Famine: Lessons Learned

As the world responds to four potential famines in Northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen and Somalia, the lessons of the past seem to be long forgotten. Today the Humanitarian Learning Centre (HLC) launches its first report Famine: Lessons Learned, drawing on famine crises and response in Ethiopia and Sudan in the 1980s, up to the 2011 Somalian famine. The report explores many factors contributing to major food scarcities and the humanitarian response to them.

The HLC is a joint initiative of the IRC, the Institute of Development Studies, and Crown Agents. Funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID), via the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, the HLC is a transformative centre for operational learning that enables more effective humanitarian response.

Famine is complex, and often man-made, so the ‘drought causes famine’ narrative is not an adequate explanation for repeated famines. In this report, the HLC highlights that while drought or floods can cause crop failure, there are many other triggers such as lack of access to food, market failure and political reasons such as conflict and insecurity.

The authors explain that ‘famine follows a sequence of failures in the food system: first production, then markets and employment opportunities, and finally humanitarian relief such as food aid. In famines triggered by conflict, food production, employment, trade and food aid can all be deliberately targeted or compromised.  

Famines can be prevented by intervening at any point in the food system: by boosting food production, strengthening rural food markets, providing employment opportunities, introducing ‘shock-responsive’ social protection, or providing timely famine relief.

In highlighting a set of lessons, the report focuses on the role of media, alongside other aspects of famines, including creating safety nets to ensure all citizens are protected, timeliness of response, and preventing migration to camps through food provision.

The media has a vital role to play in representing the true and complex nature of famine. The authors note that traditional media has often misrepresented famine, favouring a simplistic narrative at the expense of historical, political, social and economic accuracy. 

Social media and citizen journalists also have an important role to play in disrupting the dominant ‘famine’ narrative and should seek to work with aid agencies to understand the complex and often political causes of famine.

As the report demonstrates, understanding and acting on the causes of famine is integral in efforts in preventing famine. The HLC calls for immediate but considered action by political, humanitarian and media actors to play their part in learning the lessons of the past and put in place vital measures to prevent these atrocities against humanity now, and in the future.