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,
"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
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.