According to the Global Report on Food Crises 2023, nearly 258 million people in 58 countries or territories were in Crisis or worse acute food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 3 or above, or equivalent) in 2022. This figure is an increase from 193 million in 53 countries or territories in 2021.

The second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is Zero Hunger, and the world is not on track to achieve this goal by 2030. The SDG Report 2022 said, “Climate variability and extremes, conflict, economic shocks and growing inequalities are keeping the world off track in achieving zero hunger by 2030.”

While many countries worldwide face food security crises, famine is only declared when certain conditions are met and means catastrophic impacts are underway. The UN uses a five-phase scale known as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) to assess a country’s food security situation.

A famine classification is the highest on the IPC scale (Phase 5) and is attributed “when an area has at least 20% of households facing an extreme lack of food, at least 30% of children suffering from acute malnutrition, and two people for every 10,000 dying each day due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease.”

Source: IPC

Famine classification is based on a precise definition and thus is political in nature, however, people can be living in famine-like conditions or meet some of the classification’s criteria before a declaration of famine is made. Therefore, it is critical to act before Phase 4 or above to save lives. It is more difficult to recover and regain productive assets when famine is reached.

In addition to the IPC, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) provides early warning and analysis on acute food insecurity around the world to agencies who plan for and respond to humanitarian crises. The FEWS NET expected levels of food insecurity are classified using the IPC. These institutions provide critical analyses that allow for detection, early warning, early action and, ideally, famine prevention.

Famine is a more complex problem than a shortage of things to eat; it is a challenge of market and distribution, the result of a long, slow decline in access to food. That decline may occur for any number of reasons, including climate-related disasters, such as drought, conflicts, politics, social and economic policies, chronic under-development, weak governance, and poor management or a lack of resources.

The famine cycle may be triggered by a particular disaster event but it is often a combination of these factors that pushes a country or a region into famine.

The last major famine occurred in Somalia between 2010 and 2012, resulting in the deaths of 260,000 people, nearly half of them children. By the time a famine had been declared, more than 100,000 people had already died. Donors did not respond early enough to the warnings, and many deaths were preventable.

The last time a famine was declared was for parts of South Sudan in 2017 and the famine period lasted only three months. A large-scale and multi-sectoral humanitarian response averted localized famine declared in Unity State. Donors acted based on previous lessons learned, and famine was averted.

Much can be done before hunger turns into a crisis of such catastrophic proportions. Disaster preparedness, early warning and early action can help prevent food insecurity and famine. In short, early action works.

Key Facts

  • Most famines can be, and are, predicted well in advance. By the time pictures of emaciated children appear in news media, various factors have been exacerbating the situation for years or even decades. Communities already “on the edge” can be pushed over that edge with a large event, such as a tsunami, or a sequence of events, such as several seasons of low rainfall resulting in prolonged drought and failed harvests.
  • Conflict can worsen global hunger. According to the Global Report on Food Crises 2023, conflict and insecurity was the most significant driver of food insecurity in 19 countries or territories where 117.1 million people were in IPC Phase 3 or above or equivalent. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 demonstrated the role conflict plays in worsening hunger. Ukraine and Russia provide a third of global wheat supplies, and experts warned at the time that the food supply impacts from the invasion will be long-lasting. After one year, the war continued to negatively impact global food security. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that developing countries were struggling to recover from the pandemic and now “their breadbasket is being bombed.”
  • Breaking the cycle of famine requires more than emergency aid and assistance from external agencies. The most effective famine prevention comes through ongoing partnership with those in the affected communities, investment in local capacity and longer-term solutions and shoring up resources and strategies in advance of a crisis while still respecting local culture. Funding for lifesaving assistance remains critical and funders should also act with the same urgency to build resiliency at the same time and ultimately break the hunger cycle for at-risk communities.
  • There are no quick-fix solutions to famine. Just as a famine does not occur overnight, neither does its resolution—or the prevention of another famine in the same area. Philanthropic efforts must take a risk-based approach and a long-term view in addition to meeting the immediate lifesaving needs of starving populations, which is often too little and too late.

How to Help

Donors seeking to provide disaster relief and to reduce the risk of famine altogether can:

  • Use financial and other resources to combat poverty and structural inequalities that create the conditions for famine.
  • Support local organizations and actors that are close to the populations at risk of famine. They will be the ones that know what works and what does not, and they will be the ones potentially facing repeated cycles of famine risk.
  • Take a two-track approach and balance support for immediate needs with preparedness and resilience-building efforts.
  • Fund research into the underlying causes of famine in various areas.
  • Fund research into the effectiveness of mitigation, adaptation and resilience programming to determine what strategies and approaches work in preventing famine and what do not.
  • Develop strategies to mitigate future disasters in partnership with well-established, well-connected actors in famine-prone communities.
  • Invest in agricultural technologies and methods of bolstering crops without harming the environment. Rotation of crops, for example, can help prevent the degradation of soil.
  • Invest in innovative food storage and distribution systems. Famine does not necessarily mean no one has food; it may mean that some have food and some do not, but a lack of communication and/or access prevents food from reaching those most in need.
  • Support the scaling up of climate resilience across food systems, including investing in climate-smart agricultural practices and solutions to move toward adaptation and respond to the effects of climate change.
  • Be mindful of early warning systems of food insecurity and famine. Maintain a proactive stance by monitoring the next possible crises using resources such as FEWS NET.
  • Government policies often help push at-risk populations into crisis. Outside intervention and advocacy can help raise awareness to avert famine.

What Funders Are Doing

  • CDP provided $750,000 to Mercy Corps in 2022 through its Global Recovery Fund to respond to the devastating socio-economic impacts from COVID-19 and compounding effects of the severe prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa, which has led to a regional food security crisis and famine early warning in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. This included increasing access to animal health services, forage and feed to preserve core breeding stock and increasing access to finance to expand business opportunities.
  • CDP provided $250,000 to Concern Worldwide in 2023 through the Global Recovery Fund, Global Hunger Crisis Fund and COVID-19 Response Fund to improve resilience capacities among vulnerable pastoral and agro-pastoral households to respond to and cope positively with the effects of the current drought and future climatic shocks in Turkana and Marsabit Counties, Kenya. The grant builds on the success of a previous grant to Concern Worldwide in the area and will expand to include the formation of village savings and loans associations to strengthen economic inclusion. CDP’s previous grant and the project’s results led to investments from another donor.
  • The David & Elaine Potter Foundation provided $44,632 to Ubuntu Pathways in 2020 to extend life-saving food security, medical and wraparound services to their community’s most vulnerable people in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
  • The Edmonton Community Foundation provided $40,765 to Enoch Cree Nation in 2020 to support the COVID-19 Emergency Food Security Assistance Project that addressed urgent and immediate need for increased food security for the Nation’s members living on and off-reserve.

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