Famine: Why Food Insecurity Persists

The chair opened the session by describing ICIHI’s 1986 report on famine as “a fascinating and disturbing read, not only as a reminder of what was happening at the time it was published, but also with respect to the number of issues it addresses that remain on the international agenda.” Famine is still with us, the chair pointed out, and we have spent the last two years talking about its re-emergence in four different countries at the same time. More people are now going hungry than in previous years, a devastating reversal of what was a positive long-term trend in relation to food security.

The first speaker pointed out that the pursuit of food security has in many respects been a driving theme of human history. In previous eras, however, there was a global shortage of food. That is no longer the case, and we now live in a world of food surplus.

In the speaker’s experience, those people who are still going hungry, whether in Afghanistan, Darfur or Somalia, have no desire to rely on external support in order to feed their families. And yet there is a persistent assumption that people who are provided with assistance rapidly succumb to the ‘dependency syndrome’. At the same time, many commentators repeat the familiar notion that rather than giving a man a fish, we should teach him how to fish. But in many situations, there is no pond to fish in, no net to drop into the pond, and there is so much violence taking place that it is not safe enough to fish.

One of the most critical insights of ICIHI’s 1986 report, the speaker explained, concerned the way in which famines expose serious structural weaknesses in the societies where they take place. Rather than being a ‘natural’ phenomenon, acute food shortages occur because of dysfunctional farming systems, flawed development processes and oppressive governance structures.

Another strength of the ICIHI report was its emphasis on the way in which food shortages change the demography of affected countries by inducing people to move. When people are confronted with the prospect of starvation they have three basic choices: they can die, they can revolt, or they can migrate. While many – perhaps the majority – choose the last of these three options, moving does not necessarily resolve their plight. In too many situations, refugees and internally displaced people find that their immediate nutritional needs are not fully met by the assistance programmes established for them.

Despite this gloomy scenario, the speaker suggested, there are positive developments to report. In the realm of science and technology, for example, scientists in Pakistan and India have developed a very cheap emergency food supplement made of chickpeas which contains all of the micronutrients needed to protect a child’s brain. It does not have to be refrigerated or mixed with water. It can be squeezed straight into a child’s mouth. And it has the added advantage of being very tasty. Significant advances have also been made in relation to the development of oral rehydration salts that can be provided to people who are threatened by cholera.

A third important innovation is to be found in the production of a ‘lucky iron fish’ that can be placed in a rice pot and which will protect a family of five from anemia for a period of five years. When the smile on the fish disappears, then it is time for it to be replaced. Finally, recent years have seen a significant movement away from the distribution of food aid (a process that is expensive, logistically difficult and which can have a negative impact on local markets) and towards the provision of cash and vouchers, increasingly delivered by means of mobile phones and ATM cards.

The discussion then turned to the issue of early warning of famine and food insecurity. Technology, communications and media coverage had improved immensely since the Commission published its report, the chair pointed out. In the contemporary world, ‘hidden hunger’ is a very rare phenomenon. And yet famine persists. How can that be explained?

Responding to this question, one speaker suggested that the full potential of new technology remains to be exploited. During the 2011 Somalia famine, for example, around 30 per cent of the refugees arriving in Ethiopia were carrying mobile phones. Much more could have been done to have gathered relevant information in this context.

At the same time, the speaker suggested, there is a need to be cautious about the potential for the establishment of ever-improving famine early warning systems. In around 90 per cent of the famines that have taken place over the past 150 years, governments have played a significant part in creating, perpetuating or ignoring the acute food insecurity affecting their citizens. “It would be naive,” the speaker stated, “to suppose that just by having better information, governments will act on it to prevent famines from occurring. Early warning information about a famine or food crisis can actually be intensely threatening to political incumbents.”

Donor states also bear some responsibility for the failure to make use of early warning information, in the sense that they are prepared to turn a blind eye to an encroaching famine when it suits them to do so. Substantiating this point, the speaker referred again to the 2011 famine in Somalia, which has “the dubious honor of being the best documented descent into mass starvation in history.” One of the principal reasons for the international community’s failure to respond in an adequate manner was the US Patriot Act and a concern that any food aid provided to the country would be appropriated by the extremists of Al Shabaab. The result was “a kind of paralysis.”

Concluding on a more positive note, the speaker pointed out that when Somalia was threatened with another famine in 2017, effective action was taken to prevent it from occurring. “The government and President were prepared to stand up and ask for help, and donors then did what was necessary to address the situation. Early warning can work when the politics are right.”

Taking up the theme of emergency response, another speaker stated that tremendous strides have been made in terms of relief logistics and the competency of organizations such as the World Food Programme to deliver into very difficult locations in a timely fashion and at adequate scale. “Where we have made no progress and where we risk slipping backwards is politically.” In South Sudan and Yemen, for example, more than half the population is at risk of starvation, “a situation that is directly attributable to the actions of the belligerents, as well as the international community’s failure to fund the UN’s appeals for these countries.”

In conclusion, the speaker underlined the earlier assertion that we live in a world of food surplus. The UK, for example, throws away around 23 billion pounds worth of food every year – 13 billion from households and 10 billion from the retail and commercial sector. These sums are much greater than the combined budget of all the UN’s emergency food aid appeals.

The next speaker following began by recalling the experience of an international organization that was responsible for food security in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. Bread distribution to the camp’s 80,000 Syrian refugees began at 04:30 each morning and required a supply of at least 10 tons of bread every day.

It would have been more effective in every respect for the agency to have invested in the construction of a bakery and to have employed refugees to run it, thereby providing them with an income, a skill and a sense of normalcy. But the agency’s mandate prevented it from taking this course of action. “Our ability to change the systems that we have created is extremely slow”, the speaker concluded, “as is our ability to rely on the resilience of the people we work with.”

The speaker continued by referring to a recommendation in ICIHI’s 1986 report on famine, suggesting that humanitarian operations should make a much greater investment in local actors. Exactly the same recommendation was made by the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. “Why do we need to spend lots of money on such consultations, bringing people together from all around the world, simply to confirm what was proposed three decades earlier.”

In the subsequent discussion, one speaker felt that much greater emphasis should be given to the question of food production in famine-prone countries. In many countries, the speaker suggested, famines are cyclical, recurring every few years. And when each famine strikes, a huge fundraising effort is launched, raising millions of dollars to support those people who are affected by acute levels of food insecurity. Much of that money is spent on delivery costs, including transport, warehouses and security personnel. This is not an efficient way of working, the speaker stated, going on to suggest that longer-term and developmental approaches were required, involving irrigation and infrastructure programmes, improved seeds, livestock production and the promotion of income-generating activities.

Another speaker agreed with this proposal, but suggested that a focus on production alone would not be enough to address the issue of food insecurity. In many parts of the world, farmers did not have a safe place to store any surplus that they produced and to save it for times when it was needed. The development of community food banks, the speaker suggested, would be one effective means of averting such situations.

A further speaker suggested that the issues of famine and food insecurity had to be seen in broader context, and that respect, four issues were of particular importance: climate change, water scarcity, population growth and armed conflict. In many situations such variables reinforced each other, making it impossible for people to grow the food that they needed to survive. A comprehensive approach to these issues was required, with the UN playing a leadership role in the process.

While agreeing with this analysis, another conference participant insisted that the issue of governmental responsibility was paramount. A political economy analysis that reveals a potential for famine or acute levels of food insecurity in a given country will inevitably challenge the legitimacy of the authorities and might lead them to curtail access to relevant early warning information.

Ethiopia was mentioned as a case in point. International organizations had been very cautious in their language in that country, avoiding any reference to ‘famine’ because of the risk that their personnel would be declared persona non grata and expelled from the country. “If we all accept the notion that governments are typically responsible for famines that occur in the modern era, then why don’t we have a system for holding them to account when this happens?”

Reinforcing this point, another speaker with senior experience in a UN agency suggested that famines do not occur when political leaders are determined to ensure that no child will die of hunger under their watch. “I have had heads of state appeal to me to feed their country when they are building their seventh palace, and I have had to say, “why should the taxpayers of the world pay to feed your people if it is not your own priority’?”

Concluding the session, one speaker underlined the fact that 30 years after the report published by ICIHI, food in security continues to be a pressing issue. There is currently a risk of famine in four parts of the world, and the degree of international concern and commitment does not appear to be commensurate with the threat that this represents to human lives.

Indeed, they said, the primary concern today seems to be to prevent people from moving across international borders, especially if they seem to be heading towards more prosperous parts of the world. There is also a great deal of discussion about fundraising formulas and agency mandates. But why are we not morally outraged that famines are still taking place in the 21st century?