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13. All states shall accelerate SDG efforts to end poverty and enable all to obtain food and potable water.

Rapporteur: Marianne Larsen


Like most complex social phenomena, definitions (and related causes and solutions) of famine are contested. Moreover, many cases diagnosed as ‘famine’ do not meet textbook definitions, which are often subjective, used loosely, and/or not be transferable from one community to the next (de Waal, 2000). One useful definition breaks famine down into its constituent parts:

  1. Hunger including subjective feelings of severe and prolonged hunger, going without acceptable food and the measurable fact of undernutrition.
  2. Impoverishment including the loss of livelihood, income and assets and other components of increased poverty.
  3. Social breakdown including distress migration, family and community breakdown.
  4. Mortality rates are increased and usually concentrated among vulnerable groups such as children, women, migrants, etc.
  5. Social and economic responses/resistance of individuals, families and groups to each of the above (de Waal, 2000).

Famine, it must be noted, can occur without all of these components being present/

Classification Systems

A number of different classification systems used to determine when a famine is present. One of the most widely used has been developed by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) 1) According to the IPC, the international standard for classifying food insecurity and malnutrition, a famine can be declared only when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. These measures are:

  • at least 20 per cent of households in an area face a complete lack of food and/or other basic needs
  • acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent, and
  • the mortality rate exceeds two persons/day/10,000 persons.

According to this definition, areas are declared to be in famine only when substantial deaths have occurred due to lack of food consumption on its own or by its interaction with disease. By classifying famine as “situations where mass deaths have already taken place due to starvation, the IPC Famine area classification is only applied to a situation that is the outcome of a sequential and causal series of events between severe food deficits, acute malnutrition and the final expression of deaths” (IPC, 2016, p. 2).

IPC Acute Food Insecurity Reference Table for Area Classification (IPC Global Partners, 2012).

Other definitions of famine challenge the idea that famine is a discrete event triggered by food shortage resulting in mass deaths by starvation. For example, Devereux (2000) notes that mass starvation and deaths is only one possible outcome of famine and that we need to consider other outcomes such as fertility decline, economic destitution, community breakdown, distress migration and exposure to new diseases. Thus, famines could be declared even without widespread deaths, allowing situations where extreme food gaps, displacement, and total collapse of livelihoods and high acute malnutrition to be considered famine.

Different Types of Famines

While the above would suggest that famine is a category on its own and can only be declared when particular criteria are met, others have proposed different categories/types of famine.

a) Time

Famines last different amounts of time. The Somalia famine in 2011–12 and the Dutch Hongerwinter famine of 1944–45 only lasted a few months. In the cases of Ireland in the late 1840s, and China in 1959–61, famines lasted a few years. [other examples??]

b) Severity

Famines can be distinguished according to the degree of severity, which is usually measured by the number of deaths. Devereux (2000) distinguishes between ‘great famines’ (100,000 or more excess deaths) and ‘catastrophic famines’ (one million or more excess deaths. De Waal (2000) identifies three degrees of famine severity:

  1. Famines involving primarily hunger and impoverishment
  2. Famines in which there are elevated rates of mortality
  3. Famines in which there are spectacularly high death rates alongside severe social dislocation and collapse (p. 7)

Four-point scale for ‘famine crimes’ developed by David Marcus (2003) <– MORE HERE →

c) Kind of society affected

Another typology of famine concerns the type of society affected and the main causes of the famine:

[de Waal table here]

Causes of Famine

Given the contested and complex nature of famine, as well as different types of famine, there are different explanations for what causes famine. Some of these are outlined in the chart above and some outlined in this section here.

a) Famine and democracy

The conventional explanation to explain the cause of famines was the food availability decline hypothesis. The assumption was that the central cause of all famines was a decline in the supply of food. In contrast to this argument, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (1981, 1983) claims that a lack of democracy and famines are interrelated. Sen argues that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country. In his book, Poverty and Famine, Sen uses the example of the 1944 Bengal famine to show that it occurred due to a lack of democracy in India under British rule aggravated by the colonial government's suspension of trade in rice and grains among various Indian provinces. More recently, Ó Gráda (2015) has shown that the primary cause of the Bengal famine was the unwillingness of colonial rulers to divert food from their war effort.

According to Sen, entitlements are the set of alternative commodity bundles that a person can command in a society using the totality of rights and opportunities that s/he faces. Famine occurs when food entitlements decline (FED). In Poverty and Famines, Sen connects famine to people's lack of entitlements rather than to, for instance, food shortages or ecological disasters. For example, when market incomes fall in relation to the price of subsistence foods, food becomes not physically unavailable, but unaffordable.

Others have critiqued the assertion that famines cannot occur in democratic states. For example, De Waal (2000) points out some of the limitations of Sen’s hypothesis that there can be no famine in democracies noting that the reality is much more complex. He notes the following examples where famines have occurred in democratic states where liberal institutions failed to prevent the famine:

  1. Ireland (1845-9)
  2. Bihar, India (1966-67)
  3. Bangladesh (1974)
  4. Sudan (1986-88)

de Waal (2000) explains that while civil rights and free speech under democracies have the potential to contribute to social and economic rights, including the right to food, history has shown us that the “gross abuses of social, economic and cultural rights can exist in democracies” (p. 13).

b) State-sponsored famines

Famine has also occurred due to government policies. Here are two examples:

i) The Chinese Great Leap Famine (1959–61)

In 1958, Mao Zedong's Communist Government launched the Great Leap Forward campaign, aimed at rapidly industrializing the country. The government forcibly took control of agriculture. Barely enough grain was left for the peasants, and starvation occurred in many rural areas. Exportation of grain continued despite the famine and the government attempted to conceal it. While the famine is attributed to unintended consequences, it is believed that the government refused to acknowledge the problem, thereby further contributing to the deaths. In many instances, peasants were persecuted. Between 20 and 45 million people perished in this famine, making it one the greatest modern famine ever in terms of lives lost (Thaxton, 2008).

ii) The Holodomor - Soviet famine (1932–1933)

In 1932, under the rule of the USSR, Ukraine experienced one of its largest famines. Between 2.4 and 7.5 million peasants died as a result of a state sponsored famine. It was termed the Holodomor as it was a deliberate campaign of repression designed to eliminate resistance to the government’s forced collectivization of agriculture. Forced grain quotas imposed upon the rural peasants and a brutal reign of terror contributed to the widespread famine. The Soviet government continued to deny the problem and it did not provide aid to the victims nor did it accept foreign aid (Tauger, 2001).

c) Famine and war

War and famine, two fearsome horsemen, have long ridden side by side. Armed conflict disrupts food systems, destroys livelihoods, displaces people, and leaves those who do not flee both terrified and unsure when they will eat their next meal (de Waal, 2015, p. 23).

war (Sancerre in central France in 1572–73, Leningrad in 1941–44, the western Netherlands in 1944–45) ←- Ó Gráda [MORE TO GO HERE] –>

Nearly half of all famines between 1870-2010 occurred during active armed conflict. Over one-quarter of all famines took place during conditions of active political repression, and 3.28% of famines occurred in countries emerging from conflict. Only one-fifth of famines occurred in countries with no conflict or political repression (World Peace Foundation, 2015).

d) Famine and climate change

Global climate change has challenged the Earth's ability to produce food, causing food production fluctuations and shortfalls, potentially leading to famine (Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2013). We see this currently in Somalia where climate change has played a significant role in famine there. [de Waal 2018 takes issue with the contention that global warming causes famine]

Essay 5 in Ó Gráda’s book - “Famine Is Not the Problem—For Now” assesses the challenge posed by the prospect of global warming – [ORDERED FROM LIBRARY TO READ]


Famine and epidemic disease

When there is a severe lack of food many people will die of starvation, but between starvation and death there is nearly always disease. When people don't have enough food to eat, acute malnutrition sets in and weakens the immune system (World Health Organization, 2018).

Disease cannot be said to cause famine, but it is often linked to famine given victims’ increased susceptibility to disease. The Irish famine (1845-1850) is a case in point where general starvation and disease were responsible for more than 1,000,000 excess deaths, most of them attributable to fever, dysentery and smallpox (Woodham-Smith, 1962).

Where and when has famine occurred?

Geography of famine

Almost every inhabited continent in the world has experienced a period of famine throughout its history. The geography of modern famine is overwhelmingly a story of Asia and eastern Europe, which account for 87% of famine deaths in the period. Approximately half of these (56.5 million) were in East and South-east Asia. South Asia accounted for 16.5 million deaths. Europe including the USSR accounted for 18.17 million famine related deaths. African famine deaths during the entire period are estimated at 9% of the total ( 9.575 million deaths), with the majority occurring in the late nineteenth century in Congo and north-east Africa. Latin America counted about 1.5 million famine deaths, all in Brazil in the nineteenth century. The Middle East has an estimated 2.07 million deaths, most associated with World War One and the Armenian genocide (World Peace Foundation, 2015).

(World Peace Foundation, 2015).

History of Famine

The history of great famines can be classified into 4 broad periods:

  1. famines of European colonialism (until about 1914);
  2. extended period of the world wars and accompanying mass starvation (1914 - 1950);
  3. famines caused by totalitarianism, and
  4. decline and smaller famines and humanitarian crises since the 1970’s (World Peace Foundation, 2015).

Since 1870, famine and episodes of forcible mass starvation have killed 104.3 million people. The main trend, however, is downwards. In each decade between the 1870s and the 1970s, great famines (those that kill more than 100,000 people) killed between 1.45 million and 16.64 million, at an average of about 927,810 per year. Since 1980, the annual death toll in great famines has averaged 75,217, or about 8 per cent of the historic level (World Peace Foundation, 2015).

Famine in the 21st Century

In terms of recent history “famines in peacetime are no longer the looming threat they have been throughout history. “In peacetime” is the crucial qualifier. The globalization of disaster relief and increasing global food output are responsible for this (Ó Gráda, 2015,p. 8).

In the 21st century, calamitous famines—those causing more than 1 million deaths— have been eliminated. Until recently, great famines have been more common. Deaths from these famines exceeded 15 million in five separate decades in the 20th century. In the 21st century, the death toll from great famines is near 600,000, still cause for concern, although relatively low by historical standards (von Grebmer et al, 2015, p. 5). There are a few exceptions, such as Somalia in 2011–12. Nowadays the closest countries outside parts of sub-Saharan Africa come to famine is what the Food and Agricultural Organization dubs “severe localized food insecurity,” and that hardly ever culminates in famine (Ó Gráda, 2015).

*Examples of 21st century famines*

Ethiopia (1983-85)- experienced multiple, simultaneous civil wars between 1974 and 1991, along with severe famines during this period, including the worst famine in current history between 1983 and 1985 (Africa Watch 1991; von Braun & Olofinbiyi 2007).

Northeast Nigeria

Somalia (2011-12) – ←- NEED TO WRITE THIS –>

Different factors – drought, spike in the price of food, war

South Sudan

The famine in South Sudan is ‘man-made’, and here we see a clear link between famine and lack of democracy. South Sudan w became an independent nation in 2011, and since then it has been plagued by civil war. All involved in the conflict are parties to the famine. A localized famine was declared for Leer and Mayendit [counties] on 20 February 2017, an area where violence and insecurity have compromised humanitarian access for years. More than one million children are estimated to be acutely malnourished across the country; including 270,000 children who face the imminent risk of death should they not be reached in time with assistance (O’Brien, 2017).


The current famine in Yemen has been caused by the Saudi-Arabian led intervention in Yemen and the blockage imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies. According to an October 2018 article by the United Nations, around 14 million people or half of the population of Yemen is at risk of famine. At the end of 2017, 130 children were dying every day from extreme hunger and disease (United Nations, 2018a)

Famine Response and Prevention

Political Solutions

Given the political nature of famine, as outlined above, political institutions can and have played a role in preventing famine. Sen (1981) has shown how liberal institutions in India, including competitive elections and a free press, have played a major role in preventing famine there since independence. ←- MORE HERE? –>

Anti-famine political contract (de Waal, 2000)

The theory of the ‘political contract’ focuses on the contract between rulers and people that ensures famine prevention. Effective political action against famine requires more than just democracy, but the active mobilization of people (e.g. through the US civil rights movement) and specialist institutions to promote human rights (e.g. Human Rights Watch). Famine must be made an issue of political concern even when there is no famine. Complex interventions need to take place in advance to prevent famines. Coalition-building is essential to creating anti-famine politics, especially in terms of fighting famine with other goals. Mobilization against famine therefore has a set of interconnected goals and these are what de Waal (2000) calls a ‘political contract’ against famine:

  1. To ensure a timely response to the threat of famine.
  2. To help create effective anti-famine mechanisms
  3. To educate the public
  4. To ensure that all citizens and residents are entitled to protection against famine.
  5. To enforce accountability

Criminalizing starvation

De Waal (2018) in his recent book entitled Mass Starvation has called for the criminalization of starvation. Starvation should be designated a crime and prohibited worldwide. While there are already enough international laws to prohibit and prosecute action leading to famine, those same laws do not explicitly name starvation and famine as crimes. This is why de Waal (2018) used the term ‘famine crimes’ and calls for activists around the world to take up the cause of criminalizing starvation.

United Nations Development Program: Sustainable Development Goals [related to hunger, food security and famine]

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) signal a renewed commitment to end hunger and global poverty by 2030. While Goal 2: Zero Hunger most explicitly addresses issues concerning famine, other relevant goals to be met by 2030 that are required to prevent famine are listed here. Particular attention is drawn to goal 16 given the above-noted political responses that are required to prevent famine (United Nations Development Program, 2018).

Goal 1: No poverty

To end poverty in all forms and dimensions.

This involves targeting the most vulnerable, increasing access to basic resources and services, and supporting communities affected by conflict and climate-related disasters.

Goal 2: Zero Hunger

To end all forms of hunger and malnutrition, making sure all people have access to sufficient and nutritious food all year round.

“This involves promoting sustainable agricultural practices: supporting small scale farmers and allowing equal access to land, technology and markets. It also requires international cooperation to ensure investment in infrastructure and technology to improve agricultural productivity.”

Goal 3: Good health and well-being

To end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other communicable diseases/

Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

To ensure universal access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

Goal 14: Life Below Water

To sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems from pollution, and address the impacts of ocean acidification.

Goal 15: Life on Land

To conserve and restore the use of terrestrial ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, drylands and mountains.

Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

To significantly reduce all forms of violence, and work with governments and communities to find lasting solutions to conflict and insecurity.

More needs to be done to help people become more resilient and help them better withstand the consequences of armed conflict. “If the SDGs are to be more than aspirations, we need to find real and lasting solutions to conflict, tackle growing inequalities within and across borders, mitigate the effects of climate change, and eliminate the food insecurity that is most profoundly affecting the poorest places on the planet” (von Grebmer, et al., 2015, p. 3).


Banik, D. (2007), Starvation and India's democracy. London/New York: Routledge.

Devereux S. (2000). Famine in the Twentieth Century. University of Sussex: IDS Working Paper 105. Available at

Devereux, S. (Ed.) (2007). The New Famines: Why Famine Persists in an Era of Globalization. London/New York: Routledge.

de Waal, A. (1989). Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-1985. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

de Waal, A. (1997). Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa. London: James Currey.

de Waal, A. (2000). Democratic Political Process and the Fight Against Famine. University of Sussex: IDS Working Paper 107. Available at

de Waal, A. (2015). Armed Conflict and the Challenge of Hunger: Is an End in Sight? (pp. 23-29). In K. von Grebmer et al (Eds). Global Hunger Index: Armed Conflict and the Challenge of Hunger. International Food Policy Research Institute, Concern Worldwide, and Welthungerhilfe

de Waal, A. (2018). Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Cambridge: Polity.

IPC Global Partners. (2012). Integrated Food Security Phase Classification Technical Manual Version 2.0. Evidence and Standards for Better Food Security Decisions. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at

International Food Security Phase Classification. (2016). Guidelines on Key parameters for IPC Famine classification. Available at:

O’Brien, S. (2017). Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs/Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien: Statement to the Security Council on Missions to Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Kenya and an Update on the Oslo Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region. 10 March. Available at:

Ó Gráda, C. (2015). Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Physicians for Social Responsibility (2013). Climate Change and Famine. 15 March. Available at

Sadliwala, B. & de Waal, A. (2018). The Emerging Crisis: Is Famine Returning as a Major Driver of Migration? Migration Information Source. Available at

Sen. A. (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen. A. (1983). Development: Which Way Now? The Economic Journal, (3(372), pp. 745-762.

Tauger, M. B. (2001). Natural Disaster and Human Actions in the Soviet Famine of 1931–1933. The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies (1506): 1–65.

Thaxton, R. (2008). Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

United Nations (2018). Half the population of Yemen at risk of famine: UN emergency relief chief. United Nations News. 23 October. Available at

von Grebmer, K., Bernstein, J. Prasai, N, Yin, S. & Yohannes, Y. (2015). Global Hunger Index: Armed Conflict and the Challenge of Hunger. International Food Policy Research Institute, Concern Worldwide, and Welthungerhilfe. Available at

Woodham-Smith, C. 1962). The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849. London: Penguin.

World Health Organization (2018). Famine and health. Available at

World Peace Foundation (2018). Famine Trends Dataset, Tables and Graphs. Available at

United Nations Development Program (2018). Sustainable Development Goals. Available at

The IPC is a common global scale for classifying the severity and magnitude of food insecurity and malnutrition. It is the result of a partnership of various organizations at global, regional and country levels dedicated to developing and maintaining the highest possible quality in food security and nutrition analysis.
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