The paradox of declaring a famine

How we are letting the World starve

Cristina Miceli | Apr 6, 2021

It may seem paradoxical, but although the purpose of declaring a famine is to save people’s lives, before one can be declared, thousands of individuals need to starve to death.

Last year was so crowded with news, that Yemen’s shortage of food has been largely ignored by most media. But the media are not the only ones who can be blamed for this silence.

The truth is that, despite thousands having already starved to death, more will need to die to meet the criteria for a famine to be declared and no one is really interested in a ‘food emergency’.

The Yemenis civil war and the NON-famine

It all started in 2014 when civil war erupted in Yemen. In brief, the Houthi rebel forces took control of the capital, forcing the UN-recognised government to flee to Saudi Arabia. Two coalitions soon emerged, the Saudi- and Emirati-coalition and the Houthi rebel forces backed by Iran. The latter were heavily criticised for the unnecessary bombing of civilian infrastructures. The former is responsible for the blockade of the Yemenis border, which has forced 80 percent of the Yemenis population to rely on humanitarian aids for survival contributing to the widespread lack of food (McKernan & Wintour, 2021).

This conflict, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic has brought Yemen to a severe food crisis. Half of Yemen’s population, about 16 million people are already going hungry and 50.000 are in famine-like conditions (UN News, 2021). But considering this awful data, why aren’t we declaring a famine?

The paradox of declaring a famine

In order to declare a famine, certain criteria need to be met:

  • 30 percent of the country has to suffer from acute malnutrition
  • 20 percent of a country’s households have to face extreme food shortage
  • At least two people per 10.000 inhabitants need to die every day of starvation

(UN News, 2011)

Obviously, a famine should only be declared when the situation becomes critical, however, it seems to me that the bar is set too high. The truth is that, unfortunately, unless a famine is declared, the media and therefore the public opinion seem to have no interest in the issue (sometimes, even after).

The UN has been warned since July that the situation in Yemen was slowly collapsing and that a famine was approaching (UN News, 2020), nonetheless, I would confidently bet a thousand euros that most of us had no idea about the situation in Yemen and instead knew everything about Biden’s election, Covid-19 updates and the Black-Life-Matters protests.

Of course, these topics are also valuable, but it seems to me that Yemen should have deserved more attention. How is it possible that in 2021 people are still starving to death for lack of food? How is it possible that an entire country is on the verge of a famine? Do we really need to let the death toll rise to three people a day before declaring a famine?

But the unbelievably high numbers needed to declare a famine are not the only problem. Many parts of Yemen are extremely difficult to reach due to a lack of infrastructure. Therefore, the process of data collection cannot be completed. In other words, there is a very high chance that the criteria for declaring a famine have already been met, simply, there is no way for us to know as collection data in third world countries in the middle of a civil war is… well, quite difficult to say the least (Waal, 2021).

The tip of the iceberg

Unfortunately, Yemen is only the tip of the iceberg. Many other countries in Africa are experiencing a shortage of food such as the Central African Republic and Ethiopia. In both cases, it’s hard to know the exact number of people in need of food and there are good chances that the situation is worse than what we predict (OCHA, 2021; Ahmed, 2021).

Declaring a famine in 2021 is a shame for humanity, but not declaring one when it’s needed is even worse. Whether we need to change the criteria to declare one or to simply find a way to gather more data in the territories at risk, we need to act now.

Thousands of people have already died. There is no time to waste.

Source: Medium

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