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Somalia hunger crisis raises a question for the world: When is a famine a famine?

The declaration is made only rarely — and history suggests it matters.

Hers is one of millions of stories borne of a still-spreading devastation that seems to point clearly to one unquestionable conclusion — that Somalia, which suffered through a famine in 2011, is once again in the grip of a similar crisis. The images emerging from the country would appear to confirm this: In photo after photo, men, women and children appear with those swollen bellies and ribs poking out of their torsos.

And yet, technically, that is not the case, at least for now, according to the global body responsible for making such declarations.

The IPC is a partnership between the U.N. and various local and international NGOs, and its assessment has divided opinion and not for the first time prompted questions about how and when a famine is declared. Applying the label isn’t just a technical matter; it would bring much-needed global attention to the crisis unfolding in Somalia — and that in turn could unlock fresh funds to help the millions struggling to access basic nutrition.

“IPC is about classification, so there have always been these thresholds” to guide its assessments, said Daniel Maxwell, an expert on food security at Tufts University, who, before moving to academia, spent two decades working for humanitarian agencies in East and West Africa. “And there have been a lot of controversies about whether these thresholds are correct or not.”

Measuring hunger

When is a famine a famine?

But the technical definition used by the IPC is less than two decades old.

Assessing these facts on the ground falls to local and international aid groups, and to the U.N. A special IPC group, known as the Famine Review Committee, then gathers reports from the various organizations and makes its judgments. For famine to be declared, there is an additional wrinkle: A consensus is required, not just among humanitarian workers but also among the local authorities — and this is where things can often get complicated, according to experts who work in the field.

Yet there was no official proclamation.

“The only reason [famine] wasn’t declared was because the Ethiopian authorities were quite effective in slowing down the whole declaration system.”

Why would a government block a declaration of famine? Experts point to a variety of potential reasons: the stigma attached to the word, concerns that a blanket declaration would lead to development funds being rerouted to famine relief work and a desire to mask the severity of a conflict, such as the one in Tigray. In that case, the Ethiopian government was repeatedly accused of hampering humanitarian operations by blockading the Tigray region and denying the seriousness of the food crisis there.

Adam Aw Hirsi, Somalia’s minister of state for environment and climate change, acknowledged that some parts of Somalia were facing famine. But conditions elsewhere were not as serious, he said, making the government wary of a “declaration of a blanket famine.”

And while the IPC system is supposed to be neutral and free from political interference, in practice it can work very differently.

“You have to fight your way through the IPC’s Famine Review Committee, and you can be blocked by the authorities of the country that you’re engaging with. And that’s what happened in Tigray,” Lowcock, the former U.N. official, said at the ODI. “The current system is not functional.”

In fact, the system, which dates to Somalia’s hunger crisis in 2004, wasn’t initially designed to declare famines. Its purpose was to give aid workers a better countrywide snapshot of the humanitarian situation in Somalia itself.

“Somalia in those days was ruled by warlords, and it was hard to have an independent view of the whole country,” Maxwell, from Tufts, explained. “So they invented this protocol to depict the severity of food insecurity — it started out being simply about food insecurity — and then it got linked to these phase classifications.”

Ringing the alarm bell

Over the past decade, the IPC has declared famine only twice: once in Somalia, back in 2011, and most recently in South Sudan in 2017. That “alarm bell” places no obligations on international donors, or indeed on the U.N., to step up aid or expand operations in the affected communities, but aid workers and humanitarian experts say that what the IPC designation does do is bring an international spotlight — and that in turn helps generate emergency funding.

The example is instructive: Much like today, the crisis in Somalia in 2011 was already extremely serious and had been unfolding for some time before the declaration. Officially labeling it a famine added to the attention — and to the pressure on the world to do something about it.

And that is why today, even as it stops short of declaring a famine in Somalia, the IPC has warned that the situation was already too grave to ignore.

“It is worth reiterating that in other cases of famine, much of the excess mortality has occurred either before famine was declared or outside of the area in which it was declared, or both,” it said in its latest report.

“We have these thresholds for the definitions of famine, and still people always question, ‘Is this really a famine?’” Maxwell, from Tufts, told Grid.

“I’m sure if you went to a displaced persons’ camp in Baidoa” in southwestern Somalia, he added, “where people have fled looking for some kind of assistance or alternative way of surviving in a very severe drought, and on top of that a pretty nasty conflict between the government and [the] al-Shabaab [militant Islamist group], and on top of a long-standing livelihood crisis, if you asked them if there was a famine they’d say, ‘Of course it’s a famine, look at everything that’s going on.”

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