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Famines :

political implications and operational responses

Date de publication
Rony Brauman

Medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine and epidemiology. Involved in humanitarian action since 1977, he has been on numerous missions, mainly in contexts of armed conflicts and IDP situations. President of Médecins sans Frontières from 1982 to1994, he also teaches at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and is a regular contributor to Alternatives Economiques. He has published several books and articles, including "Guerre humanitaires ? Mensonges et Intox" (Textuel, 2018), "La Médecine Humanitaire" (PUF, 2010), "Penser dans l'urgence" (Editions du Seuil, 2006) and "Utopies Sanitaires" (Editions Le Pommier, 2000).

Deux femmes transportent des branches d'arbre, camp de Dagahaley, Kenya, 2009. Crédit: Dominic Nahr
Crédit: Dominic Nahr

The United Nations and NGOs that constitute the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) define famine as the collective presence of three criteria: a food shortage affecting 20% of households, a severe acute malnutrition rate of over 30% in children and an adult mortality rate above the alert threshold of 2/10,000/day. Given the serious implications of declaring a state of famine both from a political and an emergency aid perspective, there was an undeniable need to establish a common definition based on quantifiable data. 

However, care is needed when using such data to assess the severity of a crisis if that data is to have any meaning. Mortality rates, for example, rely on the availability of basic demographic data which is lacking in many poor countries. The extrapolation of data collected at specific times and in specific places is also far from reliable. So is predicting the spread of a famine by looking at person-to-person contamination from affected households as one would for an infectious disease, as was the case in the Horn of Africa in 2013 and 2017. The situations cited in the definition, a “household affected by a food shortage” for example, are also open to interpretation. All three of the criteria applied to define a famine are fractions (number of people affected/population) in which both the denominator and the numerator are marred with uncertainty. This is why famine alerts, United Nations alerts in particular, provoke doubt and criticism when they are not supported by images that testify to the reality on the ground.

The articles and essays in this publication do not discuss the medico-nutritional approaches to famine; these are covered in the MSF guides produced by experts from the organisation. They look rather at the specific context in which famines arise and the responses mobilised to address them. MSF has been involved in a number of famine responses (Uganda 1980, Ethiopia 1984-1985, Somalia 1991-1993) and has contributed to many chronic and acute malnutrition operations (Niger, Sudan and Ethiopia in particular in the 2000s).

As theses famines were systematically related to armed conflict, the political implications are particularly significant and consequently, feature as a common theme in most of the analyses. Food crises arising in other contexts do not, however, go unaddressed. Contributions include a number of historical and sociological analyses of the evolution of such crises, the production of data and different forms of operational response. The articles are mostly, although not entirely, written by members of MSF. Several, however, are the work of researchers in the field of social sciences that offer a wider analysis of the issues involved:

Bonnecase, Vincent.
« Retour sur la famine au Sahel du début des années 1970 : la construction d'un savoir de crise », Politique africaine, vol. 119, no. 3, 2010, pp. 23-42.

Olivier de Sardan, Jean-Pierre.
« Crise alimentaire et malnutrition infantile au Niger : le bilan de la « famine » de 2005 », Critique internationale, vol. 37, no. 4, 2007, pp. 37-49.

Some articles of this dossier are only available in French.

Les articles du dossier
Une femme marche sur une route près de la ville de Humera, en Ethiopie.

A qui s'adresse l'aide alimentaire d'urgence ? La réponse internationale à la "famine" éthiopienne de l'an 2000

Le pouvoir éthiopien aurait-il consciemment entravé la marche du système national de réponse aux crises pour produire une « urgence humanitaire » dans une zone périphérique et récupérer sous forme d’aide alimentaire le manque à gagner lié à la guerre et à la suspension des aides au développement ? Les bailleurs de fonds auraient-ils cautionné cette manipulation ? A vrai dire, le problème semble un peu plus complexe. La réalité se situe entre l’histoire sainte et la thèse de la machination scabreuse. C’est cette réalité compliquée que nous voudrions approcher, ce qui nous impose un détour préalable par l’économie alimentaire du pays et sa gestion politique.