Eradicating Famines in Theory and Practice: Thoughts on Early Warning Systems

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Eradicating Famines in Theory and Practice:
Thoughts on Early Warning Systems

Michael H. Glantz

Environmental and Societal Impacts Group

National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colorado, USA

Interest in Famine Early Warning Systems

        In the foreword to J.O. Field's recent book on famine, Jean Mayer, noted nutritionist and educator, wrote that "famine is the ultimate public health catastrophe. It is unfortunately a recurrent human phenomenon, even in modern times. Since the end of World War II, there has not been one year in which there was not a famine" (1993, p. ix). Lal Jayawardena, in his foreword to Hunger and Public Action (Dreze and Sen, 1989) noted the following:

No social or economic problem facing the world today is more urgent than that of hunger. While this distressing state of affairs is not new, its persistence in spite of the remarkable technological and productive advances of the twentieth century is nothing short of scandalous (p. viii).

       Yet, despite the annual outbreak of famine somewhere on the globe, the need for famine early warning systems (fews) only recently captured the serious attention of various governments after the droughts throughout Africa of the early 1970s and, once again, as a result of the return of devastating African droughts of the mid-1980s. By now, tens of millions of dollars have gone into their formal development and maintenance.

       Early warning systems clearly sound like a good idea whose time has come. With all the current talk about information revolutions and an information superhighway, in addition to improved remote sensing capabilities and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), it seems that (at least in theory) there is a way to end famine - but is there the will to do so?

       Do we already know enough about famine's causes, effects, indicators, and at-risk populations to block its occurrences? Do we really need more sophisticated and detailed information that would be generated by famine vulnerability maps, GIS, elaborate household food security surveys, and even famine early warning systems? Is the problem really a lack of detailed information? Or is it that we could use existing information in a more effective way? In other words, are we building a better mousetrap when we already know how to catch the mouse?

Famine, Hunger, and Food Security

        Famine has many definitions. In this paper, it is viewed, in general, as a process during which a sharp decline in nutritional status of at-risk populations leads to sharp increases in mortality and morbidity, as well as to an increase in the total number of people at risk. It has also been viewed as an event; that is, an acute food shortage that has ended in widespread deaths and migration in search of food. Although most people (myself included) tend to see these as conflicting definitions, J.O. Field (1993, p. 2) suggested that these views are complementary: "seeing famine as a process is important to detection and preemptive intervention. ... Seeing it as an event helps to define its emergence and also helps to distinguish famine from chronic malnutrition." Although they are not synonymous, the word "famine" has been used interchangeably with "hunger" and "food security."

        Hunger is the chronic food deprivation and resultant poor nutritional status of a given population, regardless of cause. O'Neill (1986) noted that: "The larger part of hunger is not dramatic. It shows itself in malnutrition, illness, and expectations of life which remain obstinately low and is the core of persistent and desperate poverty. Famine episodes are only the tip of an iceberg whose invisible and large part is endemic hunger and deprivation" (p. 12). She also noted that "the toll of famine is more spectacular and intense, that of destitution more widespread and persistent" (p. 1). Reinforcing this view, Lappé and Collins (1986, pp. 2-3) noted that, while chronic hunger doesn't make the evening news, it takes more lives than famine." The demand for improvements of nutritional status among such a population in the Third World is growing. Therefore, in regions of chronic hunger, any additional food inputs could quickly be absorbed.

       With regard to food security, "the most commonly used definition is that of the World Bank: 'food security' is ... access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity, in turn, is the lack of access to enough food" (Davies et al., 1991, p. 5). Household food security suggests that a family can provide itself with adequate food supply without having to sell its productive assets (such as its oxen), referred to by Mortimore (1991, p. 12) as "a loss of productive capital and recovery capability (e.g., breeding livestock, seed or tree stocks, tools, perhaps soil fertility)." At the national level, food security refers to a country's ability to maintain food supplies adequate to avoid any severe food shortages that might emerge.

Early Warning Systems

       According to Murton (1991, p. 169), "the purpose of a warning system is to inform as many people as possible in an area-at-risk that a dangerous and/or damaging event is imminent and to alert them to actions that can be taken to avoid losses." And according to Field (1991, p. 152), "the practical challenge is not merely to anticipate a famine before it occurs, a daunting task in its own right, but to locate it spatially and socially so as to intervene on behalf of the people who most need protection." Definitions of famine can affect the operational goals of an early warning system (Davies et al., 1991, passim). What is to be monitored (nutrition, prices, income, rainfall, etc.) and when to intervene would be determined in large measure by the perception of what a famine is or about when to intervene. For example, as noted earlier, some view famine as an event (the onset of widespread starvation), while others see it as a slow process. Is the overriding goal of a system to forewarn national decisionmakers of acute food shortages that, in the absence of their intervention, could lead to starvation on a large scale? Or is it to warn donors about potential demands on their food aid supplies?

       Some governments have earnestly sought to eradicate hunger within their borders. Some of them have shown concern for their hungry citizens by supporting the development of an early warning system. Some governments set up such systems just to know where the food-related problems might occur, without necessarily seeking to prevent or mitigate them. Others want to know where these problems might arise in order to resolve them. The monitoring of different combinations of perceived key indicators would be required for these and other differing goals.

Famine and Hunger Linkages

       Governments are hard-pressed to argue against the notion of early warning of famine or against the strengthening of food security. They would also be unable to deny, as one of their goals, the eradication of hunger within their borders. Why, then, isn't there a hunger early warning system?

       The apparent truth of the matter is that, while there is seemingly a great interest in avoiding the outbreak of famines on one's territory, there appears to be less real interest in resolving issues related to chronic hunger. Perhaps famines are seen by government bureaucrats as tractable problems, whereas hunger and food security are amorphous issues, requiring constant and considerable attention as well as resources.

       How to end hunger has been plaguing rich and poor societies for millennia. Yet, acute food deprivation still occurs in all parts of the globe, although not among all parts of society. The rich, for example, are seldom inconvenienced by acute food shortages. If the avoidance of such deprivation had been an overriding concern of the international community, then the necessary political and financial resources would have been mustered to end chronic hunger.

       Focusing on famines, however, may be easier for governments to accept. Famines are episodic events which have often been blamed, rightly or wrongly, on natural hazards such as droughts. In fact, famines usually erupt out of hunger and poverty. Hunger and poverty issues, however, are much more problematic for governments to deal with, as they are strongly linked to political issues such as land ownership and use, class dominance, politics, and economics. (Addressing those issues will also get at the roots of famines. Famines are to hunger as jacqueries are to revolutions. A jacquerie is an uprising to address a specific grievance, e.g., a sharp increase in the price of bread. Once their specific demand has been met by governments, the dissidents end their uprising. By analogy, once a famine has been ended, little attention goes to the deep roots of the problem.) As Dreze and Sen (1989, p. 261) noted, "endemic deprivation is also a more complex social condition, involving deep-rooted economic and social deficiencies. Eliminating it is a more difficult task than preventing famine."

       Dreze and Sen (1989) distinguished between strategic choices related to famine and those related to hunger:

In the context of famine prevention the crucial need for speedy intervention and the scarcity of resources often call for a calculated reliance on existing distributional mechanisms ... to supplement the logistic capability of relief agencies. In the context of combating chronic hunger, on the other hand, there is much greater scope for slower but nonetheless powerful avenues of action such as institution building, legal reforms, asset redistribution, or provisioning in kind (pp. 7-8).

       Strategies, tactics, and objectives for dealing with chronic hunger vary from one society to the next. There are many suggestions on how such objectives might be pursued, depending on national development strategies. For example, a government might choose to pursue an export-led development strategy, relying on the sale of its exports to finance its food purchases and agricultural development needs. Or it might seek self-sufficiency in food production, pursuing all-out food production in good years, and food storage in anticipation of poor production years (see Dreze and Sen, 1989, p. 18).

       A famine early warning system could be viewed as the tactical part of a larger strategic plan to eradicate hunger. It is, in a strict sense, a system to identify when large numbers of chronically hungry people become stressed to the point that they become at higher risk to starvation. An early warning system provides a safety net to assure that famines, regardless of cause, do not develop. Thus, along with support for motherhood and the national flag, famine early warning systems (at least in theory) are held in high regard. Debates about them usually start over how they are used, or how well they operate, or how cost-effective they might be. Differences of opinion within and among researchers as well as governments on issues such as these tend to adversely affect the operations of such systems, thereby starving them of the funds necessary for effective operation.

       One concern has been that in the absence of famines (regardless of the reasons for that absence), governments tend to lose interest in continuing their support for early warning activities. This may result from a belief that their policies have minimized the possibility of a future famine outbreak. Or, it may be because those operating an early warning system have difficulty proving that the reason that no famine occurred was the result of their system, as opposed to the fact that perhaps a famine had not really been in the making in the first place. J.O. Field (1991, p. 155) suggested that "the earlier the intervention, the less clear it is that a famine will actually occur. The fact that false positives abound is a political disincentive to act preemptively." This raises the issue of having to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. What is the tradeoff that is acceptable to decisionmakers between waiting for greater certainty that a famine might occur and timely action? On this, Field (p. 156) noted that "the dilemma facing early warning is that it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be definitive, clear, and compelling about something that does not yet exist. Ambiguity is inherent in famine prediction."

Early Warning Linkages to Long-term Development

       Today, societies are faced with several "creeping" environmental problems such as air pollution, acid rain, ozone layer depletion, global warming, tropical deforestation, and soil erosion. One key characteristic they share is that a change in environmental quality today is not very different from yesterday's environmental quality and will likely not be that much different from tomorrow's. Yet, the quality of a slowly eroding environment in a few years will be noticeably different (Glantz, 1994).

       More specifically, what are the long-term, low-grade, slow and cumulative physical and social changes that can adversely affect the sustained ability of a country or region to meet the food needs of its people, or to protect the land that feeds it? Such physical changes include, but are not limited to, the following: soil erosion, tree and bush cutting for firewood and construction, livestock grazing, multiyear and decadal-scale changes in climate variability (e.g., alternating wet and dry periods). (Decadal-scale changes in the frequency of ENSO events, and global climate change and its impacts on regional climate characteristics are also in this category.) Slow societal changes include, but are not limited to, population changes (voluntary and forced), changes in land-use preferences (e.g., conversion of rangelands to farmland), changes in land-use practices, and changes in food preferences.

       Each of these physical and social changes reduces (imperceptibly at the time) the ability of the land to support the next and future generations. In addition, some of these changes place populations at increasingly higher risk to acute food deprivation during future droughts. (The notion of "drought follows the plow" provides an example. "Drought follows the plow" is based on the premise that the best rain-fed agricultural land is already in production, or has been put off-limits to production, for political or socioeconomic reasons. As the need for increasing the amount of farmland grows, people will tend to move into as-yet-uncultivated areas that are most likely increasingly marginal for sustained agricultural production - marginal because of climatic, soil, and topographic factors. In the absence of necessary adjustments to these increasingly marginal areas by farmers' and governments' expectations about the types of crops to be grown and technologies to be used to grow them, farmers and their families will likely be at higher risk to acute food shortages in the event of drought. Such demographic changes, as people expand their human activities into marginal areas, need to be considered in the output of early warning systems).

        Could the inclusion of such creeping changes in early warning systems provide a bridge that is needed to link rapid responses to famine early warnings with long-range development planning? Often, activities related to famine and to hunger are handled by separate bureaucracies, as well as mind-sets, with many observers seeing them as separate issues. Yet, they are clearly connected. Short-term responses to famine should be compatible with long-range development planning, lest they impair, if not preclude, the success of such planning. Hans Hurni (1988) wrote that:

the role of ecology in the creation of famines must be seen in its long-term rather than its short-term impacts. Due to millennia-old traditional land management and use, land resources and productivity potentials have already been considerably reduced in many parts of Ethiopia through deforestation, soil erosion, and fertility decline. This contributes considerably to the present level of famine vulnerability. Long-term trends ... give an even worse scenario indicating increased vulnerability in the future (p. 2).

       To greatly reduce the risk of famines, the hunger issue one must be addressed and resolved. To eradicate hunger, food security issues must be resolved at the local and national levels. O'Neill (1986, p. 12) has asked, "how are episodes of famines linked to endemic" hunger? Could it be that "remedies appropriate for acute famine, such as food aid, may be useless or even harmful for those living whole lives on the edge of hunger"? Thus, early warning systems must be linked with longer-term development activities.

Concluding Comments

       The truth of the matter is that famine early warning systems no longer focus solely on averting famines. Such events are "relatively" rare occurrences in any given location, and so the concept of a "famine early warning system" has implicitly become broadened to encompass national as well as household food security, which in turn are hunger issues. While the general public in donor countries has become quite attentive to pleas for assistance in famine situations, it seems to be less concerned about coping with food security and chronic hunger problems in other countries. As a result, many who deal with the latter issues feel compelled to make famine a part of their concerns in order to get the attention of policymakers as well as a share of the resources allocated to famine relief.

       Another concern with early warning systems in the 1990s is an apparent tendency toward emphasizing "system" as opposed to "early." Increasingly, larger and larger databases are being brought into early warning systems. One must ask, however, when enough information is in hand to "do the job." For example, anecdotal information receives little attention from those in charge of formal early warning systems, most likely because such information does not readily fit into a quantitatively based warning system. Do journalists and photojournalists, for example, have a role to play in famine early warning? Dreze and Sen (1989) note:

The role of newspapers and public discussions, which can be extremely crucial in identifying famine threats (an energetic press may be the best "early warning system" for famine that a country can devise), can also help to keep the government on its toes so that famine relief and preventive measures take place rapidly and effectively (p. 19).

       Such information may be among the earliest warnings that provoke public pressures for government action. On the other hand, satellite imagery may be very useful and interesting, but may not be timely. Is it as useful for food security concerns as for famine early warning?

       After reading articles about famines in general and about specific famine situations throughout history, one can only wonder why we still have meetings to discuss them. Careful perusal of the extant literature shows similar arguments and complete awareness of the debates that rage over just about every aspect of famine. Even the use of similar phrasing by independent sources is noticeable.

       Hunger and famine continue to plague societies around the globe and will likely continue to do so well into the future. We know that famines (if not hunger) can be eradicated in various locations. Famine plagued China in the 1920s and is no longer a problem in that country. In the 1940s, it was India that was forced to cope with famines, and today they do not occur on a large part of the Indian subcontinent. In the 1970s and 1980s, the West African Sahel and Ethiopia were considered famine hot spots, along with Mozambique. While we do not as yet hear of famines in these countries in the mid-1990s, we do know that widespread hunger persists in them.

       I would like to suggest that one should question the utility of transferring lessons about famines and famine early warning systems from one region to another (including responses to those warnings). It is highly questionable that a plan developed specifically for one region can be transferred to other regions for direct application. In fact, experiences gained during a food crisis (regardless of cause) in a given region may not be as useful as one might wish, even when the same region is faced with a similar situation at a later point in time. Thus, case study experiences related to famines should be viewed as heuristic information that can generate new ideas about different situations but should not necessarily be used as a package of information to be applied elsewhere, without a high degree of scrutiny and caution.

       How can we build on the knowledge that we now have? How can we avoid "bean counting" (i.e., going into increasingly detailed assessments of a problem we already understand), in the name of addressing the issues central to famine and hunger? How can we convert "paper" platitudes in the UN Charter and in national constitutions into action concerning the inalienable rights of people to an adequate food supply? Anatol Rapaport (1987), in his book on operational philosophy, suggested that people have a common demand of their governments: the right to shelter, procreation, food, and protection. Many governments have failed to provide one or any of these rights to their citizens. Can such a situation be changed?


Davies, S., M. Buchanan-Smith, and R. Lambert, 1991: Early Warning in the Sahel and Horn of Africa: The State of the Art. A review of the literature, Volume 1. Research Report No. 20. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.

Dreze, J., and A. Sen, 1989: Hunger and Public Action. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Field, J.O. (Ed.), 1993: The Challenge of Famine: Recent Experience, Lessons Learned. Hartford, Connecticut: Kumarian Press, Inc.

Field, J.O. 1991: Beyond relief: Toward improved management of famine. In: H.G. Bohle, T. Cannon, G. Hugo, and F.N. Ibrahim (Eds.), Famine and Food Security in Africa and Asia: Indigenous Response and External Intervention to Avoid Hunger, 151-166. Bayreuth, Germany: Naturwissenschaftliche Gesellschaft Bayreuth.

Glantz, M.H., 1994: Report of the Workshop on Creeeping Environmental Phenomena and Societal Responses to Them (7-9 February 1994). Boulder, Colorado: National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Hurni, H., 1988: Paper presented at National Conference on Disaster Prevention and Preparedness, December 1988, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: Relief & Rehabilitation Commission.

Lappe, F.M., and J. Collins, 1986: World Hunger: Twelve Myths. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

Mayer J., 1993: Foreword. In: J.O. Field (Ed.), The Challenge of Famine: Recent Experience, Lessons Learned. Hartford, Connecticut: Kumarian Press, Inc.

Murton, B., 1991: Events and context: Frameworks for the analysis of the famine process. In: H.G. Bohle, T. Cannon, G. Hugo, and F.N. Ibrahim (Eds.), Famine and Food Security in Africa and Asia: Indigenous Response and External Intervention to Avoid Hunger, 167-184. Bayreuth, Germany: Naturwissenschaftliche Gesellschaft Bayreuth.

Mortimore, M., 1991: Five faces of famine: The autonomous sector in the famine process. In: H.G. Bohle, T. Cannon, G. Hugo, and F.N. Ibrahim (Eds.), Famine and Food Security in Africa and Asia: Indigenous Response and External Intervention to Avoid Hunger, 155. Bayreuth, Germany: Naturwissenschaftliche Gesellschaft Bayreuth.

O'Neill, O., 1986: Faces of Hunger: An Essay on Poverty, Justice and Development. London, UK: Allen & Unwin.

Rapaport, A. (Ed.), 1987: Game Theory As a Theory of Conflict Resolution, Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Press.

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