.N.’s top humanitarian official, said publicly that, to his mind, the Tigray region was clearly experiencing a famine. “There is famine now,” he said. “This is going to get a lot worse.”

Yet there was no official proclamation.

Why? Here’s Lowcock again, speaking at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) after leaving the U.N. last year:

“The only reason [famine] wasn’t declared was because the Ethiopian authorities were quite effective in slowing down the whole declaration system.”


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Why would a government block a declaration of famine? Experts point to a variety of potential reasons: the stigma attached to the word, concerns that a blanket declaration would lead to development funds being rerouted to famine relief work and a desire to mask the severity of a conflict, such as the one in Tigray. In that case, the Ethiopian government was repeatedly accused of hampering humanitarian operations by blockading the Tigray region and denying the seriousness of the food crisis there.

In Somalia, a government minister acknowledged a similar concern in September, telling the development news website DevEx that a countrywide famine declaration could “mislead responders and donors” and “chase away potential investors.”

Adam Aw Hirsi, Somalia’s minister of state for environment and climate change, acknowledged that some parts of Somalia were facing famine. But conditions elsewhere were not as serious, he said, making the government wary of a “declaration of a blanket famine.”

And while the IPC system is supposed to be neutral and free from political interference, in practice it can work very differently.

“You have to fight your way through the IPC’s Famine Review Committee, and you can be blocked by the authorities of the country that you’re engaging with. And that’s what happened in Tigray,” Lowcock, the former U.N. official, said at the ODI. “The current system is not functional.”

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In fact, the system, which dates to Somalia’s hunger crisis in 2004, wasn’t initially designed to declare famines. Its purpose was to give aid workers a better countrywide snapshot of the humanitarian situation in Somalia itself.

“Somalia in those days was ruled by warlords, and it was hard to have an independent view of the whole country,” Maxwell, from Tufts, explained. “So they invented this protocol to depict the severity of food insecurity — it started out being simply about food insecurity — and then it got linked to these phase classifications.”

Ringing the alarm bell

Over the past decade, the IPC has declared famine only twice: once in Somalia, back in 2011, and most recently in South Sudan in 2017. That “alarm bell” places no obligations on international donors, or indeed on the U.N., to step up aid or expand operations in the affected communities, but aid workers and humanitarian experts say that what the IPC designation does do is bring an international spotlight — and that in turn helps generate emergency funding.

That’s what happened in Somalia in 2011. Within days of the official declaration of famine, funding for a U.N. appeal for the country doubled.

The example is instructive: Much like today, the crisis in Somalia in 2011 was already extremely serious and had been unfolding for some time before the declaration. Officially labeling it a famine added to the attention — and to the pressure on the world to do something about it.

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And that is why today, even as it stops short of declaring a famine in Somalia, the IPC has warned that the situation was already too grave to ignore.

“It is worth reiterating that in other cases of famine, much of the excess mortality has occurred either before famine was declared or outside of the area in which it was declared, or both,” it said in its latest report.

The IPC also has taken pains to stress that for its experts, famine is “not a rhetorical, emotive term,” but a “scientific classification.” Which, in the case of Somalia today, goes to the heart of the controversy triggered by its latest assessment: On the ground, it feels like a famine, even if the numbers are just shy of the technical threshold.

“We have these thresholds for the definitions of famine, and still people always question, ‘Is this really a famine?’” Maxwell, from Tufts, told Grid.

“I’m sure if you went to a displaced persons’ camp in Baidoa” in southwestern Somalia, he added, “where people have fled looking for some kind of assistance or alternative way of surviving in a very severe drought, and on top of that a pretty nasty conflict between the government and [the] al-Shabaab [militant Islamist group], and on top of a long-standing livelihood crisis, if you asked them if there was a famine they’d say, ‘Of course it’s a famine, look at everything that’s going on.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

TOPICS

Africa