Recent news reports have suggested that Ethiopia may be on the verge of another famine. When does large-scale hunger become a famine, and who decides?
Any group or government can declare that a region is suffering from famine, but a pronouncement by the United Nations carries the most weight among governments, aid agencies, and others considering how much help to give to a country. A U.N. declaration might also increase news coverage of the problem.
While there is no universal definition, most experts on food scarcity agree that a famine occurs when more than half of the people in an area are dying or become dangerously ill, directly or indirectly, from starvation. The United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP)–the largest distributor of food aid in the world–generally classifies a region as suffering famine when mortality rates double because of lack of food and when more than 20 percent of the children in the area suffer from acute malnutrition (that is, when their organs have already begun to shut down).
That said, famine is hard to pin down, in part because it is difficult to maintain up-to-date mortality and population statistics for areas that are likely to suffer from one. The WFP believes there is currently a threat of famine in Ethiopia, particularly in the southeastern region known as Somali (which is different from the nation of Somalia). In January the WFP announced it needed to raise $142 million to feed the 2.3 million Ethiopians most vulnerable to starvation over the next nine months, but to date has raised less than half of its goal and fears it will run out of food in about two months. If nothing changes, the group is likely to declare widespread famine in Ethiopia at the end of June.
Explainer thanks Fritz Gilbert, director of the United States Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning System, and Gary Eilert, FEWS regional director for the Horn of Africa.