Defining famine

I’m confused. According to The Times there is a famine in Ethiopia which the government is trying to cover up. The Independent on Sunday also thinks there’s a famine. Its sister paper, the Independent, isn’t so sure. And while the Times’ headline may have used the f-word, there is no trace of it in the article itself.

On his Aid Watch blog (which occasionally gets a little smug but is usually pretty good), Bill Easterly bemoans the famine troika of exaggerating NGOs, defensive governments and credulous media which makes it “tragically difficult to know when tragedy is happening”.

The credulous media is the biggest problem. They (we) are the guide which is supposed to tell us whether the NGOs are exaggerating or the governments are lying. But how many journalists writing about famine know what a famine actually is? As Easterly points out, the media is often “unable to handle subtleties like chronic food insecurity and chronic malnutrition vs. emergency famine.”

But it’s not that hard. The Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit in Nairobi tracks food availability in Somalia. In its recent report on the 2009 Gu rains (or lack of) the FSNAU includes a definition of the five stages of food security from 1 (Generally Food Secure) to 5 (Famine / Humanitarian Catastrophe). Here’s what phase five means:

So if an NGO claims there is a famine, ask them: what is the crude mortality rate? What is the level of acute malnutrition? What availability is there to food and water? Then compare it to the definitions.

Famine has a specific meaning. It is not a shorthand for “hungry people in Africa”.

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