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Dan Maxwell and Peter Hailey commentary: Evidence, analysis and the politics of declaring famine

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The international community now has a working definition of famine that enables real-time analysis and declaration of famines. The technical definition is based on measures of food insecurity, malnutrition and mortality. But ‘famine’ invokes additional meanings as well: failures of governance, failures of protection and humanitarian response and widespread human loss (including but not limited to loss of life). The technical definition requires rigorous data. But these additional meanings ensure that technical analysis alone does not provide a complete picture—and may be the locus of considerable controversy. For two years, we have conducted research into the politics of information and analysis in famines and extreme humanitarian crises. The research is ongoing, but several points are already clear.

First, famine declarations matter! Within days of the declaration of famine in Somalia in 2011, the level of funding for the United Nations (UN) Consolidated Appeal for Somalia doubled—even though everyone already knew that Somalia was facing a severe crisis. The ‘F Word’ significantly increased the response (but by then the famine was already at peak levels of human mortality). Support for the 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan in Northeast Nigeria more than doubled after Cadre Harmonisé and FEWSNET issued reports that noted the high likelihood that a famine had been occurring among populations caught in Boko Haram–controlled areas. In South Sudan, a declaration didn’t change overall resources, but did shift internal resource allocation. Analysis and declaration in real time are critical to mobilising resources.

Second, there are major constraints to real-time analysis. Almost by definition, the risk of famine is highest in the most difficult-to-reach places. Across the four countries at risk of famine in 2017 (South Sudan, Somalia, Northeast Nigeria and Yemen), conflict was the common causal factor. Humanitarian access—whether for analysis, response or both—can be extremely limited in contemporary conflict. Current guidelines for classifying famine call for a high level of rigour in data and analysis to ensure the certainty of the analysis before invoking such a term. But our experience across more than a dozen such analyses shows that even when data collection is possible, it is very hurried because of security concerns. Assessments are difficult to plan and schedule and often produce information that might suggest famine but which falls short of the rigorous requirements to actually make a determination. Our current analytical tools have strong built-in protections against the error of a false positive (that is, declaring a famine when none is occurring) but relatively few protections against a false negative (that is, failing to declare a famine when one actually is occurring). But from a humanitarian perspective, the latter may be a more serious error. Analytical protocols are constantly being updated but given the humanitarian obligation to first protect human lives and dignity, this imbalance is cause for concern.

Third, while the ability to analyse and declare famines is important, the more important obligation is to prevent them. Even with the best (and most timely) of current status assessments, a declaration is about something that is already happening—human lives are already being destroyed. We have had good famine early warning information for decades, but are often stubbornly reluctant to act on it—for a variety of reasons, some technical, some political and some related to levels of trust between donors and humanitarian actors. But recently, the balance of analysis has shifted towards current status assessments and away from early warning. This has led to two consequences: First, by definition the crisis is out of control by the time it is declared. And second, the ability to concentrate assessment resources in famine ‘hotspots’ is very difficult in the absence of early warning to identify places where the situation is going badly wrong. Policy makers often prefer the certainty of the ‘hard data’ (the actual prevalence of malnutrition, the actual rate of mortality) to the more probabilistic information produced by early warning. But for better analysis and more timely response, early warning and other means of identifying ‘hotspots’ is a clear priority.

Famine analysis relies on data sources from a variety of stakeholders, and frequently the timing of different data collection exercises doesn’t fit the rigorous requirements for analysis. Valuable data may be ruled out, or given a very low reliability score because it is deemed out of date—and thus can’t be used. This is most often the case with nutrition and mortality data. This frequently means that while famine may be occurring, it is impossible to state with certainty. A concerted effort to coordinate data collection efforts would help address this problem. Many stakeholders are collecting the data for their own, more operational, reasons—not necessarily for joined up analysis of famine. Strong leadership from governments and donors could help enable data collection exercises to serve both goals (operational planning and joined up assessment of the overall crisis). While food and nutrition insecurity are significant drivers of famine, other drivers are equally important including health and health status. We need to pay greater attention to a broader range of sectors to understand their contribution to the risk of famine. And we need to better understand the dynamics of conflict itself.

Almost all of contemporary famine analysis is done in the context of violent conflict, with some areas difficult or impossible to access—and therefore impossible to accurately assess. Sometimes these areas are mapped simply as inaccessible, but more frequently findings from accessible areas are extrapolated to inaccessible areas and are depicted that way in the final maps—even where there is reason to believe that, given the lack of access—humanitarian and otherwise—conditions in inaccessible areas may be worse. Given that accurate statements about these areas cannot be made, it would be far more accurate to map them as ‘inaccessible.’ New methodologies can help to estimate the needs of populations in these inaccessible or very difficult to access areas. These methods are still experimental, but further efforts are needed to develop, use and integrate methods to include the needs of populations that are the most vulnerable in extreme crisis.

The analysis of famine is fraught with as many political objectives as humanitarian objectives. Analysts expecting that the data will ‘speak for itself in these situations have frequently found themselves influenced or constrained by political considerations. Given that conflict is the major driver of famines, the analysis of famine is often interpreted as a barometer of the success of military or counter-insurgency strategies in controlling conflict. But few famine analysts have training or experience in conflict analysis. Analyses also reflect the status of the overall crisis, and hence, are critical to decisions about resource allocation. Political actors of all kinds (governments, donors, even humanitarian agencies) have certain preferred ‘narratives’ of the outcome of famine analysis that may be quite independent of the evidence. Some even go so far as to outline what can and cannot be said in analysis reports. Others are more subtle, but equally effective, in shaping the limits of the analysis. Strong political narratives and relatively weak data on extreme emergencies are a bad combination and may stymie clear statements about famine or near-famine situations. This has frequently resulted in a kind of ‘Goldilocks’ compromise that is based partly on technical analysis and partly on perceptions of what political actors will allow analysts to say. Political narratives also shape the judgment of situations in which famine may be occurring, but where the data aren’t clear.

The persistent problem of late response can, to some degree, be blamed on a lack of accountability of national and international actors for the consequences of famine and extreme emergencies. Some observers strongly advocate that accountability for famine or famine prevention should be formalised so that famine is actually recognised as a crime.

We are making progress on these issues. In countries where these analyses happen every year, we can see improvements in the quality of analysis over time. Analytical protocols are constantly being updated to keep up with rapidly changing circumstances on the ground. Analysts are working hard on better means of predicting outcomes in food security, malnutrition and mortality to provide better early warning.

In some cases, responsible governments and humanitarian actors (both local and international) have taken greater responsibility to prevent and respond quickly to famines, based on evidence of the risks. When increased risk of famine was highlighted in Somalia and Nigeria in early 2017, responses were quickly ramped up. Whether or not they prevented famine is difficult to say for certain, but famine did not recur in either country in 2017. Unfortunately, however, 2018 in Somalia isn’t likely to be a significantly better year.

But while avoiding famine is a good thing, populations caught in ‘humanitarian emergencies’ (the next lower classification in terms of severity), is nothing that any of us should cheer about: kids are still severely malnourished, people still lose life and livelihood—just not in such great numbers, but at levels that should shock. Limiting the damage in a crisis is a good thing; preventing the crisis is the goal.

We need to do more. For nearly ten years in the beginning of the twenty-first century, we did not see a single famine. The Somalia famine in 2011 killed more than a quarter of a million people. In 2016–17, four countries were on famine watch, with credible evidence that famine thresholds have been reached in two. This year, several other countries may be at risk.

Analysing and responding to these crises must prioritise the humanitarian imperative as well as the principles of independence and impartiality. Understanding—and better managing—the political influences that undermine the independence of the analysis and the impartiality of the response to famine are critical to ending the human catastrophe of famine forever.

Both authors serve on the Famine Review Committee for Integrated Food Security Phase Classification analysis.

This analysis was carried out as part of a study by Feinstein International Center and the Centre for Humanitarian Change on “Challenges and Complexities of Information and Analysis in Extreme Humanitarian Emergencies,” supported by several donors including the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID) through the the Maximising the Quality of Scaling Up Nutrition Plus (MQSUN+) programme, the Office of Swiss Development Cooperation, the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation (ECHO) through Action Against Hunger, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.