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Famines, Malnutrition, and Food Aid

May 4, 2013
Somali family displaced during the 2010-12 famine.

Somali family displaced during the 2010-12 famine. Image courtesy UN Media Center.

A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued earlier this week concluded than some 258,000 people died a result of the Somali famine between 2010 and 2012. Half of those killed were children under the age of five. This would make the 2010-12 Somali famines one of the worst famines of the post-World War II era.

The report notes that the Somali famine represented a complex emergency, resulting from a combination of natural, political, and social factors. In the case of Somalia, the impact of a severe drought was intensified by the collapse of the Somali government and the ongoing conflict between rival militias fighting for control of the country.

The report also notes that the famine was intensified as a result of the slow reaction of the international community. In an interview with the BBC, Rudi Van Aaken, the deputy head of the FAO operation for Somalia, observed that “I think the main lesson learned is that the humanitarian community should be ready to take early action—respond early on. Responding only when famine is declared is very very ineffective. Actually about half of the causalities were there before the famine was already declared.”

Aaken raises a couple of important points here. First, he signals the arbitrariness of the start and stop dates for the famine. Although the United Nations declared the Somali famine over in February of 2012, Save the Children notes that Somalia still has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition and infant mortality in the world. While the official famine has ended, there are clearly still fundamental challenges facing the Somali food system.

More importantly, though, this also suggests the need to think about both famine and underlying malnutrition. Famines represent significant, traumatic events, capable (sometimes) of capturing considerable media attention. But underlying malnutrition, while less dramatic, affects far more people. According to Jean Ziegler, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, malnutrition accounted for 58 percent of total world mortality in 2006. The World Health Organization similarly observes that over half of all under-five child deaths are the result of underlying malnutrition. A report in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization concluded that,

Approximately 12 million children younger than 5 years of age die every year; most of these children live in developing countries. More than 50% of these deaths are attributed to diarrhoea, acute respiratory illness, malaria, or measles, conditions that are either preventable or treatable with low-cost interventions. Although malnutrition is prevalent in developing countries, it is rarely cited as being among the leading causes of death. This is due in part to the conventional way that cause of death data are reported and analysed. In many countries, mortality statistics are compiled from records in which a single proximate cause of death has been reported.

Focusing on famines does little to address the underlying malnutrition that contributes to millions of deaths every year.

Additionally, Aaken’s observations confirm the need to rethink US food aid policy. I’ve blogged previously on the current (and long overdue) rethinking of US food aid programming. One of the problems of the current US food aid system is that it is not particularly quick. A report by American Jewish World Service observes that it can take up to 14 weeks or longer for US-purchased food to arrive in the field and to reach the people in need of assistance. Food aid purchased locally or regionally could arrive in much shorter time, and have the added benefit of providing a needed boost to regional producers.

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