Famine: A global problem in need of a global solution

The United Nations declared a famine in South Sudan on 21 February 2017, ‘the first to be announced anywhere in the world in six years.’ The BBC reported that the Sudanese government and the United Nations stated, ‘that some 100,000 people are facing starvation, with a million more on the brink of famine’ and that, ‘a combination of civil war and an economic collapse have been blamed.’ As a general standard, famine is declared when three criteria are met: (1) ‘when one in five households in a certain area face extreme food shortages’; (2) ‘more than 30 per cent of the population is acutely malnourished’; and (3) ‘at least two people for every 10,000 die each day.’ The critical point to keep in mind is that when a famine is declared, it is not a call for action; it is declaration that not enough action has been taken by the global community and that numerous people have already died.

Additionally, this declaration of famine, while it is the first in six years, has been expected for some time. In 2014, South Sudan was in a similar situation where the country was, ‘facing the threat of famine on a bigger scale than that seen in Ethiopia in the 1980.’ Even in this situation, the food shortages were also linked to the civil war and the general political conditions. Bloomberg News also cited the ‘civil war that began in the oil-producing… country in December 2013 [had] claimed tens of thousands of lives and [forced] more than 3 million people to flee their homes.’ The New York Times stated that drought due to climate change has also been linked as a cause. Given the variety of suspected causes, the question of the lack of international humanitarian intervention must be raised.

James Hooley/FCO

Image courtesy of James Hooley/FCO, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Furthermore, while South Sudan’s Unity state is the primary region where famine has been declared, the food shortages in parts of Somalia have also produced fears that, ‘a full-blown famine will follow.’ The BBC reported on 4 March that, ’almost three million people in Somalia face food insecurity’ and that ‘the full impact of the drought on the country is still unknown,’ creating more uncertainty for the people of Somalia. Additionally, on 7 March, CNN stated that, ‘at least 110 people, most of them woman and children, [had] died from starvation and drought-related illness in Somalia in the… 48 hours’ and the Boston Globe reported that, ‘about 50 per cent of the South Sudan’s population are expected to be severely food insecure and at the risk of death in the coming months.’ Examining these numbers, it is obvious that these are not the signs of the beginning of a humanitarian crisis, but the pinnacle of one.

With these facts in mind, it is becoming clearer that the underlying issues of drought and political unrest in South Sudan and Somalia will not be addressed until there is significant attention on the suffering that the people of the two states are enduring. The global community, particularly wealthy, powerful states, while they generally provide aid once crises have been declared, are not extending that aid to its full potential. In South Sudan, while The New York Times states that the famine is a marker of ‘perhaps the starkest measure of global inequality’ and that ‘it would be a colossal moral failure to allow millions to die of starvation because of a failure of will to provide help,’ that is exactly what is happening; it is a moral failure on the part of the powerful states. The civil war that began in 2013 has caused 1.5 million South Sudanese to flee their homes, and among those who are still amid the conflict, there are ‘more than a quarter million severely malnourished children.’

In the case of Somalia, even though Prime Minster Hassan Ali Khaire has asked ‘business people and everyone to contribute to the drought response efforts aimed at saving the lives of millions,’ these pleas are being made once the situation is already dire rather than in a preventative fashion.

Finally, while the current reports on famine and drought are focused on South Sudan and Somalia, the famine-like situations in other parts of the Africa cannot be ignored. In Nigeria, where the military is battling Boko Haram insurgents, there are ‘at least five million people… at risk of famine.’ In Yemen, ‘more than seven million people are in urgent need of food’ due to the on-going conflict between the coalition fighters and the Houthi rebels. The issue to highlight here is that famine is a likely possibility in multiple regions in the African continent and beyond if political conflicts are to continue in the current fashion with innocent people being the primary sufferers.

The core cause of the incoming famines is, as the Boston Globe stated, man-made; ‘there is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve in the absence of meaningful peace and security.’ This means that if the global community aims to reduce and ultimately eliminate severe food shortages, it must first resolve the political unrest that causes the food shortages. Receiving aid once famine has already been declared is simply not as effective as continuous aid throughout a conflict. It has become all too clear that powerful states that have the wealth and capacity to provide money, food, medicine, and aid workers must utilise their resources to act in a preventative and pre-emptive manner rather than acting after the damage of conflict has occurred.