Famine and Food Security

Summary of findings and recommendations on famine and food security

The following was prepared as background material for the 2017 Conference and provides a summary of the findings and recommendations of an ICIHI report titled ‘Famine: a man-made disaster?’, published in 1985. 



As well as examining past and current practices relating to human welfare, the Commission felt that it should look forward to anticipate the humanitarian issues of the future. It was for this reason that the Commission took a particular interest in what it described as ‘man-made disasters’.

These included industrial ‘accidents’ such as that which took place in Bhopal, India, nuclear emergencies of the type that occurred in the Soviet city of Chernobyl, and the longer-term processes of desertification and deforestation taking place in many parts of the world. In this context, one of the most urgent issues confronting the international community at the time of the Commission’s existence was that of famine and food insecurity.


The prevalence of food insecurity

During the 1980s, famines and food crises occurred in many developing countries, especially but not exclusively in Africa. The Commission explained that they took place in the context of worsening terms of trade with the industrialized world, increasingly unmanageable external debt, growing domestic inequality and, in many cases, rapid population growth. The drought and famine of 1984-85, which was particularly severe in the Horn of Africa, exposed these structural weaknesses in a particularly dramatic and tragic manner.

In Africa, more than anywhere else in the developing world, the lack of effective famine early warning systems and adequately coordinated relief mechanisms were key factors in delaying the distribution of international aid.

For millions of poor rural dwellers, the assistance provided to them was too little and too late. Many had already died or were starving when it arrived, and those who had lost their livelihoods had already flocked to cities or crossed national borders to take up residence in refugee camps.

Food aid had ultimately allowed enabled some famine victims to survive. But it failed to replace the means of production that had been lost during the crisis. The Commission observed that it would take some time for affected regions of Africa to overcome the economic losses that had been caused by the drought and famine of the early 1980s. Once displaced, moreover, people would not simply go back to the land, even if rainfall levels improved.


Understanding drought and famine

The Commission concluded that the high level of food insecurity witnessed in Africa during the 1980s had to be seen in historical perspective. Parts of the continent had been affected by decades-long periods of drought and famine since at least the 15th century, with particularly dry periods occurring between 1790 and 1850, from 1895 to 1914,  from 1930 to 1950 and from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.

During the colonial period, the Commission pointed out, the mandatory production of cash crops such as cotton and groundnuts, even in dry periods, adversely affected the fertility of the region’s already fragile soil. In the mid-1930s, a Franco-British commission warned that the Sahara was expanding and called on the authorities to address the problem of deforestation and desertification. But this appeal went unheeded.   

The food crisis of the early 1970s, which also affected Asia and Latin America, prompted considerable analysis. The debate was initially a polarized one, with some analysts focusing on changing climatic patterns while others concentrated on broader social, economic and political processes. These approaches gradually merged, leading to an understanding that droughts and famines occur as a result of the complex interaction that takes place between these different variables.

Another result of this discourse was that governments and experts began to accord greater respect to the people who had for centuries been living in this intricate web of causative factors. “The strategies which farmers had devised over time to ensure their survival in an uncertain and often hostile environment,” the Commission observed, “were no longer systematically denigrated.”


Addressing food insecurity

The Commission concluded that occasional food shortages in developing countries could not be entirely eliminated, but that famines could be averted by means of foresight and timely action.

Early warning
According to the Commission, there was a continued need to develop efficient and reliable early warning systems. In this respect, it was not enough to depend on national estimates, based on unreliable assumptions about population size, national crop area and likely agricultural yields.

Famine forecasting should take account of human behaviour as much as crop behaviour, and should be based on the monitoring of areas that were known to be vulnerable to food insecurity. Particular attention should be given to indicators such as fluctuations in local food prices, the sale of livestock and household goods, as well as patterns of migration  to other areas.

Such socio-economic data collection at the local level should be combined with the use of satellite photography, which according to the Commission was “beginning to play an increasingly important role in identifying areas where crop failures are likely to occur.”

Reversing urban bias
More often than not, the Commission observed, food policies were made by urban people for urban people. Those living in rural areas, invariably the majority in developing countries, had little or no voice.

In future, the Commission concluded, the needs and aspirations of farmers and other rural dwellers must have a decisive role in the planning and implementation of agricultural policies. A concerted effort should be made to turn the terms of trade away from the cities and in favour of the countryside by ensuring that small farmers in developing countries received adequate returns for their products.

At the same time, governments and banks should develop schemes to provide credit facilities directly to small-scale farmers so that they can get through difficult periods without feeling obliged to abandon their lands and move elsewhere.

Food aid
The Commission recognized that food aid could play a lifesaving role in situations of extreme hunger, and called on states to ensure that it was provided generously to those in need of it. At the same time, it was equally important that such aid be carefully controlled and managed.

Food aid should be made available for a predetermined and finite period of time in order to avoid undue dependency. In known vulnerable areas, food storage depots should be established and special attention should be paid to the establishment of effective logistics, delivery and distribution systems.

The role of developed countries
The Commission argued that the world’s more prosperous states had a vital role to play in reinforcing food security in the developing world. Donor states should, for example, offer collateral to local banks instead of providing hand-outs to governments, so that financial support could be offered more directly to farmers.

At the same time, it was vital to reduce the debt burden of afflicted governments and allow them time for their economies to recover. It would also be helpful if there were a more generous transfer of technology and sharing of research, particularly on genetic engineering and agro-forestry, as well as assistance with the establishment of local gene banks.

The global economy
Examining the problems of famine and food insecurity in a broader perspective, the Commission pointed out that the ‘crisis of penury’ in many developing countries was matched by and linked to a ‘crisis of abundance’ in the industrialized states.

At the same time as millions of people were suffering from malnutrition and starvation, there was a glut of 400 million tons of surplus grain grown by farmers in Western Europe and North America. Government subsidies to farmers in those regions amounted to billions of dollars. The European Community (as it was titled at the time of the Commission’s existence) was considering the destruction of large amounts of beef, butter and grain because of the high cost of storing such goods.

The Commission warned that this crisis of abundance was not going to subside. Spectacular advances in the new science of genetic engineering would make it possible to produce much more with considerably less effort.

Common sense consequently called for a global plan for food security, based on a precise determination of production levels at the global, regional and national level. And this in turn would require an international political climate based on the principles of mutuality and human solidarity. At present, the Commission concluded, this was “ lamentably lacking.”

Meeting the world’s basic food requirements, the Commission stated, must not be allowed to fall prey to power politics. In this context, the Commission was encouraged by recent developments which demonstrated an increased sensitivity on the part of policymakers to the importance of agriculture, a domain that had for decades been a long way down on the list of most national priorities.

The recently initiated Uruguay Round, which would lead to agricultural policies being negotiated in the context of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, was, the Commission concluded, a step in the right direction. Adjusting prices and production systems, sharing the benefits of technological advances, and promoting self-sufficiency among the poor nations were all measures that now demanded the urgent attention of policymakers.