Wednesday 22 May 2019

The truth behind the famine pictures that break your heart

Tristan Clements, from the charity World Vision, on the myths and reality of drought in Africa

We don't hear a whole lot of news about Africa compared to, say, celebrity gossip, but what we do hear is generally bad. If it's not war, it's corruption, and if it's not corruption, then it's famine. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the entire continent of Africa exists on the brink of perpetual misery. But that's far from the truth.

Yet there's drought in the Horn of Africa. Again. It seems there is often a drought in Africa, with pictures of starving African children on the news. What's all the aid money doing, and why can't Africa prevent droughts?

Africa is Africa

'Africa' is a vast, diverse area. Although we refer to 'Africa' and 'Africans' as some homogeneous unit, it's a laughable practice that indicates we have a lot more learning to do. Just as lumping Koreans, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Afghans and Siberians under the title 'Asians' -- and expecting to be able to refer to Asians as a single group -- is a massive oversimplification, so too is lumping the peoples of Kwazulu, Hausa, Kamba and Berber together.

So when you hear somebody talking about 'famine in Africa', it's worth reflecting that that doesn't tell you very much.

Some parts of Africa are very productive agriculturally and industrially. Others are more marginal. This is all to do with the same range of factors (governance, skill sets, soils, climate, investment, market forces, etc) that affect productivity anywhere else in the world, including Ireland.

When is a food crisis a famine?

The word famine is often overused. It is actually a very specific event -- a terrible one in which we see lots of people of all ages dying as a result of food shortages.

For the United Nations, the word has a technical definition of two or more people out of 100,000 dying each day, and acute malnutrition among a third of young children.

In reality, famines don't happen much any more. There were a handful in the late 20th century, most notably in Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan but it has been quite a long time since we've seen a real famine.

So it is with great significance that the United Nations is now using the word 'famine' to describe the food crisis in parts of east Africa.

What we are more accustomed to seeing are food and nutrition crises. Drought tends to cause food shortages which often result in malnutrition. On its own, malnutrition is rarely the cause of death, but it makes people -- especially children -- vulnerable to disease such as malaria, measles or chest infections. However, the death of children by malnutrition does not in itself constitute a famine. Rather, it causes a nutrition crisis.

This is where we are at with much of the Horn of Africa right now. Children are dying. Emergency thresholds for malnutrition are internationally recognised as 15pc of a population of children being acutely malnourished. In some parts of the Somali population, as much as 30pc of children are malnourished. Data from the UN shows that we are now facing famine in two parts of the region.

The failing rains have caused crops and cattle to die, and people to flee their homes in search of food and water. This is coupled in Somalia with an ongoing civil war that is making access to and support for these populations very difficult. Many are congregating in overcrowded relief camps where they are more susceptible to the spread of disease.

All this means that, while we're not technically looking at a famine across the entire region right now, we're seeing food shortages and a malnutrition crisis that is extremely alarming, and which observers are now saying could be precursors to famine conditions. And in the worst-hit areas of southern Somalia, we have already reached the point of famine.

Why does this keep happening?

To answer the question we need to understand something called 'vulnerability'. Vulnerability is the extent to which a person, family or community is at risk of slipping into a crisis such that they can't meet their own needs.

For example, a family living in a Dublin suburb might have two parents both earning an income and getting certain tax benefits from the government such as social and medical services and police protection. They can buy food that is sourced from all over the world from a supermarket. If the rains in their area fail, they are unlikely to be affected. If one or other of the parents loses their job, their income may reduce, but they will also be able to draw on unemployment benefits. In this sense, there is a social safety net in place.

If we take a rural family in the Middle Juba region of Somalia, we find a family that depends on growing its own food to sustain them. What little extra produce they have, they sell for cash at local markets. They live in an area without a functioning state, so there is an ongoing risk of violence, with very few health and education services.

If the rains fail in their area, their crops die, they run out of food and their animals may die also. They don't have any source of income. There are no insurance companies or unemployment benefits. If their community is all affected in the same way, they may be forced to relocate to an urban area to search for paid work or move to a relief camp. This family has few reliable safety nets, and is highly vulnerable.

It's for this reason that the unreliability of rainfall has such a big and regular impact. The vulnerability of families and communities across the sub-Saharan African region is quite high, so when rains fail, it has a disproportionate impact on those families. Food supplies dwindle, children become malnourished, and families are forced to relocate. Crises develop regularly, often in different places from year to year, but from the outside it can feel very repetitive.

Short-term versus Long-term

The challenge, then, is knowing how to both deal with the short-term needs of people facing acute food shortages or malnutrition (namely, to stop them dying) and also deal with the long-term issues of their vulnerability as a result of their context.

Aid agencies like World Vision have to employ a double-edged approach to these sorts of emergencies. On the one hand we launch emergency responses to ensure that people don't die over the coming weeks and months, using interventions like feeding programmes for children, and providing health and clean water services to limit the spread of disease.

On the other hand, we engage in long-term projects with communities that focus on disaster prevention and response. This isn't an easy process and takes years to complete, but the more people in Ireland understand how these crises happen and read beyond the headlines, the more we hope they'll be motivated to work with us to solve these problems.

To find out more visit To make a donation to World Vision's Horn of Africa appeal visit Text APPEAL to 51500 or Call 1850 366 283 Other Irish aid agencies working in the area include Concern, Trócaire, Goal and Oxfam Ireland:,,,

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