UN Food Organisation deputy chief: ‘Famine is back’

'Famine is back' warns the new Global Report on Food Crises 2017, launched in Brussels by, among others, Daniel Gustafson, the Deputy Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. [Matt Tempest/ Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE / At the launch of the Global Report on Food Crises 2017, Daniel Gustafson, the Deputy Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, warned that 108 million people are in “food crisis” around the world.

Daniel Gustafson joined the FAO in 1994, serving in Africa and South Asia. Before assuming his present role, he was the director of the organisation’s Liaison Office for the US and Canada.

Gustafson spoke with EURACTIV.com Development Correspondent Matthew Tempest.

The message of today’s report seemed to be summed up in the words that ‘famine is back’, especially looking at South Sudan, Somalia and north-east Nigeria. Realistically, how much time have we got to prevent a full-blown, catastrophic famine?

Well, I think a lot depends on what happens in the current rainy season in most of those countries, that is April to June. Also, a lot depends of course on the amount of support to the households to prevent them from selling off all their assets, and continuing on a downward spiral – after which they fall off the edge, into catastrophe.

So, it’s a combination of how much support we can give them, and also natural events.

Some of the official classifications below ‘famine’ might seem a little bland and anodyne to the general public: ‘food insecurity’, ‘food crisis’. In layman’s terms, what does that mean for a family in one of those countries?

Well, a ‘catastrophe’ situation is where the number of deaths is above 40 per 10,000, per day. That’s a lot. This is really a disaster. That’s the extreme.

Before that, you’re in the situation of ‘emergency’, where people are barely hanging on, and they are selling what they’ve got left to sell. They’re eating a lot less. They’re giving food to the kids and not eating as adults. They’re selling their livestock to buy food – they’re not going to recover after that. And then once they get back to that point, in order to avoid famine, they’re going to have to move into a camp.

Or they’re going to die.

In that middle ground, you’ve got them trying to forgo something – not luxury items – so you can concentrate on just getting a reduced diet. Probably eating once a day.

Stylianides condemns ‘man-made’ famine in South Sudan, promises €82m

The EU on Tuesday (21 February) condemned as “man-made” the newly-declared famine in South Sudan, whilst pledging an initial €82 in emergency aid to the country.

In terms of the general public, and their understanding of, and sympathy for, famine victims, is there not a difference between famines that are caused by drought, by extreme weather events, by El Niño patterns, and those that are cause by civil war, by tribal fighting, what Commissioner Stylianides last week called a “man-made famine” in South Sudan?

I understand the question. It’s an interesting one. But I’m not sure that’s true.

Definitely, we think [there’s] less sympathy for South Sudan. You’ve got the two parties fighting, people think “The South Sudanese. Why can’t they get this together?” In Somalia, there’s this long-standing conflict plus an El Niño drought. But in actual fact I don’t think the public has any less sympathy for South Sudan.

I think the suffering of the people, who have nothing to do with this disastrous situation of violence between factions, is so severe, that the public understanding of this and sympathy for their plight is equally strong, if not stronger, given the absurdity of having an already bad situation exacerbated by political conflict that should have been solved.

So I think the sympathy is higher possibly.

You’ve worked in Somalia with the UN FAO. Isn’t it heartbreaking in a way that the country endured a famine in 2011 and now seems to be on the brink of it again? Do you ever lose hope?

Looking back at 2011, if we had in place then what we have now, I think we would have avoided famine in 2011. In that sense, I think it’s better.

Also, in 2011, there wasn’t really a functioning government. And in the years that I lived there, there wasn’t a government at all. There wasn’t even a government that people thought was a government.

So what is disheartening in some ways is when it looks as some people are kind of reinventing again what we thought we already knew. But in actual fact, I think looking at that, we’ve come a long way, and are in a much better position now than we were in 2011. Even though the glass is only a little bit fuller, but we’re really way ahead of where we were then.

The major finding of the report is that 108 million people are vulnerable to starvation right now. The EU is the world’s largest aid donor, as we all know. Is there something more they could be doing that they’re not doing?

I’m not sure I really know the answer to that. I mean they are the leaders on this. For us, our biggest donor is willing to invest over the long-term on this. I mean, we should all be doing more, but it’s not like anyone thinks they’re on the wrong track. They have been leaders on this. There’s no question.

Further Reading

Extra €165m from EU for drought crisis in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia

The EU announced on Friday (17 March) a further €165m for drought-stricken parts of eastern Africa, during a visit by Foreign Affairs chief Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Neven Mimica to Addis Ababa, the continent's diplomatic capital.