What is Famine? Causes and effects and how to stop it

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

Famine is not just a widespread scarcity of food, its also a political scandal. Learn more about what famine is and what Oxfam is doing to prevent it.

A deadly combination of conflict, COVID-19, and climate change is increasing the number of people living in severe hunger. Oxfam estimated over the summer of 2021 that half a million people are living in famine-like conditions in just four countries (Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan, and Yemen). In September 2022, the United Nations declared that "famine is at the door" in the East African country of Somalia.

The COVID-19 coronavirus has affected all regions of the world. 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.

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. Conflict 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 a recent upsurge in desert locusts across East Africa.

The conflict in Yemen is has been going on for 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.

What Oxfam is doing to prevent famine

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

Oxfam is actively working to reduce the likelihood of famine and end world hunger. Here are some ways we are getting involved:

Providing clean water

Clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing hands is essential in any humanitarian emergency to avoid deadly water-borne diseases such as cholera or coronavirus. But any stomach ailment from dirty water will rob people of the nutrition they can derive from whatever food they can find. Children under 5 are particularly vulnerable. Oxfam helps improve and repair wells, and trucks in water to areas where there is none.

Encouraging proper sanitation

Proper sanitation and hygiene are essential for preventing diseases like cholera, Ebola, and COVID-19. Oxfam helps construct latrines and distributes hygiene items like soap so people can wash their hands.

Distributing food

When food is available in markets, but might be scarce or very expensive for some, Oxfam distributes cash. Oxfam also distributes emergency food when necessary.

Planting crops

In areas where farmers can plant crops, Oxfam is helping supply seeds, tools, and other assistance so people can grow their own food. We also help farmers raising livestock with veterinary services, animal feed, and in some cases we distribute animals to farmers to help restock their herds.

Government accountability

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.

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.

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