A humanitarian paradox: Hunger is a pretty simple concept. But it’s also an incredibly complex concept. You may know, for instance, that 1 in 9 people are living at some level of food insecurity. But what, exactly, is food insecurity? Is that the same as malnutrition? When is a famine a famine?
Here’s a quick primer to some of the most frequently asked questions and frequently used terms we hear and use when we talk about global hunger — and why it matters for the work that we do.
Food security is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization as existing when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This, along with nutritional outcomes, is what we work towards at Concern, and breaks down into four areas of focus:
Food availability: A sufficient amount of quality food is available to communities (including food aid).
Food access: People are able to access the amount of food they’re entitled to in order to maintain a nutritious diet for themselves and their families.
Food utilization: People then use that food, along with clean water, sanitation, and healthcare opportunities, to maintain a healthy lifestyle and meet all of their nutritional needs. This, as the FAO points out, starts to layer in the intersectional nature of food security with non-food elements like water access and strong health systems.
Food stability: People can count on having access to an adequate amount of food at all times, even in the case of sudden shocks (like a pandemic) or cyclical events (such as hungry seasons — more on that below).
Hunger vs. famine
What exactly is a famine?
“Famine” is a word that is often used (and misused) for emotional or metaphoric effect to describe food crises of varying size and scope. In our work, however, there are clear-set guidelines around what constitutes a famine. A famine is declared when:
- 20% of a population are suffering extreme food shortages
- 30% of children under the age of 5 are suffering acute malnutrition
- The death rate of an area has doubled, or two people (or four children) out of every 10,000 people die each day
While these criteria were established by the United Nations, generally it’s up to individual governments to declare (and, eventually, announce the end of) a famine. This can be especially difficult in many of the countries where food security is most threatened: Generally, famines occur in areas where there is a lack of infrastructure, which can make these data points hard to know for certain.
What’s the difference between famine and hunger?
Hunger is also a quantifiable term in our work, one that the UN defines as a minimum of one year where a group or community are unable to consume enough calories and nutrients to maintain a healthy weight and carry out basic physical activity. This is obviously a much broader category, but a hunger crisis can still have disastrous implications for a community.
What causes famine?
Many of the same causes of hunger also contribute to a famine. The World Food Programme points to five main contributors:
- High food prices
- Natural disasters
- Extreme climate
- Lack of humanitarian access
Looking at the above, you may notice that some of these causes are connected. These intersectionalities are one of the biggest reasons that a hunger crisis becomes a famine, as there is no one easy fix. The WFP also points out that these causes of famine (unlike some causes of hunger) are largely man-made, meaning that we can control the outcomes at a high-enough level.
Other words for hunger
Around the same time that some defining contours were placed around “famine,” the Food and Agriculture Organization published the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC breaks down five phases of food security:
Phase 1. Generally Food Secure communities usually have a reliable source of food with low-to-moderate risks for crisis-level food insecurity (Phases 3, 4, and 5)
Phase 2. Moderately Food Insecure communities have a borderline reliable source of food, and have a recurring high risk for food insecurity (due to a combination of vulnerability to risk and possible hazards like a natural disaster or conflict).
Phase 3. Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis situations happen when a community is highly stressed due to any number of causes, which result in a critical lack of food access that results in higher-than-normal levels of malnutrition and loss of livelihoods. If these circumstances continue, the crisis will become an emergency or famine.
Phase 4. Humanitarian Emergency is declared when there is a severe lack of food access with higher than average levels of mortality, malnutrition, and loss of livelihoods that the FAO would term “irreversible.”
Phase 5. Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe. This is also a situation that the FAO links to forced migration and social upheaval.
All of these terms seem a little clinical…
Yes. But these terms are just one way of looking at global hunger. While global hunger levels have gone down (significantly) since 1980, 1 in 10 people still move between Phases 3, 4, and 5 of food security. This gives us a way of understanding the most severe emergencies and focusing global health efforts accordingly.
At the same time, we realize that there are humans on the other side of these efforts. This is why, at Concern, we tailor our approaches to food insecurity to both the level of insecurity and the unique circumstances of the communities we serve, working with local leaders and incorporating indigenous knowledge to ensure that solutions are appropriate and sustainable. It’s helpful to think of the terms above as diagnoses: They don’t define a person, just their current circumstances.
In addition to “how much,” the question of “when” is also important in addressing global hunger. Worldwide, 65% of working adults living in poverty earn their living — and feed their families — through agriculture. In countries like Malawi, this proportion can exceed 80%.
One of the most consistent forms of food insecurity is known as the hunger season or hungry season. This is a time of year between planting and harvest when a family’s food supplies will run out, and it can last for months. Hungry seasons can be longer or more severe in cases like climate change or natural disaster.
For example, Cyclone Idai made landfall in Malawi around the same time that crops like maize were almost ready for harvest. This not only threatened immediate harvests, but also those that were still six months off. This is when a solution like short-cycle seeds is (one of many) elements that can be crucial for disaster response in both the short- and long-term.
At Concern, we tend to focus on some of the particulars of hunger, like agricultural solutions and cash transfers that offset hunger seasons, or programs that screen for, diagnose, and treat different levels of malnutrition. Sometimes, malnutrition centers around deficiency of one specific nutrient or a few key nutrients (these are usually referred to as micronutrient deficiencies). There are three main types of malnutrition that result from the deficiency of all nutrients:
Acute malnutrition (also known as wasting) which includes:
- Moderate acute malnutrition
- Severe acute malnutrition
The intersectionalities of hunger
Our latest nutrition strategy at Concern looks at some of the intersectionalities of hunger and creating programs that respond to those intersections. There are four areas that, when addressed with nutrition in mind, can have major impact:
Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH): Ensuring that communities have access to clean water and hygiene services not only means that they can keep their crops and livestock well-maintained, but also that they will be less susceptible to waterborne illnesses that may prevent them from absorbing those nutrients.
Maternal and Child Health: Ensuring that children under 5 — and especially those under 2 — have the right nutrients and calories they need to develop can dramatically improve their chances of living a more fulfilling and creative life. As nutrients are also passed onto children while they are in the womb and breastfeeding, ensuring that pregnant and lactating women have the right nutrients is also important.
Agriculture: We’ve mentioned this earlier, but agriculture plays a key role in ending global hunger, especially in countries where it makes up a large portion of livelihoods. This means not only increasing the quantity of harvests, but also the quality: We work with farmers to find more nutrient-dense crops that will thrive with their climates and other conditions.
Livelihoods and Cash Transfers: For some of the people we work with, their work is in farming, but they either receive a low return on their investment — or, in some cases, no return. Programs like Graduation and ReGRADE have been established specifically to help with the business side of agriculture in many of the communities we serve, linking food security to financial empowerment. With Graduation programs, many participating families receive cash transfers to supplement their income as they build new skills. For other families who may experience the sudden shock of a natural disaster, cash transfers help ensure that these temporary losses don’t carry permanent ramifications.