“The number of people affected by hunger globally rose to as many as 828 million in 2021, an increase of about 46 million since 2020 and 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in their 2022 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report.

According to the report, in 2021, 9.8% of the world’s population were affected by hunger. Significant drivers of food insecurity include conflict, climate extremes and economic shocks, combined with growing inequality.

The second Sustainable Development Goal is Zero Hunger, and the world is not on track to achieve this goal by 2030. The United Nations (UN) says that if recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger will surpass 840 million by 2030.

These figures mark a setback in the world’s hunger eradication efforts. Globally, 50 million people are currently on the brink of famine and risk mass human suffering, starvation and death.

The FAO estimates that 2.3 billion people worldwide (29.3%) were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021. As these staggering numbers illustrate, a significant proportion of the world’s population is hungry and malnourished.

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

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. 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 warn the food supply impacts from the invasion will be long-lasting. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that developing countries were struggling to recover from the pandemic and now “their breadbasket is being bombed.” The price of fuel, food staples and fertilizer has soared since the invasion of Ukraine, which may push some of the world’s poorest into famine.
  • 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. Areas that receive cyclical assistance from outside sources can become dependent on that help rather than focusing on harnessing resources to break the famine cycle altogether.
  • 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 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 don’t.
  • 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 also provided $250,000 to Concern Worldwide in 2022 through the Global Recovery Fund to improve resilience capacities among vulnerable households to respond to and cope positively with the effects of the current drought and future climatic shocks in Turkana County, Kenya. This included restoration and protection of key community and individual livelihoods assets and improving access to water for households and their livestock through rehabilitation and equipping of strategic water points with solar-powered systems.
  • 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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