Columnist Richard Fein: Famine — What it is and what you can do about it

Richard Fein

Richard Fein


Published: 05-27-2024 9:44 AM

This column is about famine and its consequences for human beings. The last paragraph will indicate what you and I can do to alleviate the suffering.

Humanitarian organizations use a multi-level scale for determining degrees of food insecurity. For the sake of avoiding granular detail I will use this description from Jean Mayer, a scientist best known for his research on the physiological bases of hunger: “A true famine is unlike anything else. It can be defined as a severe shortage of food accompanied by a significant increase in the local or regional death rate. In a chronic starvation area people may suffer and be crippled mentally and physically; in a true famine they die in large numbers.”

Famines may be caused by drought, crop diseases or pests, floods , earthquakes, or the impact of war, sometimes in destructive combinations.

This tragedy of hunger and famine is widespread. Last month the UN reported that, “Dangerous levels of acute hunger affected a staggering 281.6 million people last year — the fifth year in a row that food insecurity has worsened — heightening growing fears of famine and ‘widespread death’ from Gaza to Sudan and beyond ...” The International Rescue Committee reports that over 14 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya — about half of them children — are on the verge of starvation. The World Food Program estimates that nine million people a year die from hunger.

Death and destroyed futures. Malnutrition rates in Somalia have doubled since the start of the year. In Kenya, they have increased by 75 percent. The majority of those at risk of death are children, whether they are dying from starvation or from preventable diseases that their weakened bodies cannot fight off.

The children who do survive will live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. Their growth will be stunted and they will be at greater risk of dying from future illnesses. They also tend to have a higher risk of having underweight or premature children, passing on these consequences to future generations.

What do people do to when experiencing a famine?

Food may be available locally albeit at a very high price. People may have some money to purchase it. When that runs out, people sell their possessions. Adults will eat infrequently to save food for their children. Sometimes it is possible to scrounge for edibles that grow in nature or try to eat things not generally consumed by humans like animal feed. Families may try to migrate to a place were food is available. Getting to that place is not guaranteed because death from exhaustion, armed thieves or military conflict are not uncommon.

Humanitarian organizations face several challenges: Getting supplies into the stricken area, distributing it, and paying for it. Sometimes food can be imported from overseas, which involves shipping, unloading and then transporting to the afflicted area. When food needs to be purchased from a distant place, there are added complications. It will be more expensive, take longer to arrive and may not be food the hungry people are used to eating. Those people may not trust that the strange food is safe to eat and doesn’t violate various cultural or religious restrictions.

Sometimes there may be food surpluses for purchase in places that are not impossibly far away. Even so humanitarian groups have hurdles to overcome. Hiring trucks and drivers, if there are any, may take time. Armed gangs may extort payments to guarantee the safety of supplies being transported. Under the circumstances, this may be an offer the humanitarian agency cannot refuse. Roads connecting supplies to the hunger area may be in bad shape or non-existent. Determining which family should get how much food may present a problem in itself.

The migration of people in search of food poses its own challenges. For example, famine refugees from Sudan are migrating to Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most people in those countries are poor themselves. They may also self-identify as members of a different ethnic group. Once humanitarian organizations do manage to arrive with food, tents and medical care, the refugees, desperate as they are, may be better off than the local population. To lessen inter-group hostility, aid groups may need to give one-third of their relief food etc. to local people.

Each of us can do something to help ameliorate the suffering. Humanitarian organizations need money and will make good use of what you donate. I have selected World Food Program and Save the Children for my donations. A simple Charity Navigator search will identify many more humanitarian organizations.

Richard Fein holds a master’s degree in political science and an MBA in economics. He can be reached at