Famine in Somalia: causes and solutions


The UN announcement of famine in Somalia is both a wake-up call to the scale of this disaster, and a wake-up call to the solutions needed to limit death-from-hunger now and in the future. So, what is famine and how can we prevent it?

Famine is the “triple failure” of (1) food production, (2) people’s ability to access food and, finally and most crucially (3) in the political response by governments and international donors. Crop failure and poverty leave people vulnerable to starvation – but famine only occurs with political failure. In Somalia years of internal violence and conflict have been highly significant in creating the conditions for famine.

What is famine?

The UN uses a five-step scale, called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), developed with NGOs including Oxfam, to assess a country’s food security. Stage 5 – “famine/humanitarian catastrophe” – requires that more than two people per 10,000 die each day, acute malnutrition rates are above 30 percent, all livestock is dead, and there is less than 2,100 kilocalories of food and 4 liters of water available per person per day

In October 2009 Oxfam published a paper on Ethiopia and neighboring regions asking “what can be done to prevent the next drought from becoming a disaster?” We acknowledged that food aid saved lives but that it was not cost-effective and did not alone help people to withstand the next shock.

By the time the UN calls a famine it is already a signal of large-scale loss of life. We can only ensure now that aid comes quickly and appropriately to prevent an even worse-case scenario. We must also resolve not why this famine happened but why again? And how to prevent the next one?

The causes of famine

Famines result from a combination “triple failure”:

  1. Production failure: In Somalia, a two-year drought – which is phenomenal in now being the driest year in the last 60 – has caused record food inflation, particularly in the expectation of the next harvest being 50% of normal. Somalia already had levels of malnutrition and premature mortality so high as to be in a “normalized” state of permanent emergency. This is true too in pockets across the entire region.
  2. Access failure: The drought has killed off the pastoralists’ prime livestock assets (up to 90% animal mortality in some areas), slashing further their purchasing power. In addition Somalia severe internal conflict has made development almost impossible to achieve and data difficult to access both accurately and credibly.
  3. Response failure: Underlying it all has been the inability of Somalia’s government and donors to tackle the country’s chronic poverty, which has marginalized vulnerable people and fundamentally weakened their ability to cope. There’s been a lack of investment in social services and basic infrastructure and lack of good governance. Meanwhile donors have reacted too late and too cautiously. The overall international donor response to this humanitarian crisis has been slow and inadequate. According to UN figures, $1 billion is required to meet immediate needs. So far donors have committed less than $200m, leaving an $800 million black hole.

How does this situation compare with current food crises in other parts of the world? 

This famine represents the most serious food insecurity situation in the world today in terms of both scale and severity.

This is the first officially-declared famine in Africa so far this century, at a time when famine has been eradicated everywhere else.

What needs to be done?

The 21st Century is the first time in human history that we have the capacity to eradicate famine. To do so, we must address the underlying problems:

  1. Production solutions: We must accelerate investment in African food production. There are regions in Africa we know have always faced chronic food shortages, where even small blips in harvests can have terrible consequences. We need more support for small-holder farmers and pastoralists (e.g. hardier crops, cheaper inputs, disaster risk management).
  2. Access solutions: We must alleviate rural African poverty. More aid and budgetary investment into physical infrastructure (roads, communications etc) and allowing public intervention to correct market failures until markets are stronger (e.g. grain reserves to stop price volatility).
  3. Response solutions: We need to move away from discretionary assistance to guaranteed social protection e.g. such as social assistance to the poor households to access food throughout the year and insurances, so that support can be triggered automatically in times of crisis. In some contexts cash transfers can be more appropriate than food aid, where availability of food is not a problem.

Emergency aid is vital right now, but we also need to ask why this has happened, and how we can stop it ever happening again. The warning signs have been seen for months, and the world has been slow to act. Much greater long-term investment is needed in food production and basic development to help people cope with poor rains and ensure that this is the last famine in the region.

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Published July 2011.

Oxfam responded to the crisis by providing life-saving water, sanitation services, food, and cash, aiming to reach at least 3.5 million people, across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.


Famines result from a combination “triple failure”: production, access, and response.