Comment: By the time famine is declared it is too late – we must act now

Ireland has its own deep experience of hunger and must use its term on the UN Security Council to turn this solidarity with the world’s poorest into global policy

5th January, 2021
Comment: By the time famine is declared it is too late – we must act now
South Sudan, parts of Yemen, north east Nigeria and Burkina Faso are on the verge of famine. Picture: Getty

Starvation is never inevitable. This is a truth that strikes at the core the Irish experience, but we now know that the first famines of the Covid-19 era are already taking place.

Three United Nations agencies, including the World Food Programme, last month warned that 6.5 million people in South Sudan were facing severe food insecurity as a result of flooding, ongoing conflict and the disruptive effect of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the recent Integrated Food Security Analysis, which brings together analysis from NGOs, UN agencies and government officials, parts of the country are now facing a “catastrophic” famine, which means one in five households or more lack food, acute malnutrition is greater than 30 per cent, and starvation and death are already evident.

Famine is failure — a failure to prevent — and this devastating news was not unexpected. The signs were all there and there have been numerous warnings of surging food insecurity, driven by the phenomenally disruptive effects of Covid-19. The annual United Nations Global Humanitarian Overview, published in December, revealed that a record 235 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance or protection, a near 40 per cent increase on 2020.

Tragically, South Sudan is not alone, with parts of Yemen, north east Nigeria and Burkina Faso now also on the verge of famine. In the Sahel region of Africa, the disruptive effect of Covid-19 on people’s livelihoods, food systems and on children’s education has now dramatically exacerbated what is already one of the world’s most complex and rapidly expanding humanitarian crises.

According to Unicef, some 7.2 million children now need humanitarian assistance between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Burkina Faso has descended particularly rapidly from one of the most peaceful states in Africa merely six years ago to a situation where more than a million people have been displaced by conflict and hundreds of thousands are reliant on emergency assistance for their daily survival.

Famine should not happen in the modern era — anywhere. It can be prevented, but timing is everything.

Three years ago, with four separate regions of the world facing famine, a robust, albeit delayed, humanitarian response involving national and international organisations, UN agencies and governments helped to avert catastrophe.

That is not always the case. The severe East African drought of 2011 — which led to the most devastating famines of the 21st century, with over a quarter of a million deaths, mostly in Somalia — could have been prevented if humanitarian access was guaranteed and the response was well-resourced and rapidly scaled up.

By the time famine is declared, it is, by definition, too late. Somalia was a horrific lesson in that regard, and the collective failure to prevent a famine at the time gave rise to additional warning systems and humanitarian programme modifications that seek to enable a “no-regrets” approach to emergency nutrition.

Almost a decade on, however, as the world’s attention is focused on Covid-19, and as access to populations has been further constrained by the pandemic, we are at risk of slipping into catastrophe by delaying a response at the scale that is necessary.

The wider issue driving these levels of hunger is conflict itself, something that still supersedes Covid-19 and even climate change in terms of its effect on hunger levels. After decades of progressive decline, global hunger has been rising since 2015 and a global surge in conflict is the main driver of this increase.

Ireland has its own deep experience of hunger, unique in Europe, and that history has afforded us an empathy and solidarity with the world’s poorest. And as Ireland begins its term on the United Nations Security Council at a time of global uncertainty and increasing hardship there is an the opportunity to action this national empathy on a global policy level.

The passing of UN resolution 2417 in 2018 at the Security Council, which condemns the starving of civilians as a method of warfare as well as the unlawful denial of humanitarian access to civilian populations, was a critical watershed acknowledgement of the direct link between war and hunger.

Ireland now has a timely opportunity to build momentum for accountability, adherence to the resolution and overall protection of civilians in conflict. It won’t be easy and it is impossible to ignore the role of first world countries in weapons production and sale. These same countries are often those that offer a sticking plaster of aid to communities that are falling apart at the seams due to decades of conflict, suffering and hunger.

Combatting hunger is a key and logical entry point for Ireland on the Security Council and something that would undoubtedly be supported at home. The Hunger, the recent RTÉ/UCC documentary on the Great Famine seen by a wide audience across the country, provided a visceral illustration of the true nature of starvation and societal collapse that goes with famine. It also reminded us of the ferocious injustice experienced by ordinary people caught up in wider issues of starvation tied to political neglect.

These issues remain as true now in South Sudan and in other parts of the world as they did for Ireland in the mid-19th century. Ireland suffered when no one acted. We are at the same point in the world today with famine declared and further threatened and where a humanitarian intervention is needed on a far greater scale.

At the start of 2021, our choices and our actions matter more than ever. If we are to build a world without famine and devastating hunger, we cannot ignore those who will simply starve while no one seems to be watching.

Dominic MacSorley is chief executive of Concern Worldwide. For more details of Concern’s work visit

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