Famine: The Failure of the International Community

Comment: By Bridgette Lane

Famine is now the reality for people in parts of the South Sudan, and it is expected to also be declared in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen in 2017. As famine is something that can be prevented, it should be seen as a significant failure of the international community that the situation has been allowed to arise.

Conflict is playing a significant role in the increase of food insecurity globally, as it makes it more difficult for people to access food, and for aid agencies to provide support. Conflict is a clear driver of the food insecurity in four particular countries; in Yemen a blockade by Saudi Arabia has limited imports, while in Nigeria the insurgency by Boko Haram has made some places too dangerous. In both South Sudan and Somalia, internal strife means there is a combination of poor development and crippling insecurity. These conflicts have been continuing for a significant period of time, which explains why these countries are now vulnerable to the prospect of famine.

Recently, in a speech to the UN Security Council the UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, argued that the current crisis had been man-made, suggesting it could be prevented by humanitarian intervention. He stated that:


The UN and its partners are ready to scale up. But we need the access and the funds to do more. It is all preventable. It is possible to avert this crisis, to avert these famines, to avert these looming human catastrophes.


His comments are part of the on-going effort by the UN to prevent these famines, as can be seen in the UN’s recent request for emergency funding, but neither food insecurity or the conflicts are new or surprising situations. A famine does not happen overnight, so the international community, including the UN, has known of this potential outcome and has chosen not to act preventatively.

The reason behind why the international community does no act proactively is because there is a focus on emergency aid, which often means there are large casualties of starvation before support is provided. To exacerbate the issue, the UN does not receive the full emergency funding that it requests from the international community, and that appears to be what will happen in this case. At the recent Oslo humanitarian conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region only a third of what the UN asked for was pledged by donors. This does not bode well for those who are currently at risk of the predicted famine.

Food crises are slow development and could be stopped earlier if aid was more focused on long-term prevention than short-term response and mitigation. It may sounds like a dramatic change to the aid system; however, this is not the case, as this was agreed upon in 1970, when all rich countries agreed to a target to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid. Only six countries are currently meeting this target; Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Great Britain and Sweden. Britain reached the  target in 2013 and since 2015 it has been a legal commitment. If other countries regularly met this target, there could be enough funding in the humanitarian community to effectively prevent many emergency situations from arising.

There is resistance to spending public money on foreign aid in many countries, which could explain why, even though famine is preventable, there is a lack in political will to act in advance of a crisis. In Britain, the Daily Mail is a vocal critic of foreign aid, and most recently the newspaper suggested that British foreign aid was being used to encourage terrorism in Palestine. This is not an uncommon opinion.

A poll during the American Presidential election found that 51 per cent of people polled thought that America gave away too much in foreign aid. Considering that under President Trump the American foreign aid budget is marked for cuts, there is clearly strong division within rich countries as to importance of overseas aid.

Emergency aid is often provided after natural disasters that cannot be prevented. The impending famines do not fall into this category, and may have been prevented if all rich countries met the 0.7 per cent of GDP target; however, with significant opposition to overseas aid this appears to be a distant possibility. The current political situation in America looks as if it will compound the issue, as under President Trump the negative opinion of foreign aid will develop into mainstream policy. This does not help the people who are currently suffering, and does not bode well for the future crises that will in no doubt arise because the international community is unwilling to pay the necessary burden.


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