TALKING POINT: Why is famine so hard to define?

by Reuters
Friday, 16 September 2005 00:00 GMT
LONDON (AlertNet)-

The word "famine" is a political hot potato and very difficult to define. There are dozens of definitions, but not yet one that everyone agrees on.

A lack of consensus can lead to confusion - especially with the media. In Niger, for example, the government has reacted angrily to some reports calling the situation there a famine. President Mamadou Tandja insists Niger is not experiencing a famine but a "food shortage".

The U.S. government's international development agency, USAID, and the Washington-funded early warning service FEWSNET both describe the situation in Niger as a "very severe, but localised food security crisis".

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme says Niger is experiencing "pockets of severe malnutrition". Other agencies range between calling the situation a "humanitarian emergency" and "an acute livelihood crisis".

Food aid professionals have been known to debate whether a crisis was a famine or not for many years after the event.

Why does it matter? Is such semantic wrangling merely academic or does it have actual consequences for people on the ground?

Facing the F-word

No government likes to hear the F-word in connection with its country. Neither do aid agencies or international donors. It implies that they have failed to stop a food shortage from turning into a major humanitarian crisis.

But some academics are critical of this approach. ODI says in a briefing note on Niger: "Avoiding the famine label has often been convenient for those seeking to justify slow or failed responses."

Stephen Devereux and Paul Howe of Britain's Institute of Development Studies say a lack of agreement on the definition makes it difficult for governments, donors, NGOs and the media to identify whether a famine is occurring or not.

This in turn makes it difficult to monitor whether the response to the situation is appropriate, and therefore to hold people accountable.

So what are some definitions of famine?
  • According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, famine is a situation where more than five people in 10,000 are dying every day.

  • USAID says a famine is a "catastrophic food crisis that results in widespread acute malnutrition and mass mortality. It is a process, rather than an event, with a beginning, a middle and an end."

  • The World Food Programme says a famine occurs when a serious food crisis is made worse by "governments' failure to deal with the situation". In most of the 80 countries where WFP operates, people are on the brink of a food crisis.

  • Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja put it this way in an interview in August with the BBC: "There are three signs of a famine: when people are leaving the countryside and going to live in shantytowns; people are leaving the country; and there are beggars all over the place. Those three things do not exist in Niger at the present time."

  • Devereux and Howe suggest this definition: "Famine is where the number of people dying is between 2-4 people per 10,000 population per day, and/or wasting is between 20-40 percent (that is the proportion of children aged between six months and five years old who are less than 80 percent of the average weight-for-height). Coping strategies are exhausted and people adopt survival strategies. Markets begin to close or collapse."

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