Famine seems barely imaginable in the 21st Century. The idea of somebody dying because they cannot find enough food to eat seems almost bizarre when the world is dealing with an epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes[1]. When UK households were estimated to have thrown away more than £13bn (7.3 million tonnes) worth of food in 2015[2].

And yet in 2017 there were not just one, but four potential famines underway, in Somalia, South Sudan, northern Nigeria and Yemen. In Yemen alone, over a million children are estimated to be acutely malnourished – on the edge of starvation – and another similar number have contracted cholera.

The reasons for famine are complex, and relate to breakdowns in markets, production or employment, and compounded by a lack of or badly timed relief aid. A new paper by the Humanitarian Learning Centre (HLC) written by leading famine expert Stephen Devereux, sets out the lessons relating to the causes of famine and the best way to respond. Drawing on the work of seminal famine authors such as Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen and famine campaigner Alex de Waal, this paper shows that the connecting thread for all four of these current famines is conflict. Famine in modern times hardly ever happens by accident; most often it is either a deliberate strategy or accidental consequence of war. De Waal and others have argued powerfully that until it is recognised as a war crime (and perpetrators are prosecuted for it), it will persist.

Aimed as a resource for donors, humanitarian workers, journalists and others, the paper carefully navigates the space between academic and practitioner knowledge to call for a better understanding of both the causes of famine and the way it kills by providing evidence of how to better tailor response. The Famine: lessons learned paper is one in a series of learning products that the Humanitarian Learning Centre will produce in the coming 18 months.

Others include short summaries of issues of importance to the sector, such as disability in humanitarian emergencies, or non-food needs of women and girls. These learning summaries will draw on the available best practice and academic knowledge to present need to know lessons in an easily digestible format, and will form part of a wider learning series that will cover many of the basics of humanitarian action.

The Humanitarian Learning Centre is a collaboration centre of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, and is a joint venture housed at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Crown Agents. The Centre is also working on some larger learning pathways, including on Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) and the Essentials of Humanitarian Action for Volunteers. Early in 2018 there will be some new work on Humanitarian Decision making, drawing on various disciplines to understand better how we make choices and the best tools for supporting these.

As part of the Academy family, the Humanitarian Learning Centre sees its role as enhancing the knowledge of humanitarians across the sector, but in particular those working at a national and local level. Whilst there is plenty of accessible high quality policy and practice in Europe and North America, it is less available in Africa and Asia. By working with partners and in particular the Academy Centres based in countries affected by crisis, the Humanitarian Learning Centre hopes to play a small part in disseminating this learning and knowledge.


[1] http://www.ids.ac.uk/news/report-warns-of-dangers-of-fast-food-spread-in-developing-countries

[2] Waste resources and action programme (WRAP). In fact, the total amount of food waste is estimated to be 18 million tonnes of food costing a total of £23bn/ year if commercial and retail food waste is included.