Somalia famine: When does large-scale hunger become a famine, and who decides?

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Aug. 2 2011 5:48 PM

Who Says It's a Famine?

When does large-scale hunger become a famine, and who decides?

Newspapers including the Financial Times and the Globe and Mail are calling the food crisis in Somalia a "famine" and the U.N.'s humanitarian aid office is warning that the "famine" could spread to other parts of the country. When does large-scale hunger become a famine, and who decides?

Any group or government can declare that a region is suffering from famine, but a pronouncement by the United Nations carries the most weight among governments, aid agencies, and others considering how much help to give to a country. A U.N. declaration might also increase news coverage of the problem.

While there is no universal definition, most experts on food scarcity agree that a famine occurs when more than half of the people in an area are dying or become dangerously ill, directly or indirectly, from starvation. The United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP)—the largest distributor of food aid in the world--generally classifies a region as suffering famine when mortality rates double because of lack of food and when more than 20 percent of the children in the area suffer from acute malnutrition (that is, when their organs have already begun to shut down).

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That said, famine is hard to pin down, in part because it is difficult to maintain up-to-date mortality and population statistics for areas that are likely to suffer from one. The United Nations believes the combination of one of East Africa's worst droughts in 60 years and political conflicts are at the root of this famine. With nearly half of Somalia's population, 3.7 million people, in crisis, a total of $1.6 billion are needed for help according to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But Somalia, especially the famine-ridden southern third, is considered dangerous and anarchic, more so than Haiti, Iraq, or even Afghanistan. Many Somalis have fled the country to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, and if the divided transitional government does not stabilize, many more will choose the same path to escape the famine.

Explainer thanks Fritz Gilbert, director of the United States Agency for International Development's Famine Early Warning System, and Gary Eilert, FEWS regional director for the Horn of Africa.

This article was adapted from a previously published Slate piece.

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