Stephen Devereux
Lewis Sida
Tina Nelis
Publication Date
August 1, 2017

"Aid agencies should collaborate more closely with media initiatives and networks that seek to promote better communication and engagement with affected communities to ensure that well-informed messages reach the public. At the same time, they need to maintain their own identity and integrity."

This Humanitarian Learning Centre (HLC) report draws on lessons learned from the last 30-plus years of famine crises and response, calling for action by political, humanitarian, and media actors to play their part in learning the lessons of the past and put in place measures to prevent and respond to famine.

Prior to famine, there are lessons to be learned about its causes - namely, vulnerability to the impacts of drought on livelihoods and food systems, as well as a combination of entitlement failure, market failure, and often conflict. Reasons for failure can include lack of early warning information, conflict that prevents access to famine-afflicted communities, or lack of political will to prevent famine. Considering that those who are geographically, economically, socially, and politically marginalised are most vulnerable to famine, community-based targeting is one way of attempting to prevent exclusion of certain groups, as this approach typically contains a significant element of participation and transparency. However, dominant groups can still manipulate the process such that socially and politically marginalised households are not included.

In a similar vein, the report finds that, though early response is key to saving lives in famine, it is too often hampered by political and technical constraints. First, a famine must be identified, but the information needed for this to happen might be inadequate, late or concealed. Second, a famine must be officially declared, but some governments have incentives to deny that a crisis exists, and in other cases, donors might suspect that governments are exaggerating. Third, a response must be mobilised, but it takes time for pledges to be made and acted upon - perhaps because political is deficient. Even when timely and reliable information is available, it does not necessarily lead to effective action if institutions are weak, if political accountability is absent, and if relations between governments and donors are poor or antagonistic. Finally, food aid must be delivered to famine-affected populations, but this can take several weeks, especially if the epicentre of the crisis is an inaccessible area with poor roads, transport, and communications infrastructure, and if there are security threats.

During a famine, some of the lessons learned relate to the need to attend to public health issues in refugee camps and also wherever famine-affected people are concentrated: It is important to immunise children against communicable diseases, especially measles. Good surveillance, an ability to respond rapidly, having a reliable supply of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), and mass immunisation in situations of famine migration are essential if mortality is to be prevented. HLC stresses that gaining access to famine zones is political and requires advocacy and quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Faced with a lack of access or partial access, aid agencies need to ask: Should they speak out against those denying access and causing famine? Or should they work quietly behind the scenes, gaining what limited access they can? In Ethiopia in 1984, media exposure of the famine, against the government's wishes, enabled aid agencies to deliver relief to some famine victims. However, the government's subsequent forced resettlement programme caused further deaths and suffering, and many agencies did not speak out for fear of being denied access by the government.

According to the report, the best corrective to famine is an "anti-famine political contract", meaning that the state acknowledges its duty to prevent famine, and mechanisms exist for citizens to hold the state accountable if a famine occurs. Such a contract can be secured through the institutions of multi-party democracy; based largely on India's success in eradicating famine, Amartya Sen has argued that democracy - opposition political parties, free and fair elections, a vigilant and campaigning media - is the best antidote to famine. However, democracy is not essential and might not always be sufficient. Although this is not an area that international agencies can directly influence, they are in a position to support civil society advocacy to promote the right to food, which most governments have ratified in international law.

The media has a vital role to play in representing the true and complex nature of famine, explains the HLC. However, famines - as opposed to other disasters - often fail to reach the headlines because (i) famines are not dramatic, unexpected events but long-term processes, and their causes are often far too difficult to explain in a short news report; and (ii) the causes of famines are complex and are not well served by the media, which seeks a clear, uncomplicated narrative of disasters at the expense of well-informed reporting on their historical, social, political, and economic context. They may, for instance, use images of emaciated people, packaging the famine as a "biblical" and unexpected event caused (simplistically) by drought and food shortage. The HLC asserts that aid agencies often find themselves in a close and sometimes unhealthy "symbiotic relationship" with the media, complicit in the construction of over-simplified narratives in return for support in raising funds and promoting their own profiles.

Encouraging journalists and broadcasters to work closely with aid agencies to understand the complexities of the situation before, during, and after is a suggested strategy for promoting a more informed discussion around longer-term solutions to recurrent famines. With a strong correlation between media coverage of humanitarian crises and global response in the form of public donations, and humanitarian assistance, aid agencies and the media can use their combined strengths to work closely to lobby for informed action. This applies not only to foreign media; non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should seek to involve local media in order to reach and inform affected populations, and allow local voices to be heard. According to the HLC, aid agencies also need to collaborate with media initiatives and networks that facilitate debate, provide information, and reflect on global stories but from a local perspective. The authors suggest that social media, user-generated content (UGC), and citizen journalists also have an important role to play in disrupting the dominant narrative and expand campaign networks. Aid agencies are encouraged to take advantage of this democratisation of information through investing more resources in developing a strong social media presence and growing their networks, especially in disaster-affected countries.

Lessons from post-famine recovery experiences include the fact that it can take years to recover from asset loss due to famine; among the factors that have been helpful are social networks and prior experience of coping with drought (especially knowledge of labour opportunities). The HLC stresses that the aftermath of a famine is the best time for reflection on why the famine happened, what went right and what went wrong in the humanitarian response effort, and how to put in place mechanisms, institutions, and resources to ensure that the famine cycle is not repeated again a few years later - that is, fostering resilience.

As noted here, famines in the twenty-first century are sociopolitical crises rather than natural disasters. When famine is used deliberately as a method of war, prevention may not be possible, but arguably those responsible can be held to account. Thus, accountability mechanisms must be strengthened. "Where there is political will, famines - even deliberate famines - can be prevented. Public pressure and advocacy on political leaders is important to trigger this."


Institute of Development Studies (IDS) website, September 11 2017. Image credit: AFRICAPIX