The loss of human life [due to hunger] is as great as if an atomic bomb – similar to the one that destroyed Hiroshima during the Second World War – were dropped on a densely populated area every three days

Womenaid Press release on Hunger

Photo © George Chelebiev

Hunger: some basic facts

Number and percentage of undernourished persons:

  • 2005-2007: 848 million (13%)
  • 2000-2002: 833 million (14%)
  • 1995-1997: 788 million (14%)
  • 1990-1992: 843 million (16%)
  • 1979-1981: 853 million (21%)
  • 1969-1971: 878 million (26%)

Hunger is the world’s number one health risk. It kills more people every year than AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis combined.

One in seven people in the world will go to bed hungry tonight.

One in four children in developing countries are underweight.

There are more hungry people in the world than the combined populations of USA, Canada and the European Union.

925 million people do not have enough to eat. 98% of these people live in the developing world.

Asia and the Pacific region is home to over half the world’s population and nearly two thirds of the world’s hungry people.

Women make up a little over half of the world’s population, but they account for over 60% of the world’s hungry.

65% of the world’s hungry live in only seven countries: India, China, sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Hunger: some definitions

Hunger is a condition in which people lack sufficient nutrients (energy, protein, vitamins and minerals for fully productive, active and healthy lifestyles. It can be both a short-term and long-term problem with wide ranging effects from mild (lack of energy, tiredness) to severe (starvation, weakened immune systems, death).

There are 3 main forms of hunger: acute, chronic and hidden. Each form has a different underlying cause:

  • Acute hunger is the most extreme form of malnourishment. In this case, death is a pressing reality. Although the image of people who are acutely hungry is what we see mostly on television and in advertising campaigns, less than 8% of the world’s hungry fall within this category – emergency situations.
  • Chronic hunger is the most widespread form of malnourishment is characterised by a constant lack of, or insufficient amount of quality food, further perpetuated by a lack of basic healthcare. The causes of chronic hunger are responsible for the majority of child mortality related to nutritional factors.
  • Hidden hunger affects over 2 billion people worldwide. It results from a poor quality diet – lack of food with vitamins and nutrients – and is very difficult to detect as many of those affected consume enough calories and proteins.

FACT: It is estimated that in 2010, 925 million people will suffer from hunger globally due to the sudden spike in global food prices and the on-set of the world-wide economic crisis. (

FACT: In 2008, nearly 9 million children died before they reached their fifth birthday. One third of these deaths were due directly or indirectly to hunger or malnutrition. (

FACT: The majority of hungry live in developing countries, but hunger also occurs in the industrialised world. Asia and the Pacific is home to the largest number of hungry, while sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of hungry, with one in three people being undernourished.

In 2010:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa had 239 million hungry people
  • Asia and the Pacific had 578 million
  • Latin America and the Caribbean had 53 million
  • Near East and North Africa had 37 million
  • Developed countries had 19 million


Malnutrition: refers to improper/inappropriate consumption of food – not just inadequate consumption. It occurs when people’s diets do not provide adequate nutrients for growth and maintenance of health. Malnutrition includes being underweight for one’s age, dangerously thin for one’s height and/or deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. Malnutrition traditionally affects the poor, but it is not just a problem among the poor.

FACT: In countries with high levels of childhood malnutrition, the economic loss can be as high as 2-3% of GDP. (

Under-nutrition: is a condition resulting from inadequate consumption of calories, nutrients and/or protein the body needs to meet the basic physical requirements for an active and healthy life. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations defines under-nutrition as less than 2100 kcal per day. Over-nutrition exists also and is due excessive consumption, possibly due to low levels of physical activity also.

FACT: The FAO estimates that globally, 925 million people were undernourished in 2010. While this figure marks an improvement compared to 2009, it remains unacceptably high. (

Food Insecurity: is the physical or uncertain availability of food or inability to acquire safe and nutritious food. This can also mean a lack of social or economic access to food also. Food Security: is assured access for every person to enough nutritious food to sustain an active and healthy life, including food availability (adequate food supply), food access (people can get food), and appropriate food use (the body’s absorption of essential nutrients.

World Hunger: Why?

The World Food Programme claim that there is enough food to feed the entire population currently at 6.7 billion people. If this is the case then why does hunger exist?

Poverty: Poverty is one of the fundamental causes of human underdevelopment, and is also a result of it. The majority of the world’s poor are unable to afford enough food to feed themselves and their families. Their diets are based on basic starchy foods such as mealie meal, potatoes or bread with very few vegetables or meat and therefore very little nourishment. This ultimately leads to malnourishment. Because hunger leads to low levels of energy and health problems, it can then lead to further impoverishment by reducing an individual’s ability to work, or learn which then leads to further hunger again.

  1. Disease and illness: Hunger and malnourishment can lead to disease and sickness, but, as mentioned previously, disease can also lead to malnourishment, which, in turn, makes and individual weak and unable to work in order to feed themselves and their family, for example HIV and AIDS. Lack of education and poor health for women: It is all too common that women are undernourished and undereducated in their childhood due to the fact that, in a lot of countries, boys tend to be given priority over girls at the dinner table and also in school. They are then married at a young age and thus, give birth to their own children at a young age. If they themselves are malnourished and uneducated, their children will be born malnourished and the cycle continues.
  2. Low food production: Due to climate changes, poor farming skills and/or a lack of basic tools, fertiliser, seeds or land, large numbers of people go hungry due simply to access to food. This is especially true for people in small rural villages where all the food is grown locally.
  3. Famines and other climactic factors: With natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, long droughts and tsunamis on the increase, food security in poorer developing countries is severely threatened. The worst affected areas can be found in regions of climactic extremes. Although there have been technological advances to allow the production of food in areas which are prone to natural disasters and extreme climactic conditions, the majority of these places lack sufficient capital and infrastructure necessary to help advance this.
  4. War and conflict: Since 1992, the amount of short or long term food crises caused by human action has risen from 15% to 35%. The majority of these crises are due to war and conflict. The connections between war and hunger are clear. People are forced to flee their homes due to conflict; they become internally displaced people or refugees; their access to food is limited and can be hindered further due to the blocking of emergency food supplies to ‘enemy areas’. War and conflict impact on people in many different ways, with hunger being one of the key impacts, possibly even leading to famine for example Somalia.

Source: 80:20 Development in An Unequal World (2006), World Food Programme

Enough: Why the world’s poor starve in the age of plenty

By Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman – two journalists explore the current state of the world

Starvation is death by deprivation; the absence of one of the essential elements of life. It’s not the result of an accident or a spasm of violence, the ravages of diseases or the inevitable decay of old age. It occurs because people are forced to live in the hollow of plenty. For decades, the world has grown enough food to nourish everyone adequately. Satellites can spot budding crop failures; shortages can be avoided. In the modern world, like never before, famine is by and large preventable. When it occurs, it represents civilization’s collective failure.

R. Thurow and S. Kilman (2009) Enough: Why the Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty

In their recent book “Enough…” Thurow and Kilman set out to explore the reasons why there are still hungry people today, when there is more than enough food in the world. Although the knowledge and capacity is there to prevent famines, the numbers of malnourished people is continually rising. The authors argue “famine is by and large preventable:

…[it is] a man-made catastrophe, caused by one anonymous decision at a time, one day at a time, by people, institutions, and governments doing what they thought was best for themselves or sometimes even what they thought at the time was best for Africa’.

After opening with a detailed discussion on the birth of the Green Revolution (a shift in agricultural practices and technologies which began in Mexico in the 1940s, instigated by American scientist Norman Borlaug, which helped to increase agriculture production around the world), they go on to explore the predictions of famine prevention and an explosion in the global food supply that emerged from this. The big question raised here is – Why did this revolution never reach Africa?

It was around the same time that global agricultural policies began to shift. In times of famine, buying and using local food is much quicker, saves more lives and helps the local economy. The US had been growing large surpluses of grain which they then sold to countries like India and Mexico. But with the emergence of the Green Revolution, these countries no longer needed to buy extra from the US. The government then began to give it away as food aid, despite the fact that it drove local farmers out of business.

According to Thurow and Kilman, it is written into US law that all food aid must be grown in America and that 75% of it be transported on American ships. So the money given to target hunger alleviation was being delivered in the form of foreign grown food – (and, interestingly and questionably all of which was supported by a number of US and international NGOs). When the Bush administration attempted to reform the food aid policies to use more local food, to support local businesses, the aid agencies opposed it strongly. Thurow and Kilman explain how this “neglect and bad policies have kept more than a billion of the world’s poorest people hungry’.

Essentially, Africa isn’t given the opportunity to subsidise their farmers and businesses – despite the fact that they can supply better produce more efficiently – while the EU and the US spend billions on subsidies unnecessarily, to make their produce more affordable ultimately outdoing the local farmer.

Roger Thurow continues these discussions on his blog Global Food for Thought.

If you want to read something current about world hunger, we suggest the above book.

Hunger & Conflict

Conflict retards development, and conversely development retards conflict.

The examples of conflict in Africa are well known. The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was not only a crime against humanity but had wider effects that destabilised the Great Lakes Region. Other examples include conflict within Liberia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The war in DRC from 1998 onwards has possibly cost between 3-5 million lives through violence and disease. The political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe has manifested itself in a population which is dependent on food aid to survive.

Conflict directly impacts on the level of hunger and food insecurity. Increasingly emergency food situations are being driven by man-made factors. Whereas human induced disasters contributed to only about 10 % of total emergencies in 1984, by the end of the century they were a determining factor in more than 50% of cases (World Bank, 2003).

Of the $1204 million spent by the World Food Programme in 2002 for relief operations, $715 million were for man-made emergencies and protracted operations in support of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and refugees (Arnold, 2002).

Recent estimates show that the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) currently assists almost 20 million people, including 12 million refugees and 6.3 million IDPs. (UNHCR, 2004).

In economies ravaged by capital flight, mounting military expenditure, morbidity and mortality the direct cost of conflict is difficult to quantify. Econometric evidence indicates that an average seven-year conflict results in a cumulative loss of income that is equal to around 60 per cent of GDP. For the full decade of the 1980s conflict-induced losses were $37 billion in current prices (World Bank, 2003).

A recent attempt at measuring conflict-related agricultural output losses for all developing countries showed that they are extensive: for the 28 years from 1970 to 1997, estimated losses amount to almost $121 billion at 1995 prices, or an average of $4.3 billion per year. The same amount of money could have ensured adequate food intake for 330 million undernourished people each year (Arnold, 2002).

Hunger & HIV/AIDS

HIV/ AIDS is the most extreme health crisis in the world today and has correctly been termed ‘a history changing event’ (Barrett & Whiteside, 2002).

An estimated 42 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, of which 95 per cent are from developing countries and 75% in sub-Saharan Africa (HTF, 2003).

HIV/AIDS has a profound impact across households, communities and nations. Unlike many other diseases HIV/AIDS attacks young productive adult workers, thereby leaving an imbalanced population of orphans and the elderly in its wake. The number of AIDS orphans is currently estimated to be approximately 14 million. By 2010 it is estimated that this figure could exceed 20 million. (UNICEF, 2004).

It is at the community level where the link between food insecurity and HIV/AIDS is most destructive. HIV/AIDS affects the most productive working age cohorts. This is most alarming in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa where 80% of the population depend on small-scale subsistence agriculture. Since 1985 about 7 million African agricultural workers have died from AIDS in the 25 most affected countries and 16 million deaths are likely in the next two decades (HTF, 2003).

The resulting loss in household income triggers food insecurity. There is often a household trade off between food and health care provision, as households deplete a limited asset base and exhaust social networks of ‘kin and community’ to provide care. When the most productive worker dies a household often experiences a food gap. Data from Malawi reveals that this food gap affects 87 percent of households in which adult females have died, and 38 per cent in the case of the adult male (USAIDS, 2003).

At the community, and national, level this results in dramatic changes in agricultural practices and farming systems The reduced supply of agricultural labour necessitates downward shifts in cropping systems and livestock management. Lower acreage and less labour intensive (and nutritious) crops are planted e.g. cassava and over time livestock becomes vulnerable. HIV/AIDS also results in a loss of local knowledge. The resulting changes in land use and farming practices are likely to have adverse environmental effects on future agricultural activity.

Famine: historical examples of the causes of famine

Famine in Ireland: 1845 – 48

The potato blight:

In the 1800s, the potato was the main source of food for the majority of people in Ireland. However, the potato can be highly unreliable as was proven between 1845 and 1848 when harvests failed due to blight. This blight continued for over three years in Ireland and was an immediate trigger for the famous Irish famine that killed at least one million and saw another million flee the country.

Underdevelopment and poverty:

At the time of the famine the majority of the population of Ireland lived in extreme poverty and the economy was underdeveloped. As many of the population depended on agriculture (mostly the potato) for subsistence, they were therefore, in a very vulnerable and exposed position. Had the economy been more developed, stable and wealthier, with less dependence and emphasis on agriculture, the potato blight would not have been so devastating for the country. In this circumstance, and is usually the case, poverty was a key contributing factor to the onset of famine. The most telling evidence for this is the fact that there was an adequate supply of food within the country at the time. People just lacked the basic resources to access it.

Relief (or lack of it):

There was significant inaction from British Government to supply adequate funds for relief, while huge amounts were being spent on military engagements abroad. This was partly due to the belief of certain officials that relief would only promote dependency and things should take their ‘natural course’. A serious lack of medical resources provoked the situation further. With a population of over 8 million people, there were only 1300 doctors, mostly concentrated in the richer parts of the country. Ultimately, the majority of people died from famine fever and other disease than poverty.

Famine in Somalia in 1992:


Somalia is one of the world’s poorest countries. The poverty that goes with the underdevelopment of a country can be a major contributing factor to a famine – as was the case in Somalia.


Superpower intervention in Somalia in terms of aid was sporadic and related to the wants of the superpowers themselves, rather than to that of the poor Somalian people. Aid for the building of important roads, ports and for the military was massive. This left very little for investing in health, education and basic services such as water and sanitation.

Environmental damage:

Reoccuring drought and other environmental damage such as deforestation have been significant contributing factors to triggering the crisis in Somalia.


Violence, conflict and war have all been important contributing factors to the situation in Somalia in the past. Colonialism, clan rivalry, territorial aggression and the arms industry were also major contributors to the crisis. All of the world’s major superpowers in the last two centuries used Somalia as a pawn in their global strategies.

Strategies to end hunger

1. Hunger & Povery

Hunger is the most extreme manifestation of poverty. On the basis of the “dollar a day threshold”, there are 1.2 billion poor people in developing countries. Of these 798 million from chronic hunger (FAO, IFAD, WFP, 2002).

Previous (market driven) approaches to development have failed to resolve hunger and poverty because:

  • Poverty reduction takes time
  • Hungry people need immediate relief
  • Hunger is as much a cause as an effect of poverty.

(Source: FAO, 2003.)

Accordingly, food security must be integrated as part of a broader framework for sustainable development and poverty reduction. Food insecurity is no longer considered as an issue to be tackled essentially with traditional food aid and food security operations (EFSG, 2004).

This approach fits squarely with the World Food Summit definition of Food Security (1996): “A situation in which all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

Clearly there is a close link between the food security agenda and the poverty reduction/development agenda of Africa. The lack of access to food at the household level is the main cause of food insecurity in Africa, and arises from insufficient agricultural production and / or a lack of purchasing power – which itself is a direct result of poverty.

2. Achieving the MDG on hunger

THE UN Millennium Hunger Task Force recommend the following strategy if the Millennium Development Goal on Hunger is to be reached:

  • Mobilize political action to end hunger – at the global scale as well as the national and local scales in rich and poor countries.
  • Align national policies that restore budgetary priority to agriculture as the engine of economic growth, build rural infrastructure, empower women, and build human capacity in all sectors involved in hunger-reduction actions.
  • Implement and scale-up proven actions that improve the nutrition of vulnerable groups, raise agricultural productivity in smallholder farms, and improve market functions in ways that provide synergies and result in positive transformations.

All three elements of the strategy are necessary and, as a group, sufficient but each one will be insufficient if implemented alon

Global reform

Political Will

The world can achieve the Hunger MDG if it chooses to do so. The critical constraint to achieving the MDG for Hunger is political commitment and clear assignment of who takes what actions. The contrast between commitments made at international summits (Millennium Declaration, World Food Summits and Johannesburg) and the persistence of hunger indicates that mobilising political action for hunger alleviation is as critical as goals to finance and implement specific technical actions for nutrition, rural development and income growth.


If the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are to be achieved this depends critically on increased resource commitments by rich countries.

It is estimated that this will require developed countries to double their aid commitment, from the current level of $55 billion to over $100 billion per annum. Progress towards this can be measured in the success of developed countries to contribute 0.7 percent of GNI as Official Development Assistance (ODA) to developing countries – a target agreed as part of the UN Millennium Conference.

Only a handful of countries have achieved this goal, and for many more it remains a remote aspiration. For example, the US sits at the bottom of the international league providing just 0.15 percent of GNI and the EU is committed to reaching 0.42 percent by 2006. In 2003 Ireland committed 0.41% of GNI to ODA.

Financing What?

The efficiency, as well as volume, of ODA must also be examined. For example the level of ODA devoted to agriculture has declined dramatically since 1990. Between 1990 and 1999 total ODA fell by 31% to agriculture broadly defined. In this time period the total volume of lending to agriculture by International Financial Institutions declined by 40% in real terms.

Similarly food aid has also declined dramatically since the mid-1990s and in particular food aid devoted to relief (as opposed to development food aid, which for example is the principle instrument of EC aid related to food security). Food aid as a risk reducing safety net is critically important as a means of livelihood protection.

National Policy Reform

The primary responsibility for development must rest with national political leadership.

National policies must be aligned in ways that are supportive (or at least neutral) to the eradication of hunger. The following eight policy improvements together constitute the entry point for countries with a high prevalence of undernutrition.

Agricultural and Rural investment

 Priority AreasRecommendations
1Agricultural and Rural investmentThis must be ltlected in budgetary increases to agriculture and nutrition sectors. Governments should promote policies that reduce direct and indirect agricultural taxation, stimulate agricultural production and support public investments in rural areas and in agriculture that increases rural incomes and employment.
2Capacity for policy implementationDeveloping countries lack absorptive capacity and resources to benefit from investment. Improving human capital in the areas of agriculture, nutrition and markets is vital. Government and NGO programmes and rural communities can all contribute.
3Rural InfrastructureThis involves the development or repair of roads, railroads, energy, communications, school facilities, health posts, agricultural research and extension services.
4Empower women and invest in girlsAffirmative polices should explicitly recognize and promote the equality of females e.g. increased school enrolment of girls, improved property rights, inheritance, activities that reduce physical work burdens, education on reproductive rights.
5Safety NetsProvide safety nets to minimize temporary vulnerability for individuals unable to work. These policies should be assistance orientated and should ensure minimal distortion of local food markets.
6Natural Resource ManagementProvide incentives to promote sustainability. Ecologically sound agricultural practices can minimize the trade offs between the need to increase productivity and the preservation of the natural resource base.
7Property RightsPolicies that promote increased access to land by the poor and assure tenure, especially in countries where land is very unequally distributed, will motivate investment.
8Macroeconomic & Trade PolicyMacroeconomic and trade policy should provide stability and a level playing field. This includes maintaining undistorted exchange rates and trade and taxation policies that do not discriminate against the agricultural sector. National policies that address issues related to subsidies on inputs and their equity effects must be supportive. Attention should be paid to subsidies in OECD countries and their impact on global the global agricultural trade system.

Source: HTF, 2003.

Local Level Reform

Re-shaping policy to promote smallholder agricultural development is necessary to create the conditions for long-term poverty reduction and economic growth and can result in significant short and medium term hunger reduction. However evidence shows that when implemented alone, the results will often bypass large groups of food insecure people.

The UN Hunger Task Force (2003) focuses on three coordinated and mutually reinforcing interventions carried simultaneously in a “bottom-up” manner to benefit from the synergies they generate. They are “entry points” – actions that must be undertaken first and cannot be bypassed, and that would open the way for a range of other actions.

  • Community Based Nutrition Interventions: Much of the malnutrition that happens in early childhood – either through low birth weight, or malnourishment in the first two years – is irreversible. Therefore community-based and community – driven interventions targeted at life cycle periods between pregnancy through the first two years of age is the backbone of the proposed nutrition interventions. These packages may include the use of growth promotion as a tool for regular contact with mothers and young children, linked to targeted supplementary feeding and provision of nutrition and health services.
  • Make Markets work for the Rural Poor: In many hungry countries markets do not work effectively for the rural poor. Governments need to create an environment conducive to the development of functioning markets, business enterprises and farms, including the legal framework with a commercial code that respects contracts and capacity to adjudicate contract disputes. Governments should eliminate distortionate market policies such as transport and marketing barriers, and the mismanagement of food aid.
  • Increase Agricultural Productivity in Smallholder Farms: Known technologies can do much to raise the productivity of smallholder farmers. Many new farm technologies – appropriate for more marginal and less favoured areas – have been developed to enhance soil quality, manage water at the local level, improve germplasm and manage pests in environmentally friendly ways. Community participation in research and development can yield valuable results.

Somalia in Focus

Once again, the Horn of Africa is in the news and, once again, for all the wrong reasons – this time the focus is on Somalia and the famine currently devastating its people. In this brief section, we try to answer clearly, some of the questions most frequently asked.

What is the situation?

This famine was neither sudden nor a surprise.

Somalia is currently experiencing the worst famine the world has witnessed in a generation, the result of the region’s worst drought in 60 years with more than 10 million affected in the region (the prolonged failure of rains began in late 2010 – on early warning systems related to famine, see – ). The UN has classified large areas of Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya as a crisis or an emergency and in July it officially declared Somalia’s food crisis as a famine (in several parts of the country) with millions of people facing starvation and with deliveries of aid made all the more complicated by the fact that ‘Islamist militants’ (see notes below) control the famine zones.

According to the United Nations, a famine is the end result of five stages and is declared when ‘acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30%, more than 2 people per 10,000 die per day and people are not able to access food and other basic necessities.’ (see notes below)

NGOs report that the drought and the war in Somalia have led to huge numbers fleeing across the border into Kenya, with about 1,300 people arriving every day. Three camps just inside Kenya are now home to well over 400,000 people, yet they were built to hold just 90,000 and are severely overcrowded with the inevitable consequences.

QUESTIONwhat do you think are the consequences?

The UN’s Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that the numbers now affected are huge – approximately 3.2m in Ethiopia, 3.2m in Kenya, 2.6m in Somalia and more than 100,000 in Djibouti.

Many of those affected are pastoralists, whose lives and livelihoods are sustained by livestock. The drought has devastated their crops, and their animals are dying from lack of water and basic nutrition. People have been travelling, many walking for weeks, to reach urban centres and refugee camps in search of food, water and assistance.

Around one in three children in Somalia alone is estimated to be suffering from malnutrition. In Kenya’s Turkana region, malnutrition levels are much higher than expected and have reached 37.4% – more than double the 15% level considered an emergency.

As a consequence of the situation, food prices have skyrocketed – in some places by 200%. The cost of maize has doubled in some areas. In northern Kenya, the cost of milk has trebled while in Somalia, people have faced similar price rises in basic essentials. Most people simply cannot afford such price rises as they have absolutely nothing – increasing the urgency to get assistance to those in need of water and nutrition.

SEE: Horn of Africa: Spread of Famine at

How did the crisis occur?

In short, three key factors have led to the famine in Somalia:

  • The immediate cause is severe drought in a context of severe poverty; the region has experienced unprecedented drought conditions linked, some climatologists argue, to global warming. This has severely disrupted agriculture and, in particular subsistence food production; it has led to price increases for food, often putting it beyond the resources of the poor and it has meant that poor people have had to use up whatever reserves (poverty often means there are no reserves – food is difficult to preserve so livestock becomes the reserve and drought causes their death).

QUESTIONcould famine be prevented by a focus on building up reserves?

  • The second, ongoing reason is a crisis of ‘governance’ generally (where there has been no effective government and the structure associated with it – in this situation, Somalia is regularly described as a ‘failed state’). There has been a civil war for over 20 years with international interventions of various kinds (all claiming to build local stability and democracy, a claim many NGOs and observers deem to be false). The areas most affected by famine are controlled by a militant Islamist group – al-Shebaab, which expelled aid agencies in 2009 for being ‘un-Islamic’. Many aid workers also argue that American government rules (that prohibit material support to the Islamists – who often demand ‘taxes’ for allowing aid through) make matters worse.
  • The longer-term, background reason is the is the macro – economic policies and realities forced on Somalia over the past three decades which have undermined local agriculture and food security and made people dependent on food imports (if they can afford them) or food aid (see below).

Some commentators call the crisis ‘a perfect storm’; a humanitarian crisis surrounded by national and international politics, conflict and insecurity.


  1. See additional background materials below.
  2. Defining famine – following international debate and disagreement on defining terms such as hunger and famine, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN and aid agencies agreed in 2008 to a classification that has five stages referring to a country or to a region – ‘food secure’, ‘moderately/borderline food insecure’, ‘acute food and livelihood crisis’, ‘humanitarian emergency’ and ‘famine/catastrophe’. The factors for a famine are ‘acute malnutrition of more than 30% of children, 2 deaths per 10,000 people a day, access to less than 4 litres of water and 2,100 kilocalories a day and complete loss of assets or income’. The definition also includes large-scale displacement of people and civil strife – two characteristics of the current crisis in Somalia where refugees of war and hunger have been flooding across the border into Kenya.
  3. ‘Islamist’ militants – a term used popularly to refer to a particular brand of politics and political reform which argues for the re-structuring of all aspects of society and the re-ordering of politics and society in accordance with a very conservative and literal interpretation of Islam. The term should NOT be confused with Islam or Islamic as it represents only one interpretation of Islamic faith and values.

What can I do and what are the Government and NGOs doing?

Many Irish and international NGOs are responding to the crisis with a variety of practical, humanitarian interventions. Supporting such interventions financially is one key way of fulfilling our obligations to those immediately affected. There are many arguments to be had about aid and its effectiveness and these have been presented elsewhere (see Debating Aid published by 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World in 2010). However, one area in which there is almost unanimous agreement is in acceptance of our obligations to provide humanitarian assistance in situations such as Somalia.

The ‘international community’ can very fairly be criticised by responding too slowly and too timidly to the crisis but this is no excuse for not responding effectively now.

Supporting your local aid agency is one effective way of supporting the Somali people now – asking key questions on why the situation is allowed to recur time and time again in the region is another way of supporting them for the future.

QUESTION: What high value food products from developing countries are available in your supermarket – Kenyan peas/beans; South American asparagus etc.? What might the consequences of this be for local farmers, people etc?

A brief background note on Somalia

The question is often asked as to how Somalia became a ‘failed state’? The answer is complex and involves history, geography, politics and international interference. Somalia’s geography does not help – its location in one of the world’s most strategically sensitive areas where western (and now eastern) dependence on oil, Islamic fundamentalism and the politics of the Middle East collide together. Its history does not help either – Somalia has been a colony of both Italy and Britain with both occupied different parts of the country until 1960 when a Somali Republic was created (with boundaries drawn up by Britain and Italy). In 1969 Mohamed Siyad Barre took power in a military coup, declared himself President and used his power to attack internal rivals, increase the power and wealth of his own clan at the expense of other, rival clans.

Despite this, the early years of the regime were characterised by widespread public investment in areas such as education and literacy rates increased significantly. Emphasis was placed on traditional Muslim values of progress, justice and equality. But the hallmark of the new regime was its policy to establish centralised control in a country made up of regions with strong local identity and leadership. Many commentators have argued that this has been one of the key failings of all outside interventions in the country – the policy of attempting to establish a strong and compliant central government.

With initial support for his regime from the Soviet Union Siyad Barre consolidated his position and by 1977 was strong enough militarily to engage in a war with Ethiopia over the incorporation of lands in the Ogaden region into a greater Somalia but by that time, the Soviets (and the Cubans) had come to support the military regime in Ethiopia and the US now became a Somali ally (with initial Soviet and later US support, Somali had built up the largest army in Africa). Siyad Barre’s regime became ever more oppressive and by 1990-91, its power was increasingly challenged by a variety of resistance movements (supported by Ethiopia) which led to the civil war and the collapse of the regime in 1991.

Somalia had remained self-sufficient in food until the late 1970s despite recurrent droughts but as early as the 1980s, under pressure from the US and the IMF, agriculture shifted from local subsistence crops to export crops and the country became increasingly dependent on food imports and eventually food aid – self-sufficiency (and the development of local markets which could have built up the reserves of cash and food that would prevent famine?) became a thing of the past, again with huge consequences for the Somali people.

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, food aid increased fifteen-fold, at the rate of over 30% per annum and, combined with increased commercial imports, this influx of cheap surplus wheat and rice sold on the domestic market undermined local producers and led to a change in consumption patterns at the expense of traditional crops such as maize and sorghum. In 1981, the Somali shilling was devalued at the insistence of the IMF and, along with subsequent devaluations, led to significant increases in the price of fuel, fertiliser and agricultural inputs. The impact on local producers was immediate – urban purchasing power declined dramatically, government agriculture programmes were reduced (investment in agriculture declined by as much as 85% while vital veterinary services were privatised) and the deregulation of the grain market and the influx of food aid led to the impoverishment of farming communities. Increasing amounts of subsidised US grain were dumped on the Somali market.

According to Professor Michel Chossudovsky of the University of Ottawa:

‘Rather than promoting food production for the domestic market, the donors were encouraging the development of so-called ‘high value-added’ fruits, vegetables, oilseeds and cotton for export on the best irrigated farmland’ – Q for students: What high value food products from developing countries are available in your supermarket – Kenya peas/beans; American asparagus; etc. – consequences?

Additionally, during this same period much of the best agricultural land was appropriated by bureaucrats, army officers and merchants with connections to the government of Siyad Barre. It is a bitter irony, that one of the world’s poorest countries should possess significant oil wealth and, according to the New York Times, nearly two-thirds of Somalia was allocated in 1991 to the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips Siyad Barre was overthrown. The US has always argued that its interests are purely humanitarian and the oil industry has dismissed as ‘absurd and nonsense’ allegations by aid experts, analysts and prominent Somalis that oil interests significantly shape US policy in the region. Yet, US oil companies remain in place, ready to exploit the resource when security permits this.

By 1989, expenditure on health had declined by 78% as against its 1975 level; from 1981 to 1989, school enrolment declined by 41%, textbooks and nearly a quarter of the primary schools closed down.

According to Chossudovsky Somalia’s experience shows how a country can be devastated by the simultaneous application of food aid and macro-economic policy. He argues that the experience of Somalia shows that famine in the late 20th century is not a consequence of a shortage of food.

‘On the contrary, famines are spurred on as a result of a global oversupply of grain staples. Since the 1980s, grain markets have been deregulated under the supervision of the World Bank and US grain surpluses are used systematically as in the case of Somalia to destroy the peasantry and destabilise national food agriculture. The latter becomes, under these circumstances, far more vulnerable to the vagaries of drought’


Hunger Quotes

‘It’s been called the invisible killer, the silent emergency. It is not famine and it does not make the headlines. It is the grinding poverty which, day in day out, deprives millions of people across the globe of the essentials of a decent life. In particular, they are deprived of an adequate diet. This ‘normal hunger’ will kill their children in the first year, destroy their health in adulthood, and take them to an early grave…They die very quietly. They are the brothers and sisters of Alberto, who died aged six months from malnutrition and infection, because his father, a cocoa worker in Brazil, does not earn enough to buy sufficient food, let alone medicine. They are the cousins of Hassan, who died aged three months from malnutrition and TB in a hospital ward in Sudan, long after the famine had ended.’

Chris Bryer: The Hunger

‘The loss of human life [due to hunger] is as great as if an atomic bomb – similar to the one that destroyed Hiroshima during the Second World War – were dropped on a densely populated area every three days’.

Womenaid Press release on

‘Starvation is death by deprivation; the absence of of one of the essential elements of life. It’s not the result of an accident or a spasm of violence, the ravages of diseases or the inevitable decay of old age. It occurs because people are forced to live in the hollow of plenty. For decades, the world has grown enough food to nourish everyone adequately. Satellites can spot budding crop failures; shortages can be avoided. In the modern world, like never before, famine is by and large preventable. When it occurs, it represents civilization’s collective failure.’

‘…[it is] a man-made catastrophe, caused by one anonymous decision at a time, one day at a time, by people, institutions, and governments doing what they thought was best for themselves or sometimes even what they thought at the time was best for Africa’.

R. Thurow and S. Kilman (2009) Enough: Why the Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty

‘Rather than promoting food production for the domestic market, the donors were encouraging the development of so-called ‘high value-added’ fruits, vegetables, oilseeds and cotton for export on the best irrigated farmland’ – Q for students: What high value food products from developing countries are available in your supermarket – Kenya peas/beans; American asparagus; etc. – consequences?’

‘On the contrary, famines are spurred on as a result of a global oversupply of grain staples. Since the 1980s, grain markets have been deregulated under the supervision of the World Bank and US grain surpluses are used systematically as in the case of Somalia to destroy the peasantry and destabilise national food agriculture. The latter becomes, under these circumstances, far more vulnerable to the vagaries of drought’

Professor Michel Chossudovsky of the University of Ottawa


NGOs and Hunger – Catalysts for Change?

Tom Arnold, Chief Executive of Concern discusses the role of different partners in addressing issues such as hunger and explores the challenges (and potential benefits) of such partnership approaches.

In September 2000, world leaders made a commitment to halve world poverty and human misery in its various forms by 2015. They adopted a set of targets, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as yardsticks to measure success or failure. The MDGs represent an agenda, broadly accepted by governments and civil society in both developing and developed counties. They spell out the separate responsibilities for the different agents involved in development. Standards of governance within developing countries must improve. Developed countries and their donor agencies must double aid flows if the targets are to be met. Fairer trading arrangements must be agreed to help developing countries integrate into the world economy.

This set of ‘reciprocal responsibilities’ represents a Millennium Compact. At the heart of this compact is the notion of partnership. But if the goals are to be met, that partnership cannot rest at the political level. Delivery of the political commitments – which will itself be a major challenge – only provides the framework within which hundreds of millions of people will contribute their efforts to achieving the goals. The role of civil society within developing and developed countries is crucial if the goals are to be achieved.

Over the past decade there has been a welcome growth in civil society movements within the “South”. They are demanding higher standards of political accountability. They are building social and human capital within their local communities and, in turn, supplementing the frequently inadequate services provided by their governments.

The changing environment within developing countries has also brought major changes to the work of northern NGOs. They are less involved in the direct provision of services. Their focus has shifted to building local capacity, at governmental or local community level. There has been a greater emphasis on advocacy, where NGOs use their knowledge of working with the poorest to argue for national or international policy change to deal with the structural aspects of poverty.

If southern civil society is to further strengthen over the coming years, will northern NGOs become redundant to the development agenda? I don’t believe so – in any foreseeable future. But equally, they must clearly demonstrate that they are making a real contribution to that agenda. This must be based on their capacity to promote sustainable development, to bring innovation and stimulate social entrepreneurship, to link skills and institutions which would otherwise not happen.

The acid test is whether they can unlock the potential within individuals and communities for long-term development. And can the lessons learnt, the success stories, be generalized and scaled up after an NGO has departed with its people and its financial resources? Our history and experience within Concern Worldwide offers interesting examples of what is possible and how the role of the international NGO has changed.

Concern was founded in 1968 as a response of the Irish public to the famine in Biafra in Nigeria. From its early beginnings, the organization developed a capacity to respond effectively to emergencies. It retains this today. Concern’s early development work provided health and education services in countries such as Bangladesh where they did not exist. Much of that work was done by young Irish volunteers. The development of local Bangladeshi institutions and the increasing number of well-trained personnel over the succeeding decades has totally changed the role of Concern and other international NGOs working in the country.

The management and staff of the organization are local people, except for a small number of expatriates with specialized skills. The role of service provider has changed to the role of adviser, either to the government or to the many competent local organizations that now exist.

A good example of the changed role in Bangladesh – and the value that can still be brought by an international NGO – is Concern’s Child Survival Programme, which is funded by USAID. Over the past five years, this programme has demonstrated that an effective and sustainable model for municipal health can be established through partnership with local government and civil society. The indicators of success have been improved health status, strengthened municipal health capacity and empowered neighbourhoods.

Immunization rates among children aged 12 to 23 months have increased from 25% in 1999 to 80% in 2003. All 24 neighbourhoods within the project area have health committees with annual action plans to promote community health.

There are other examples of health projects that produce impressive results. The significance of this one is the catalytic and linkage role played by Concern. It brought its experience of working in Bangladesh for more than 30 years, its links with the nutrition departments in the local university, its experience of working in almost 30 countries and its relationship with donors to secure funding for the project.

A second example comes from the response to the chronic food crisis facing sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past three years, Concern has sponsored an applied research project aimed at finding a better technique for healing children who suffer from severe malnutrition. What makes our research different is that it was carried out at village level during a food crisis in Malawi and Ethiopia. It involved not just the nutritional aspects of the situation.

Parallel anthropological research conducted in association with a local university in Malawi provided key insights into the work practices and the household economy of the community we were dealing with. We believe that this research has found a way of dramatically shortening the time that a child needs to spend being fed in the scarce local medical centres, by using a special food which can be readily fed by mothers within their own community. The project has been organized around the needs of the mother, her family and the community.

It uses local infrastructure and personnel which ensures sustainability. The research results have been presented at an international workshop and will soon be published. Could government or commercial organizations have conducted this research so effectively? We do not think so. We recognized the practical importance of focusing research on the problem experienced by mothers of severely malnourished children. The other players in the project were a private health consultancy company, which needed access to our programmes to carry out field tests, and a food company that produced the special food.

Together, we approached the health authorities in Malawi, south Sudan and Ethiopia. They gave their full cooperation to the addition of a research dimension to the practical, and continuing, work of providing emergency food aid to their populations. We hope that governments and other agencies will be persuaded of the relevance of this work and incorporate its findings into new standards and protocols for dealing with malnutrition. There are many other examples that demonstrate how imaginative contributions by NGOs are yielding a development dividend. But just as the world of business must continually adapt to changing circumstances, the challenges for NGOs are no less daunting if they are to continue to make a difference in the future. New models of partnership need to be developed. The natural partners for many northern NGOs are their southern counterparts. To develop such partnerships demands sensitivity, patience and a touch of humility

Partnership with governments, at central or community level, requires a different set of skills. In many African countries, HIV/Aids is taking a terrible toll on the number of people working in the public sector. Very little research has been done on its effects on the sustainability of public services. What this means for national and international NGOs has also received inadequate attention.

Another partnership model, which will almost certainly become more significant, is in networking, as in the two examples of Concern’s work already mentioned. There are possibilities involving government, businesses and NGOs which are only beginning to be explored.

If these possibilities are to be realized, there will have to be some attitudinal changes by the different parties. Certain NGOs will have to lose their natural suspicion of business and its motives – and will have to demonstrate their own professionalism and capacity to deliver. Business will have to prove that its commitment to corporate social responsibility is real – and that partnership with NGOs can provide benefits for the poor as well as for the company. And businesses, NGOs and governments each will have to become that elusive entity – the learning organization. Systems for capturing lessons learned need to be built into organizational capacity.

When it comes to development we have to understand that listening to the poor, their aspirations and their priorities is a critical part of learning. When we can show – through our programmes – that we have heard them, and have engaged their capacities to solve their own problems, that will be the best form of partnership. And it will also be the best guarantee that our efforts will produce long-term development.

Further Information

For more information, analysis and case study materials, see:

Media briefing paper on the impact of the current financial crisis on the poor (including in hunger),

For some NGO case studies on hunger, see the following:

For details on the report of the Irish Government’s Special Envoy on World Hunger see:

For a critical discussion of the Irish Government’s response to world hunger, see the article by Nita Mishra in the 2010 edition of Trocaire’s Development Review at: