From the Middle Ages to modern times, humankind has endured devastating periods of famine caused by war, weather or politics. At the beginning of the 21st century, famine still threatens over 20 million people across South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. Although largely described by the media and international aid agencies as being caused by two primary factors, drought and war,the current spate of famine is better understood as a broader socio-economic and political process, one that has rendered some groups more vulnerable to food insecurity than others. For famine to manifest, proximate factors like erratic weather and volatile food prices are almost always overlaid on long-standing crises of deepening income inequality and the political disenfranchisement of the world’s poor, particularly in regards to access to land and food. Famine is a phenomenon far greater than the sum of its parts.

Famines and food shortages have recurred throughout human history due to a variety of causes: natural disasters, socio-economic and political inequalities, economic shocks and food price inflation, war and violent conflicts. Claiming almost 75 million lives during the 20th century, the threat of famine in the early 21st century seemed largely absent, if not consigned to history. Just two years ago, The Lancet published an article proclaiming the powerful message that famine in the 21st century had been all but eradicated.

Now, widespread famine looms across the Horn of Africa and parts of the Middle East. The United Nations (UN) have called it an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis” with famine, for the first time in history, threatening four different countries simultaneously. Just a day after famine was officially declared by the UN in South Sudan, in February this year, Secretary-General António Guterres made clear that the eradication of famine is far from becoming a reality. So why, given impressive advances in recent decades in agricultural production, poverty and hunger reduction, early warning systems and international humanitarianism, is famine still persisting at such an unprecedented rate in the 21st century?

What is famine?

Famine occurs when there is widespread and long-term disruption in access to food, which results in severe malnutrition and mass mortality unless alternative sources of food become available. A food crisis turns into a famine when three criteria cohere: 20% of households in an area or region face extreme food shortages; more than 30% of the population is acutely malnourished; and more than two people in 10,000 die each day.

While causal factors differ from crisis to crisis, there is one thing all famines have in common: they are invariably political. Famines most acutely affect populations with limited political and economic capacity. As Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen famously theorised in the 1980s, in countries that suffer famine, it’s never the entire population that is at risk. Even when a drought causes massive crop failure, it is generally the poorest classes, such as landless rural labourers, that face starvation. Sen pointed out that in every major famine since the Second World War, there was enough food in the region at that time to feed the population, the poor simply could not afford it. In this sense, famine is less the result of a lack of food, than the lack of the means to pay for it. When an individual or household is exposed to a number of external hazards – drought, conflict, economic shocks – their ability to earn an income decreases, increasing their vulnerability to hunger. This underlying vulnerability in a population is a more important determinant of the extent of a crisis than the natural disaster(s) that may trigger it.

Paradoxically and perversely, the majority of people vulnerable to food insecurity and famine are farmers. This tragic irony is a result of the reconfiguration of the global food system over the last four decades. Agricultural policy was reconfigured in the thirty years between 1970 and 2000, through structural adjustment programmes (loans granted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to low income countries with the condition that governments reorient economic activity and policies toward repaying debt) and neoliberal trade policies.

Under these policies, countries were forced to abandon their national goals of growing traditional crops to ensure food self-sufficiency, and instead switch to non-traditional cash crops for foreign markets, in order to generate money to pay off their international debt. Similarly, agricultural subsidies and farmer extension or credit programmes were cut to reduce government spending. Restrictions to foreign investment were lifted, which made way formega-developmentssuch as mines, dams or large plantations which resulted in many farmers and communities being forced off their land or resettled. Removed from their land and means of making a living, millions of farmers and their families across the globe were pushed further into poverty, increasing their vulnerability to hunger.

Hunger not only persisted, but deepened, even in food surplus countries. Of the 37 countries (28 in Africa) that are experiencing severe levels of food insecurity today, 33 of them have undergone structural adjustment reform.

Famine is inherently linked to conflict and a lack of democracy. Famines are more likely to occur in authoritarian regimes (Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Mengistsu’s Ethiopia, Kim Jon-il’s North Korea) or during war and prolonged conflict, than in stable democracies. It is not a coincidence that the threat of famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen is occurring in the midst of violent and protracted conflicts.

Conflict can, and does, have major disruptive effects on growing, harvesting and trading food. Crops, food stocks and other assets are stolen and destroyed. Trade routes are deliberately disrupted and markets disappear overnight. Food relief is looted and diverted from those who urgently need it for survival. Farming populations are reduced by direct attacks or forced recruitment, or by malnutrition and illness. As farming and rural populations flee due to increased violence and conflict, food production falls, spreading food deficits over wider areas. Displaced populations lose access to their homes, land, assets and means of subsistence. Communities are fragmented and social networks destroyed. With prolonged conflict and insecurity, basic services and infrastructure breakdown and poor sanitary conditions lead to the outbreak of infectious disease. When a natural disaster like drought hits, the additive vulnerability caused by conflict and displacement sets the stage for famine.

Complex Emergencies

What is occurring across Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen are cases of complex emergencies. The term ‘complex emergency’ was coined by the UN to imply a major humanitarian crisis characterised by a combination of causes (conflict and violence, poverty, social inequities, mass displacement and famine) requiring a combination of responses (military, peacekeeping, emergency relief). Typically, an acute emergency, like drought, is layered over ongoing political and economic instability. In Somalia, for example, almost three decades of civil conflict has resulted in the collapse of government and basic services, prolonged insecurity and increased internal displacement. These longer-term factors have gradually eroded the livelihoods and coping strategies of Somali populations over the past 20 years, making people especially vulnerable to the impacts of drought and inflating food prices. The country is now facing its third famine in 25 years, with roughly 6.2 million people requiring emergency aid and roughly half that number facing starvation.

While virtually every contemporary crisis is caused by a combination of factors, all contemporary famines are fundamentally political. Famine in the 21st century has been exacerbated by a number of new factors – volatile weather conditions caused by climate change, rising prevalence of HIV/AIDS and chronic and recurrent conflict – that are ultimately rooted in structural vulnerabilities shaped entirely by political factors. Famine, therefore, must be viewed as a broader social and political process; one that has debilitating effects on the livelihoods, food production and access of the most marginalised populations. If the eradication of famine is to happen in the 21st century, it can only be achieved by the concurrent eradication of social and political inequality.

Photograph: United Nations Photo