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What is famine, and how can we stop it?

By Chris Hufstader
A mother and her child eat unprocessed sorghum in Rann, northeast Nigeria. Years of conflict, flooding in some areas, and lack of humanitarian access in some parts of northern Nigeria means there are areas at risk of severe hunger and malnutrition, if not famine. Fati Abubakar/Oxfam

The UN is warning that COVID-19 could create a widespread hunger crisis and possibly famine; what can we do to prevent this?

The COVID-19 coronavirus is affecting virtually all regions of the world. As country after country has required people to stay at home and economies grind to a halt, the specter of hunger is emerging. The movement of food, from farms to markets and people’s homes, is being disrupted, and the poorest and most vulnerable are at risk. The economic crisis and disruption of the food supply could push an additional half billion people into poverty, according to estimates by Oxfam and others.

The UN World Food Programme says that there are also already 135 million people facing chronic food insecurity and they “could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020”and create a “hunger pandemic” and possibly famine.

Is a global famine really a possibility? Let’s look at the definition of the word first.

Famine is not just a lack of food

Dan Maxwell and Nisar Majid’s 2016 book Famine in Somalia has a good definition: “Famine is broadly understood as ‘an extreme crisis of access to adequate food, manifested in widespread malnutrition and loss of life due to starvation and infectious disease.’”

In technical terms, a famine is a situation where one in five households experience “an extreme lack of food and other basic needs where starvation, death, and destitution are evident.” More than 30 percent of people are “acutely malnourished” and two out of every 10,000 people die from starvation. This set of conditions is the most severe case in a range of classifications monitored by the “Integrated Food Security Phase Classification” (IPC) that tracks the availability of food for people and helps governments and aid organizations anticipate a crisis before people experience famine, what the IPC calls Phase 5. (Phases 2-4 are not very nice situations either, by the way, and as you can see in graphic below, when people get to the famine stage, they typically have few or no resources to sustain them.)

Famine looks like a lack of food, and most people think it is brought on by a drought, a war, or an outbreak of disease. And some still believe in debunked 19th-century theories about “overpopulation” causing famine. But famines are usually caused by multiple factors, compounded by poor (or even intentionally bad) policy decisions that make people vulnerable. When no one addresses this vulnerability, it leads to famine.

This is why political scientist Alex de Waal calls famine a political scandal, a “catastrophic breakdown in government capacity or willingness to do what [is] known to be necessary to prevent famine.” When governments fail to prevent or end conflict, or help families prevent food shortages brought on by any reason, they fail their own people.


Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a dramatic decline in famines in the last 50 years. Unfortunately there are still some cases of conflict that have plunged millions into poverty and hunger, making people even more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Civil war in South Sudan and Yemen has displaced families and cut off food supplies, as well as people’s access to aid. Conflict and a lengthy, serious drought in Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa has killed off most of the crops and livestock, the main assets for many families. The situation in the Horn is compounded by climate change and now an upsurge in desert locusts across East Africa.

If we wait to respond until a famine is declared, it’s too late

The conflict in South Sudan started in 2013, so it’s no surprise famine was declared there in Unity State in early 2017, and that people in these areas continue to struggle to survive in near-famine conditions.

The conflict in Yemen is going on six years now. Aid groups such as Oxfam and UN agencies (including the Famine Early Warning System) have been warning the world about this deteriorating situation for some time.

We (governments, the UN, aid organizations) know what to do, because the world has been successfully fighting famine for more than a century. In 2011, more than 250,000 people in Somalia lost their lives when the world ignored repeated warnings after the failure of rains in the region. We should not wait until the situation becomes dire, with people (many of them children) starving and dying. We need to raise awareness and mobilize support months and years earlier to prevent famine. That’s why Oxfam and other aid organizations are studying the effects of COVID-19 on the world’s supply of food, advocating for policies that will prevent a catastrophic disruption, and helping the most vulnerable people survive the hopefully short-term measures to reduce the spread of the disease and the threat of famine.

What Oxfam is doing

Women in Panyijar County, South Sudan, pump water from a well constructed by Oxfam. Oxfam provided clean water to 10,000 famine-affected people in this area. Photo: Bruno Bierrenbach Feder/Oxfam

A more complete description of what Oxfam is doing to respond to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, and what you can do to help, is available at our Coronavirus crisis: How to help page

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