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Some Media and Relief Agencies Differ Over Meaning of Famine

Drought, changing weather conditions and the growing price of food imports are among the factors that have led relief agencies to increase their vigilance against severe hunger in Africa. But national and local media sometimes talk of the potential for famine, or widespread deaths attributed to starvation. Reporter William Eagle says food specialists disagree with the way the some media use the word.

A Ugandan paper says the Karamoja region of eastern Uganda is suffering from famine. Other Africa-based papers talk about a famine underway in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia and a potential one next year in Kenya.

Margaret Aguirre of the worldwide relief NGO the International Medical Corps makes frequent trips to Eritrea:

"I would not trust a media interpretation of what constitutes famine," says Aguirre. "You’d have to talk to a nutritionist or public health expert to define the crisis. The problem is famine is a trigger word that sets of alarm bells and gets people interested in a situation, but it [leads to] crises that don’t rise to the level of a famine…You can have [mass deaths by] deadly diseases like cholera that are not famine."

"We are not prepared to call what is happening a famine," she says. "We want to be careful we are not crying wolf. The situation is severe and dire, and we don’t want to say it is something that is it not; in the event it does become a famine, it will sound like 'Oh, once again? [a false alarm]' "

Echoing that sentiment is Dan Maxwell. He’s is the research director for Food Security and Livelihoods in Complex Emergencies at of the Feinstein Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

"If you say there is a food security crisis you see a ho-hum response by journalists, newspaper editors, the public and donors," says Maxwell. "But if you say there is a famine, even though in technical terms the difference between those terms may only be a shade, you would see newspaper headlines screaming and politicians lining up to make sure it does not happen."

Analysts say a full-blown famine includes two deaths per day for every 10,000 people, often during a pandemic. A man or woman stricken by famine consumes per day less than 2,100 kilocalories and less than four liters of water. In order to find food, families have likely sold all of their assets, including livestock, and may have migrated with the whole community to areas miles from their home. Efforts to leave for a safer environment may be limited by armed conflict or a breakdown in law and order.

But Maxwell says that type of severe crisis is not implied in the way local communities define famine.

"There [are] also local definitions of famine that may not have anything to do with what professionals talk about," he says. "For example, there was a famous book about the earlier famine in Darfur in 84-85 called The Famine that Kills. It implies that in a local understanding, there are famines that are relatively mild, they cause you to lose assets or to be displaced, but do not necessarily kill people. But the one in ‘84-‘85 was an extreme famine in the local perception, but that’s not to say that other less intense crises would not be [called] famines by the local population."

Getting the terminology right is important to relief workers. They say the wrong designation, such as the exaggerated use of the highest state of alarm, famine, could undermine outside support – by giving NGOs a false reading of the equipment and intervention strategies needed to fight a given level of crisis.

Chris Leather is the humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam. As an example, he discussed the food shortages in Malawi a few years ago.

"A lot of food aid came from donor countries," says Leather. "If there is food available locally, as there was in Malawi, [the food donations] can undermine local traders and small scale feed producers, who lose out because food aid is brought in and distributed, undermining their own livelihoods. A more appropriate response might be [to support with money] people who need to buy food or to [support] traders struggling to import food from neighboring countries."

Aine Fay is the director of programs for the NGO Concern in Ethiopia. She disagrees with reports coming from some in the media speaking of famine underway in Ethiopia.

"I think that there are certainly signs of severe stress – we cannot deny that – but we have to acknowledge they are in pockets of Ethiopia and are not yet widespread," she says. "The government and organizations are doing food distributions. All of the stakeholders are working hard to contain the situation. We are not seeing major deaths attributed to starvation at the moment."

According to the scale used by many relief agencies the UN Food and Agriculture's Integrated Food Security and Phase Classification Reference Table, no countries in the world are today experiencing famine. But pockets of the Horn of Africa (and the world) fit the category of “humanitarian emergency” – the stage just before famine.

Relief agencies are working diligently to see that millions of vulnerable never cross that threshold.