Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Feast or Famine

What is a famine? Governments and agencies among whose job it is to prevent famines have often exploited the ambiguities in the term to contest whether a famine has occurred, thereby evading even limited accountability for their action - or inaction. There are no generally accepted criteria of what rates of malnutrition or mortality indicate specifically that a famine has started.

"There is no clear boundary or definition of a famine" said Christopher Barrett, a food aid expert who teaches development economics at Cornell University.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers, academics and humanitarian aid workers have tried defining it. Stephen Devereux, author of Theories of Famine, a definitive reference book on the subject, noted that dictionary definitions such as "extreme scarcity of food" described a "few symptoms of famine" and selected some factors to "suggest causes", but failed to provide a "comprehensive and concise" definition. Devereux quoted an academic as saying that "Famine is like insanity: hard to define, but glaring enough when recognized."

An "early warning systems" approach to a famine evolved from the Indian Famine Codes developed in the 1880s by the British colonial regime. The Famine Codes described three levels of food insecurity - near scarcity, scarcity, and famine - which used indicators such as three successive years of crop failure, crop yields, numbers of people affected, and food prices, but the measure of these indicators was very subjective.

What is a famine can also be determined by using the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) five-point scale, developed by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit. The IPC scale ranges from "generally food secure" to "famine/humanitarian catastrophe", based on a range of data relating to rainfall, market prices, agricultural production, food security and nutrition. The IPC scale uses a number of indicators to pronounce a famine, including acute malnutrition in more than 30 percent of children, two deaths per 10,000 people every day, a pandemic illness, access to less than four litres of water a day and 2,100 kilocalories of food, large-scale displacement of people, civil strife, and complete loss of assets and source of income.

Large areas of southeastern Ethiopia, southern Somalia and northeastern Kenya are already in phase four, the “emergency” phase, as well as the warning of the possibility of phase five. Specifically, phase five conditions would emerge “if one or more of the following were to happen: (1) if prices of key commodities [such as staple cereals maize and sorghum] spike further in the coming months, (2) if conflict [in southern Somalia] worsens in key areas that further reduces humanitarian access and/or prohibits trade and market routes, (3) if the harvest and livestock conditions turn out to be worse than these current predictions, or (4) the next rainy season fails [which will be evident by late October/November]"

Nicholas Haan, the food security scientist who developed IPC and its global manager, said “If a situation deteriorates to phase five famine, the ability of households to meet even their most basic food, health, water, sanitation, protection, and other needs all disintegrates - thus the need for all-out comprehensive humanitarian assistance. If famine were to emerge, any financial, political, logistical or other constraints need to be wiped aside and the full cooperation of humanity needs to be focused on saving lives and preventing social collapse. This is the humanitarian imperative that should kick in even at phase three crisis IPC levels, let alone phase five famine." He added "Of course it would be much better for all concerned - vulnerable populations of course, but also national governments, in terms of development plans, and international donors in terms of the cost-benefit of investing in preventative measures - to avoid such situations by heeding early warning signs and tackling chronic issues.”

The immediate causes of famine--drought, floods and civil war--often mask the fact that most suffering countries are capable of feeding themselves. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen wrote in Poverty and Famines "starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat."

The world can produce enough food, water and housing materials to provide the basic needs of all the Earth’s people. Tremendous technical advances should mean a better society. Improvements in the production of food should lead to a happier world. Yet in the years ahead, SOYMB can predict we will be commenting on further natural disasters as the effects of global warming kick in and continually pointing to the failure of capitalism to effectively mobilise its vast resources to the benefit of those in direst need.

What causes famines
How many die of famine

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