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Thirty Years Ago, a News Video Shocked the World - Here's What We Learned About Famine Since Then

13/10/2014 15:51 | Updated 12 December 2014

On 23 October, it will be exactly 30 years since a BBC report alerted the world to a famine in Ethiopia.

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Michael Buerk's harrowing reports for BBC News on the famine in Ethiopia sparked an international reaction which led to initiatives such as Band Aid and Live Aid, helping to raise millions of euro in aid for the region.

This is the first of his original reports, broadcast on 23 October 1984.

Over the many years since then, Irish NGOs have learned a number of important lessons about the complex relationships between drought, food scarcity and famine.

Some of these lessons include:

Lesson 1: Understanding the impact of droughts is important
  • Famine is not caused by drought alone. Drought is a recurring phenomenon in many countries, reducing harvest yields and resulting in serious economic, social, and environmental stress. Persistent drought can lead to food scarcity and failed harvests. But drought only leads to famine in situations where other factors, usually to do with failing markets or governments, are at play.
  • People go hungry when they cannot access enough food. Generally, famines are not about an absence of food, but about poor people not being able to access food, either because they cannot afford it or because they cannot physically get to it (eg. in situations of conflict).
  • Drought is not like other natural hazards. Although droughts are normal, recurring features in virtually all climatic zones, the effects of droughts often accumulate slowly over a long period and may linger for years afterwards. And unlike earthquakes, floods or hurricanes, the impact can be felt in large areas and by large numbers of people. Unlike in most other situations of natural disasters, relief operations responding to droughts will be large-scale and long-term.
  • People survive droughts because they have coping mechanisms. People can often survive droughts and other shocks because they have diverse income sources and may survive by selling assets, using reserves from wild foods, or by mutual assistance in the form of grain or food banks. Droughts only lead to a crisis if these coping mechanisms are overwhelmed.

Lesson 2: International assistance helps reduce the impact of droughts

  • Aid works. In the 2011 food crisis in the Horn of Africa, the drought affected large parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia. Yet only in Somalia did the drought lead to famine conditions. In countries like Ethiopia, famine was avoided because of the safety net programme and disaster management system set up by the Ethiopian government, and supported by overseas aid.
  • International aid must be based on local capacities. Slow-onset disasters such as droughts don't always demand humanitarian intervention, particularly where governments and communities work together to reduce the impact on affected people.
  • In large scale emergencies, it can be necessary to bring in food supplies from abroad. But in most cases, food can be sourced locally or regionally, boosting employment and ensuring cultural appropriateness of the food.

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Lesson 3: Preventing famine is about reducing poverty and vulnerability

  • Prevention is better than providing emergency relief. The impacts of drought, like those of other natural hazards, can be reduced through mitigation and preparedness. In the last decade, investment in early warning systems has paid off, and aid agencies have information available about rainfall, vegetation and trends in food prices. Effective early warning systems can indicate who needs help, how much relief is required and when is it needed. But prevention should be about sustained investment in long-term solutions that reduce vulnerabilities, not just in predicting emergencies.
  • Early warnings do not guarantee effective responses. Although there is more time to plan and implement an appropriate response in a slow-onset disasters such as drought, in practice donors tend to act only when it is too late, and an emergency has been declared. Past experience shows that on many occasions, early warnings (like those issued last week by a range of NGOs about South Sudan) were ignored by governments and donors. One reason for this is that while it is known in advance that the drought will have an impact - on water availability, crop and livestock production and prices - it is not always clear how well people will manage. More surprisingly, however, is that international investment in agriculture had fallen over the last decades, and programmes aimed at reducing people's vulnerabilities to drought have found it difficult to attract funding.
  • Droughts and other natural hazards affect the most vulnerable people. In many countries with arid areas, for example, mobile livestock keepers (nomadic or "transhumant", seasonally nomadic people) are particularly marginalised and vulnerable. During a drought they might lose their livestock and thus their productive asset and base of livelihoods. Also people with disabilities, older people, women and children also are at greater risk.
  • Conflict and weak democracies contribute significantly to late responses to, or massive damage caused by, natural hazards. As famously pointed out by Amartya Sen, famines don't happen in democracies. Societies and governments that look after their citizens tend to put the necessary measures in place to avoid disaster. Undemocratic societies, however, that neglect poor people, are more likely to let natural droughts result in outright famine.


Lesson 4: Protecting people's assets and livelihoods is key to saving lives and reducing vulnerability

  • Long term solutions must include adaptation to climate change. Over the last number of decades, droughts have increased in many regions of the world, adding to a downward spiral of impoverishment and increased vulnerability. Food insecurity is growing, not just in developing countries, but also in richer ones, and livelihood systems are becoming less resilient. As weather patterns become more extreme and less predictable, new coping mechanisms (to short term events) and adaptation strategies (to longer-term changes) will be required. Without deep and urgent reductions in Greenhouse Gas emission by the most polluting countries, however, coping mechanisms and adaptation capacities will inevitably be overwhelmed.
  • In many countries, land ownership is vulnerable due to lack of formal land registration. Less than 30 percent of the land worldwide is formally mapped and recorded. Informal and traditional rights to land are often not documented on paper, and therefore not enforceable in courts. And that, in turn, enables governments and multinationals to claim that the land is unused and free to exploit for the mining of minerals or the creation of big commercial plantations.
  • Adequate investment is needed in agriculture and rural livelihoods of smallholder farmers and pastoralists. Lack of investment by both local governments and the international donor community to agriculture has declined significantly since the 1980s.This needs to be rectified over the short-term by ensuring that agriculture clusters are sufficiently funded and the long-term in order to protect livelihoods and reduce the vulnerability of people to shocks and crises. And finally, population growth in many countries means that the necessary investment in agriculture is not going to suffice. We have to build non-agriculture sector alternative livelihoods - particularly in urban areas.

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Recommended further reading:

· How You Can Help - Guide

· Emergencies: NGOs Helping People back from the Brink

· Dóchas briefing paper on "Hunger: the face of poverty" (2008)

· Dóchas research paper: "Models of agricultural investment" (2012)

· Dóchas Submission to the Irish Aid Hunger Task Force (October 2007)

· Who, what, why: What is a famine? (BBC, 2011)