IN FEBRUARY the UN declared a state of famine in parts of South Sudan. It is the first time the UN has officially deployed the term since 2011. But, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net), which is run by the American government, 70m people worldwide will need food assistance this year. In Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, FEWS Net states there is a “credible risk of famine”. Between them around 20m people are at risk of starvation. The UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator, Stephen O’Brien, has said that “the largest humanitarian crisis” since 1945 is unfolding this year.
The number of deaths caused by famine has dropped precipitously over the past few decades. China’s famine during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62 caused between 20m and 55m deaths. Hundreds of thousands of people starved during the Ethiopian famine of 1984, even as the country’s military regime taxed aid and spent the proceeds on a grand celebration of the success of Marxism.
The causes of famine are mainly political. The situations in South Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria are no exception. War blights all of these countries. In South Sudan, where 5.8m need food assistance, the government binds delivery of aid in red tape and frequently denies deliveries. Aid workers suggest that by doing so, it prevents supplies getting into the hands of rebels who might then sell them to buy weapons. The main port in Yemen has been bombed out, and the lengthy permit process required to get food through maritime blockades means that it is often spoiled. Some 2m people are in an “emergency situation”, and a further 5m-8m do not have enough to eat. Nigeria’s war in the north has resulted in 800,000 people fleeing to one city alone, Maiduguri. Many aid agencies do not want to deliver supplies to dangerous, rebel-held territories.
Sadly, the global response has been inadequate. Western governments and aid agencies have invested large amounts of money, but done little to address the political problems that cause starvation. In South Sudan and Yemen, they acquiesce to the obstacles that governments place on distributing aid. In South Sudan, it has proven impossible to introduce an arms embargo or sanctions. In Yemen, Britain and America supply most of the weapons used to bomb Houthi rebels; America has also given logistics and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia’s war effort for two years. And so famine, which should have been abolished throughout the world by now, is coming back.