Themicroloanfoundation's Blog

What is Famine?
May 17, 2010, 4:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

IRIN has a great story on the debate within the aid community about defining famine. In the face of a potential famine in Niger, donor agencies are scrambling to avoid a repeat of Niger’s last “food crisis” in 2005 where untold thousands died, yet some how did not qualify as a “famine”.

A dire lack of food in Niger in 2005 prompted another debate: using their scale, Devereux and Howe pronounced the situation a “famine”, while pointing out that the international community used “less emotive terms, like ‘food crisis’.” This could possibly have been under pressure from the government at the time which did not acknowledge the crisis.

However, choosing to call a crisis a famine is not simply an issue of semantics, as the authors point out. It engenders a particular response from the donor community. Yet the international community has yet to agree on what qualifies as famine.

Part of the problem, probably lies in the fact that famine is viewed as an event, rather than a process. Famine’s aren’t exactly an overnight phenomenon. Malawi’s 2001 famine was caused by twenty years of structural adjustment, which gutted the country’s ability to invest in agriculture. This led further to price fluctuations for staple crops, directly affecting the poor. Add in a hard-hitting drought and you have the recipe for what was considered at the time to be a famine. Yet, the response of the international community seemed to single out the starvation deaths as an isolated phenomenon. When the government acted in 2008 to re-establish a distribution monopoly and subsidize cheap fertilizer for smallholder farmers, the international finance institutions considered Malawi a loose cannon. Somehow, the accepted development orthodoxy refused to see the linkages between agricultural insecurity and famine.

In order to prevent famine, income buffers for rural communities are key. Hence our focus on providing credit to those most vulnerable to food insecurity. Currently we’re piloting an agricultural loan programme as well. Contrary to popular belief, small holder and subsistence farmers are actually net CONSUMERS of food, not producers. By increasing household incomes, we can improve food security and provide a buffer against the food price shocks that played such a devastating role in Malawi’s famine.


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