Assessing a famine: the food crisis in the Horn of Africa

An indepth look at the food crisis in the Horn of Africa and the way the UN determines whether a food crisis is a famine.

What is a famine?

The United Nations has officially declared the food crisis in southern Somalia a famine, a term that has a specific definition and criteria under the classification system the UN and many aid groups use to assess the food security situation in a given country and determine an appropriate response. 

The system is called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC, and it was originally developed by the UN Food and Agricultural Association's Food Security and Nutritional Analysis Unit  for Somalia to provide a more evidence-based method of analysing food insecurity and malnutrition and planning relief efforts. It was later expanded to other countries, with input from various UN agencies and aid organizations, including the World Food Programme, CARE and Oxfam

The system uses a five-point scale to describe the food situation in a given region, ranging from Phase 1 (generally food secure) to Phase 5 (Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe), and prescribe a general course of action. (See graphic below.)

Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale. For a more detailed chart of classification criteria and recommended responses, see: ((Courtesy of IPC,

The scale is based on a variety of factors and data, including climatic conditions, food prices, agricultural production and rates of malnutrition. For example, a Phase 5 famine classification requires that rates of malnutrition are greater than 30 per cent; mortality rates are greater than two deaths per day per 10,000 people; and access to food and water is limited to less than 2,100 kilocalories and four litres a day, respectively.

The last major famine in Africa was in 1984-85 in Ethiopia and Sudan. It resulted in the deaths of 1 million people.

What caused the current situation in the Horn of Africa?

According to UN agencies, the current food crisis is the result of drought, high food and fuel prices and conflict. While past droughts may have lasted longer, the current one "has been particularly severe," the WFP said. 

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said the Horn of Africa has had two consecutive poor rainy seasons, resulting in one of the driest years since 1950-51 in many pastoral zones. This has resulted in failed crop production, depletion of grazing resources and livestock deaths, the FAO said.

"The impacts of the drought have been exacerbated by high local cereal prices, excess livestock mortality, conflict and restricted humanitarian access in some areas," the agency said.

Which countries are affected?

Djibouti (120,00 people considered food insecure), Ethiopia (4.56 million food insecure), Kenya (2.4 million food insecure), Somalia (2.85 million food insecure) and eastern Uganda (numbers unavaiable).

The situation is most dire in southern Somalia, which has largely been cut off from development aid because it is controlled by al-Shabaab, an Islamist group branded as terrorist organization by Western nations. Until recently, al-Shabaab had prohibited the UN and other large aid agencies from entering the region because it accuses them of having a political agenda. The isolation of the population has exacerbated the problems caused by the draught and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee the area into neighbouring countries, mainly Kenya and Ethiopia.

How many people are affected?

A map of the countries in the Horrn of Africa region affected by drought and food shortages. ((CBC))

According to the FAO,  about 11 million people in the region  need food assistance, an increase of 40 per cent from the beginning of the year. The majority of that increase has been in Kenya. In Kenya and Ethiopia, many of the people who need assistance are Somali refugees who have fled the rebel-controlled south of the country, which is largely inaccessible to aid agencies.

What has been done so far?

Food shortages are not new in the Horn of Africa. The region has long been plagued by droughts, malnutrition, political instability and military conflict that have conspired to create what the UN called "cyclical crises."

According to the FAO's regional emergency co-ordinator for Eastern and Central Africa, Rod Charters: "The current crisis is not an unusual or chance event, but rather a chronic feature of the region."

Last year, the WFP, FAO and Oxfam created a Horn of Africa Plan of Action  to address the food needs in the region and appealed for emergency aid. The WFP had been scaling up its emergency food aid efforts in the region since 2009 but says it is $190 million US short of what it needs.

Fews Net, the famine early warning system created by USAID in the wake of the 1984-85 famine "to prompt decision-maker action to prevent or mitigate potential or actual food insecurity," predicted food troubles   in the region as early as March 2009. In June 2011, the organization issued a news release  in which it called the situation in the Horn of Africa "the most severe food security emergency in the world today" and said "the current humanitarian response is inadequate to prevent further deterioration."

What should be done?

The WFP says it needs $477 million US to address the food needs of the region through to the end of the year and that it is about $190 million US short of that goal. Overall, UN agencies have appealed for $1.6 billion US for urgent programs in the Horn of Africa but have received only half that amount so far.

The FAO laid out several recommendations for how to solve the on-going food crisis in the Horn of africa and called on both the international communtiy and regional bodies such as the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to be involved in any such efforts.

  • Emergency and Sustainable Food Assistance — Full funding of emergency requirements to stop the current hunger and malnutrition from accelerating and support of safety net programs, such as school feeding and local purchase and P4P initiatives.
  • Small farmer support — Immediate support to national food security plans to ensure that countries support the poorest farmers with essential assistance such as tools, seeds, fertilizers, food-based nutrition and the knowledge needed to boost agricultural production and sustain rural livelihoods.
  • Proactive policy and risk reduction and investment — Supporting policies and investments that address core challenges such as climate change adaptation, preparedness and disaster risk reduction and management, rural livelihoods, productive infrastructure, production and marketing, institutions and governance, conflict resolution, pastoralist issues and access to essential health and education.

Source: Food and Agricultural Organization