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The F-Word is Famine
A politically contentious word. A word that many governments shy away from. A word associated with failure that becomes fixed in the international news agenda, bringing continued bad publicity.
The F-word is Famine.
The current crisis in the Horn of Africa, triggered by drought, instability, and high food prices, is affecting at least 12.4 million people. The United Nations has declared two regions of southern Somalia—southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle--famine areas. No respite is expected in the near future as the Horn of Africa-wide food crisis continues to worsen.
Mark Bowden, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, cautioned that inaction now means that famine could spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, as both infectious disease outbreaks and poor harvests due to lack of rainfall continue.
What is a famine?
According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a famine means that these conditions coexist:
- At least 20 percent of households face acute food shortage and have no means of coping with them.
- Acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 percent.
- More than two people in 10,000 die every day. (See map)
The U.N. has reported that malnutrition rates in Somalia are currently the highest in the world, with peaks of 50 percent in some southern areas. In southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent; in some areas, deaths of children under five are exceeding 6 per 10,000 per day.
They didn’t deserve to die
So far, 11,000 people are reported to have died in the past 45 days. The inexcusable thing about this crisis is that it could have been significantly mitigated. For months, the Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) pointed to an impending famine. Crops dried up, livestock died, and desperation spread--but these went unheeded. Now, drought has forced a fourth of Somalia’s 7.5 million people to flee their communities in hopes of finding help in neighboring countries.
The importance of promoting community stability and resilience cannot be overemphasized. Multi-sectoral programming to address the impacts of limited food availability, high food prices, asset losses, and malnutition, is imperative. As I have stressed in an earlier blog, it is far more cost-effective to target assistance in building agricultural and economic systems that are sustainable in the long run. It’s better and cheaper to prevent calamities than to respond to hunger emergencies.
Often, though, funds for preparedness and contingency planning are in short supply while large amounts of money go to post-disaster response. For instance, despite early warnings in November 2010, by March of 2011, the World Food Program remained 60 percent underfunded, and had to cut back its feeding programs in Somalia and Ethiopia.
Investing in long-term development requires long-term, sustained commitment from national governments and the international donor community. Yet donor governments are held responsible by taxpayers to show that their efforts are in fact producing results--something that takes time and can become politically contentious.
What we forget is the haunting fact that we have only two options: to pay less now, or to pay dearly later.
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