Why are 20 million people still at risk of famine?
Food and Nutrition

Why are 20 million people still at risk of famine?

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On World Food Day, a day dedicated to fighting world hunger, the possibility of famine continues to loom large in Africa. Since my post on famine early this year, over 20 million people in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen remain at risk of dying of starvation, including 1.4 million children. Thanks to humanitarian assistance, however, South Sudan is no longer in the midst of famine – but the risk that it will return to famine conditions has yet to be eliminated.

Why is this still happening, despite humanitarian efforts to meet the most immediate needs of those at risk, and to build up long-term resilience so that this level of hunger never happens again?

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For one thing, donors have yet to give humanitarian organizations enough funds to fully fight the risk of famine. The UN estimated that it will require about 5 billion US dollars to reach everyone at risk during 2017, and only about two-thirds of their appeal for this funding has been fulfilled so far. There have been places where humanitarian organizations have had to make the agonizing choice of prioritizing the hunger of one community over the needs of another because there simply has not been enough to go around.

Conflict, too, has been a significant obstacle in reaching people. Civil war in Yemen has cut off delivery routes and led to the biggest cholera outbreak ever on record – with over 600,000 people there experiencing acute watery diarrhea since the end of April 2017. Boko Haram continues to ravage parts of northern Nigeria, while systematic political violence remains the norm in South Sudan. Somalia, too, is experiencing the after-effects of years of internal conflict.

Importantly, though — and despite the fact that climate change and poor governance have also had crucial parts to play in the risk of starvation arising in the first place — all of this means that we are dealing with a man-made, preventable problem.

Countries at risk of famine are not inevitably doomed to experiencing mass starvation. Ireland is famous for its history of famine and is now the most food secure country in the world. (“Food security” here is measured as a combination of affordability, availability, and quality of food, adjusted for access to natural resources and climate risks.)

A farmer stands in her sweet potato field outside Mwasonge, Tanzania. (Photo credit: ONE)

A farmer stands in her sweet potato field outside Mwasonge, Tanzania. (Photo credit: ONE)

Even among poorer countries, Bangladesh and Ethiopia experienced brutal famines in just the past century. And yet, thanks to the commitment of their governments and support from donors, they have both made immense strides in food security and nutrition since.

Famine and even less severe forms of hunger are problems that can and have been resolved in the past. World Food Day presents an opportunity to encourage our leaders to help fund organizations with the commitment and technical know-how to do just that, and to stop perpetuating conflict before famine becomes a reality once again.

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