The phenomenon of famine has been widely described and analyzed in socio-political literature. The topic has been considered a controversial one in terms of its definition and its definitive features. In a recent revision of the concept of famine, “Poverty and Famines,”
Amartya Sen retains part of classical vision on famine offered by Malthus, distinguishing “regular starvation,” which is a “normal feature in many parts of the world,” from “violent outbursts of famine,” a “particularly virulent form of [starvation] causing widespread
death” (Sen, 38-39).
USAID defines famine as “a catastrophic food crisis that results in widespread acute malnutrition and mass mortality” (USAID, 2002). Proper definition of famine matters not only in terms of labeling an event after the fact, but also in terms of how humanitarian organizations and governments respond to crises as they are happening. Maxwell points out that this is in large part because of the emotional weight the term “famine” has come to carry (Maxwell, 49).
Humanitarian workers spent a considerable amount of time arguing about whether or not to call the 2002-2003 crisis in Ethiopia, ostensibly affecting over 13 million people, a famine. Calling it a famine would have stepped up the international response, but it might also be perceived as “crying wolf,” which would have a detrimental effect on organizations’ abilities to obtain resources for emergency responses in the long run. Aid agencies want to avoid using the term “famine” too often because they worry about “compassion fatigue” or “donor fatigue” – essentially that donors will be less likely to support emergency efforts if there are too many emergencies.
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There are also political implications for using the term “famine,” as can be seen in the case of the 2005 crisis in Niger, which President Mamadou Tandja insisted was a fabrication of relief agencies to obtain more funding (Sengupta, 2005).
Aid agencies likewise were reluctant to apply the term famine, and referred instead to “pockets of severe malnutrition,” in part because they didn’t want to alienate Tandja (Sengupta, 2005).
The general discussion in literature indicates that number of deaths, scale, intensity and time frame were main considerations for when to call something a famine. There also is a consensus that lack of access to food had to be the main problem, to distinguish a famine from other types of humanitarian crises.
For instance, the 1984/85 famine in Ethiopia was unanimously considered a famine. Iraq in the 1990s was not, mainly because “the time-frame was too long for a famine and many deaths were the result of a health crisis, not calorie-related” (IDS, 3).
Ethiopia in 1999/2000 was probably a famine, but Malawi in 2002 “represented a famine-threat, rather than a true famine” because “too few people died” (IDS, 3).
In the latter case, the mortality was estimated between 500 and 3,000, and estimates were complicated by the prevalence of HIV/AIDS; thus, it was difficult to attribute deaths specifically to hunger and hunger-related diseases.
Institute of Development Studies. Report on Operational Definition of Famine Workshop.
Sussex, UK: Institute of Development Studies, March 14, 2003
Maxwell, D. “Why do famines persist? A brief review of Ethiopia 1999-2000.” IDS Bulletin,
33 (4), 48-54, 2002
Sen, A. Poverty and famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon
Sengupta, K. “President Tandja: ‘The people of Niger look well fed, as you can see.” The
Independent, August 10, 2005
United States Agency for International Development. USAID background paper: Famine.
Washington, DC: USAID, 2002. Retrieved July 8, 2009, from
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