Financial Times

Q&A: Why the world faces its worst humanitarian crisis since 1945

by David Pilling and Africa Editor, Financial Times

March 15, 2017 | 10:34 am
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The UN has warned that the world is facing its largest humanitarian crisis since the organisation was founded in 1945. It says that 20m people face “devastating levels of food insecurity” in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and north-east Nigeria.

“Without collective and co-ordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death,” Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s humanitarian chief, told the Security Council on Friday. “Many more will suffer and die from disease.”

Aid agencies have been warning for months and, in the case of Somalia, for years of an impending catastrophe. But the situation has deteriorated rapidly in the past 12 months. Last month, the UN and the South Sudanese government declared a famine in parts of the country. The UN says it needs $5.4bn to tackle the crisis but has only a tiny fraction of that amount ready to be deployed.

Here is a look at the causes of food shortages and what is being done.

Are these crises man-made?

The short answer is yes, although to varying degrees. Somalia is the exception.

Ever since South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, became independent in 2011, it has been plagued by internecine fighting. The government of President Salva Kiir and his main rival and former deputy, Riek Machar, failed to resolve deep-rooted ethnic differences and power struggles as the country spiralled into civil war. Aid agencies say that, in some of the worst-affected regions, multiple armed militias are fighting for territory. Civilians have fled their land, exacerbating an acute food crisis. Some 100,000 face famine and the UN has warned that 5.5m people, or 40 per cent of the population, are at risk.

North-east Nigeria has been a centre of Boko Haram militancy. In the past 12 months the government has made military inroads, but hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes or trapped in Boko Haram areas. The UN’s World Food Programme says individual families face starvation, but the situation is not yet widespread enough for a famine to be officially declared.

The two-year conflict in Yemen has pushed the poorest Arab state into a humanitarian crisis and driven millions of people to the brink of starvation. The war has been exacerbated by a struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, rival regional powers. Riyadh launched a Sunni-led military coalition two years ago to fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who had ousted the government. More than 10,000 civilians have died. Some 7m people face severe food shortages. The Saudis are blocking ports, ostensibly to stop the flow of weapons but also affecting food imports.

And Somalia?

Somalia is different because the main reason for hunger is a drought, described by pastoralists as the worst in living memory. Temperatures have been rising in the Horn of Africa and weather patterns have become more unpredictable, a phenomenon some blame on global warming. The lack of effective government and an insurgency by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked jihadi group, have not helped but are not the main cause of rising hunger. Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children, recently visited Puntland, in north-east Somalia, where he described the situation as “on the precipice”. The carcases of dead livestock littered the landscape. In 2011, it is estimated that up to 260,000 people died because of famine, according to a report by the UN and Fews Net, a famine early warning group, in which the international community was blamed for acting too late. Mr Watkins said 2017 need not be a repeat of that. But it could be.

What is the definition of a famine?

UN agencies and aid groups adhere to a strict definition of famine laid out in an internationally recognised scale that goes from one, normal, to five, famine. Famine is declared when at least 20 per cent of households face the complete lack of food, levels of acute malnutrition exceed 30 per cent and more than two people per 10,000 die each day.

Is there donor fatigue?

The refugee crisis triggered by the war in Syria has sucked up a lot of international attention and funding. In western countries, the appetite for foreign aid is lower among parts of the population. But Challiss McDonough, regional spokeswoman for the World Food Programme, said “fatigue is not the right word”. Speaking from Juba, capital of South Sudan, she added: “It is more like an overwhelming of the humanitarian system: 20m people are facing potential famine. A year ago I would have said that was unimaginable.”

Are countries condemned to repeat these catastrophes year after year?

No. Ethiopia is often associated with starvation because of the 1983-85 famine in which at least 400,000 people died, with some estimates suggesting as many as 1m. Since then, however, a new government – authoritarian and repressive but with a strong developmental agenda – has taken big steps to prevent a recurrence. Last year, Ethiopia suffered the worst drought in at least three decades. People certainly went hungry, but Addis Ababa was able to mount a concerted response that was made easier by much-improved infrastructure, years of fast economic growth and prudent planning.

A study by the World Peace Foundation shows that 115m people died of starvation between 1870 and 1980 – 90 per cent the result of wars, conquest and repression. Since then the numbers have declined. But if states collapse and if governments or militants put their own objectives above people’s food security, famine can still strike.

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Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr


by David Pilling and Africa Editor, Financial Times

March 15, 2017 | 10:34 am
12893  |   93   |   0  |   Start Conversation

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