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

Answers to your questions about the news.
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).

Click to view a slide show.
Advertisement

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.

Maura Kelly's book Much Ado About Loving, about what classic novels can teach you about mating, relating, and Internet dating, will be out in January. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.