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Famine or not we can’t ignore that hundreds of thousands are in crisis

There has been much debate in recent weeks about the “f” word, and whether the extraordinary suffering of people in conflict and drought affected countries in the Horn of Africa, including Somalia, meet the definition of a famine. Our humanitarian advisor, Colm Byrne, argues that famine or not hundreds of thousands of people are suffering. And we must act.

Aker Deng from South Sudan with her children Chudi (6) and Monday (4) Photo: Achuoth Deng/Trócaire Aker Deng from South Sudan with her children Chudi (6) and Monday (4) Photo: Achuoth Deng/Trócaire

The concept of famine looms large in the Irish psyche through our experience of the potato blight of the late 1840s. The impact of An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger) or blianta an droch-shaoil (years of the bad life) permeates our social and cultural identity. It forced a migration of at least one million people, and is preserved in the written word, song, music, film, and landscape of this island and the Irish diaspora. It is etched in our DNA, passed from one generation to the next as a great social injustice never to be forgotten.

To many across the world today extreme hunger carries no such similar historic cultural meaning. Instead, it is proximate and real, causing huge suffering, taking lives and forcing millions to make unimaginable life choices to secure survival. It is marked by the absence of help for those beyond the reach of humanitarian aid, or the glare of media cameras which prick our consciences and hold us accountable to the principle of humanity and pledges of “never again”.

The red line today beyond which it is now considered no longer conscionable for the international community to stand idly by when people don’t have access to enough food is a formal declaration of famine. Such declarations are rare, with just two in the last decade, in Somalia (2011) and South Sudan (2017).

Declarations of famine occur when at least 20% of households face an extreme lack of food, at least 30% of children suffer from acute malnutrition, and two people in every 10,000 die each day due to outright starvation or a combination of malnutrition and disease. In effect, it is not a measure of the scope or duration of human suffering, but rather a concentration of a limited number of tangible indicators in a given population.

In this context, famine is not a declaration of a crisis, but a single word description for the outcome of our collective failure to pay attention to a series of at first small, and then increasingly large, red flags that indicate growing strain on the means of producing, trading, accessing minimum food requirements.

That our consciences are only pricked at the formal declaration of famine is like saying we’ll only respond to a fire when it is big enough, and by which time it is almost always already too late.

Hunger in Somalia is forcing hundreds of thousands of people, including mothers like Buhoy, from their homes. Photo: Trócaire Hunger in Somalia is forcing hundreds of thousands of people, including mothers like Buhoy, from their homes. Photo: Trócaire

All people, at all times, should be food secure, and have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Famine represents a lack of food security where people are dying, or are more likely to die. A famine declaration however also belies many more unconscionable truths, the decisions with life-long consequences forced upon individuals and households in their quest to preserve their resources, no matter how meagre, to ensure immediate and long-term survival.

A famine declaration does not tell us the number of people who are left with no choice but to leave their homes in search of aid or employment. It does not tell us of the families torn apart and the heart-breaking decisions of who leaves and who stays behind.

It doesn’t note tell us of the number of girls forced to leave school to work, to care for sick family members, and who in the middle of prolonged drought and armed conflict are left exposed to sexual violence during ever longer journeys to fetch water.

It does not tell us of the women and girls who reduce their own food consumption to feed men and younger children, or of those forced to engage in transactional sex to pay for food.

A famine declaration does not tell us of the number of child brides effectively sold to reduce the burden on their families, and to secure dowries to pay for the needs of remaining family members. Nor of the child brides whose bodies are not yet mature enough to survive childbirth in the absence of access to birth attendants or medical services.

A famine declaration does not tell us that lack of food security is not only about food, but also a failure, our failure, to protect the lives, rights, dignity, and aspirations of all members of society equally.

It may be that above all else, what it does tell us, is as much about ourselves as an international community, as it is about those who do, and those who do not, survive it. However uncomfortable that thought might be.

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