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


Confronting a despicable and avoidable human tragedy.

When the United Nations said last September that the East African country of Somalia was facing the threat of “imminent” famine, it was a frightening and all too familiar call to action. More than 10 years prior, more than 250,000 people had died of hunger in the country despite similar warnings that something was desperately wrong.

Now, another hunger crisis in Somalia was making front page headlines. “Famine is at the door, and today we are receiving a final warning,” said Martin Griffiths, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

At Oxfam, we’ve been focused on the fight to end hunger since our founding. So, we’re going to define what exactly is famine, what causes it, share an example of a famine, and explain how people like you can help stop famine in its tracks.

What does famine mean?

According to researchers Dan Maxwell and Nisar Majid, famine is “an extreme crisis of access to adequate food.” Visible in “widespread malnutrition” and “loss of life due to starvation and infectious disease,” famine robs people of their dignity, equality, and for some—their lives.

So how do we know a famine is occurring? The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC, is a common global scale that informs how governments and aid groups should respond when people lose reliable access to sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food. It’s a five-phase warning system to inspire urgent action before it’s too late.

For a famine to exist in a given area—Phase 5 of the acute food insecurity scale—three conditions, backed by evidence, must be met:

  • 1 in 5 households faces an extreme food shortage

  • More than 30 percent of people are “acutely malnourished,” a nutritional deficiency that results from inadequate energy or protein intake

  • Death rates exceed two deaths for every 10,000 people per day

As of right now, famine has not been declared in Somalia. But according to the IPC, between April and June of this year, the number of people on the brink of famine is expected to reach 220,000. More Somalis are projected to grapple with starvation and the collapse of their livelihoods amid an anticipated reduction in funding for humanitarian assistance.

What causes a famine?

Said Abdi Duale and his family sit down with Oxfam staff. They live in a camp supporting people who have fled their homes in the Sanaag región of Somaliland. "First we had people, family, we had animals. We used the animals for eating, for cooking, for selling the milk, for everything. Now we don't have anything and the drought caused the death of all the animals which we had." Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam Intermón

Famines are usually caused by multiple factors. Since 2020, a deadly combination of conflict, COVID-19, and climate change has dramatically increased the number of people suffering from severe hunger. When compounded by inaction or policy decisions that make people more vulnerable, famine can result and society can collapse.

In Somalia, many challenges are putting people on the brink of famine:

  • A catastrophic drought—minimal to no rain for five consecutive farming seasons—has caused crop failures and livestock deaths on a mass scale.

  • Millions of people do not have income and food. The price of staple food has also skyrocketed, making it unaffordable for poor households.

  • A decades-long conflict is forcing people from their homes, disrupting markets, and limiting the delivery of humanitarian aid.

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.

What is an example of a famine?

The 1984 famine in Ethiopia took the lives of 1 million people, driven in part by drought, conflict, and the policy choices of national and regional authorities. Estimates suggest around 1 million people survived thanks to the delivery of humanitarian aid.

On the evening of Tuesday, October 23, 1984, NBC Nightly News aired footage taken by an Ethiopian videographer that showed scores of deceased people on stretchers that were being taken toward makeshift graveyards. Though the scenes inspired a robust international response, its nature overlooked the capacity of communities affected by the famine to help themselves.

By the next morning, Oxfam America had received over 300 calls an hour from people like you who wanted to help. During the relief effort, feeding centers provided hungry people with food rations. Makeshift hospitals supported severely dehydrated people with IVs, providing shots of tetracycline to fight infection. Oxfam delivered protein and fat-fortified biscuits to those in need that saved many lives, but some could not eat them—their mouths riddled with open sores because of dehydration.

“These scenes of death and dying in the famine camps in Ethiopia were beyond the American experience, beyond anyone’s comprehension,” recalls Bernie Beaudreau, an Oxfam staffer at the time.

Can famine be stopped?

Ali Shire Omar used to be a pastoralist before the worsening droughts in Somalia killed off most of his livestock. With Oxfam's help, he was able to start farming with the help of a greenhouse and access to a functional water well. "It is a good thing to help people in need," he said. "I personally believe it is a win for the community." Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam Intermón

Famine can be stopped—now, and in the long term. But governments and aid groups must anticipate a worsening hunger crisis, secure the resources and political will to address the root causes of hunger, and safely deliver humanitarian aid to those most in need.

In countries like Somalia, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Madagascar, Oxfam is working to reduce the likelihood of famine with people like you. Here are some ways you can support Oxfam’s work:

  • Providing clean water
    • Stomach ailments from dirty water rob people of good nutrition from whatever food they can find, and young children are particularly vulnerable. That’s why Oxfam helps improve and repair wells to access clean water as well as trucks in water to areas where there is none.

  • Encouraging proper sanitation
    • Good sanitation and hygiene are essential for preventing the spread of 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 to help buy food. Oxfam also distributes emergency food rations when necessary.

  • Planting crops
  • Building resilience over the long term
    • We help build the capacity of local organizations to respond to crises like famine, shifting power from international organizations to leaders rooted in local know-how. We promote the leadership of our local partners and boost their skills to reduce suffering, risks, and losses by preparing their own communities before disasters strike.

  • Advocating with and for communities
    • Oxfam and our supporters advocate for peace and push for sufficient assistance for people affected by war and famine. Our research and advocacy also advance sustainable development in ways that help reduce the risk of future food crises and disasters.

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