How famine rages on in an age of plenty

How famine rages on in an age of plenty

By Luke Vargas   
Young girls line up at a feeding centre in Mogadishu, Somalia. March 9, 2017. UN Photo/Tobin Jones
Young girls line up at a feeding centre in Mogadishu, Somalia. March 9, 2017. UN Photo/Tobin Jones

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode 14, “Famine in an Age of Plenty.”

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Luke Vargas: The world is facing one of the most extreme humanitarian crises since the end of the Second World War. In Central Africa, East Africa and in war-torn Yemen, tens of millions of people are on the verge of starvation. If you thought modern agriculture and a global economy would prevent famine, think again.

So what are we doing wrong? Why can’t we conquer famine? What can the U.S. and the world do to address the current crisis?

We’re taking on those questions next on Wake.


Thanks for joining us. We’re coming to you today from U.N. headquarters in New York.

Joining us in studio today at the U.N. is Deepmala Mahla, the South Sudan country director for the international aid group Mercy Corps. Deepmala, thank you for joining us.

Deepmala Mahla: Thanks for having me, Luke.

Luke Vargas: Your focus is obviously on South Sudan, the world’s newest nation that is unfortunately experiencing immense suffering, but I know you’re up to speed on the broader famine crisis that’s spreading more broadly around other parts of East Africa, Central Africa and Yemen.

Numbers never tell the whole story, but let’s start with numbers. How many people are at risk in this current famine crisis? And where are they?

Deepmala Mahla: The famine-like conditions, what we are seeing right now in South Sudan, Somalia, Northeast Nigeria and Yemen is unbelievably urgent and huge in scope. We are talking about 20 million people being on the brink of starvation, and another 80 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from.

Luke Vargas: I’ve reported from the U.N. for nearly five years, and every week there are reports about people struggling to access food somewhere in the world. And one thing I’ve noticed is there are lots of terms used for different levels of severity. There’s “facing hunger,” “food insecurity,” “extreme food insecurity,” and most recently, “famine.” They might all sound the same, but I they’re not.

In human terms, can you define the physical conditions being experienced by millions of people right now in South Sudan and elsewhere. What does “famine” mean?

Deepmala Mahla: So the declaration of famine is technical, and let me say also, political. The important fact to note and remember that people are dying and we do not have to wait for people to be into famine conditions to save them.

Like, for example, six years ago when famine was declared in Somalia, 260,000 people died, and half of them died before the famine was declared. And half of this 260,000 were children, by the way.

So technicality exists. Famine has a definition.

In terms of food security, there are five phases, and the fifth one is catastrophic, which is famine. But phase four emergency, that’s severe, and there is very little time left, a very short window for someone being in phase four or emergency, or being in phase five catastrophic.

A baby suffering from malnutrition at Garowe General Hospital in the Puntland State of Somalia. Courtesy: Save the Children

Luke Vargas: If someone is pulled back from a state of famine – literally, where death by starvation is narrowly averted – is the work over? Or does experience with famine follow those affected?

Deepmala Mahla: For many years, for many years. Because even when you fall into an emergency situation, phase four, it’s really bad.

And we are talking here about people, women, girls, children and if their lifestyle is not improved in terms of eating nutritious, sufficient food – and very importantly, when we talk about pulling somebody out of famine, it’s not only about food, we have to care about water, sanitation and hygiene. Because oftentimes, between starvation and death there is disease. Maybe a cholera or malaria or measles. So to reduce famine conditions, in addition to food, we need other interventions, and very urgently.

Luke Vargas: The four countries that we’ve been focusing on today are experiencing either outright war, or more localized insurgency. How is that complicating response to this famine?

Deepmala Mahla: Very complicated. And as you rightly said, these four near-famine conditions, they’re all man-made. I mean, Somalia has some drought, and there were erratic rains in two regions of South Sudan. However, two regions having erratic rains cannot explain half of the country being food insecure. So when there is conflict and insecurity, humanitarian aid work becomes very difficult, and the main reason is being able to access those people.

We should have a way and a passage which is safe and secure for us to reach, and also reach there with the supplies. So there are many occasions where we are either delayed in reaching those people – sometimes we cannot reach, sometimes our facilities are attacked, looted, sometimes all the supplies are gone – staff, when they undergo, my team members, when unfortunately, they undergo some instances they face trauma, it’s very difficult.

So we have to be on our feet every single day.

Luke Vargas: These obstacles sound intention, not accidental…

Deepmala Mahla: Combination.

Luke Vargas: There have been headlines saying there are more people hungry now than at any point since WWII — does the situation feel that dire? Or are there silver linings you see?

Deepmala Mahla: The situation is more dire than ever. For example, I’ve been in South Sudan since 2015, and when I went there I thought it’s really bad and difficult. When I look at 2017 – it may sound odd – 2015 seems a bit better.

You go to the field, I meet women and families who’ve lost everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything.

I met one woman who had walked through the swamps to save her life for four and a half days, and she was already malnourished. And she was going deeper and deeper into the swamps, reaching areas where there’s probably nothing to eat except water lilies, but she still chose that because she believed that she would be alive.

Four and a half to five days, she could not carry the baby any longer, and she let the baby go. And this is a decision made by a mother.

There have been areas where my teams go and we try to help people farm vegetables and crops, and we realize nothing much can be done because the only people left in those small villages are either very old or widows who do not have the physical strength.

And the stories, these two anecdotes I’ve shared, unfortunately they’re very common.

Luke Vargas: Finally, later in this program we’re going to talk to experts about what the U.S. government and other countries can do about this crisis.

Even the Trump Administration, which is threatening big cuts to international food assistance has just stepped forward with $639 million more to deal with this famine, so there’s definitely a role for major players. But do you have an appeal for individuals, too?

Deepmala Mahla: There is a major role. And me personally, my organization and organizations like mine, we are really counting on the American people to help us out of this crisis, and they can. In my experience, Americans are the most generous people in the world, and trends show that when there is a crisis they have always helped.

And we also know from history, when America donates the rest of the world follows.

So eight international humanitarian organizations, including MercyCorps, we have come together for the first-ever humanitarian coalition to make an appeal to the American public to raise awareness as well as funds, and this is going to run from July 17th to July 28th, and we really hope to generate a lot of money so that we can save lives.

We are already saving lives, and we can definitely save many many more.

Luke Vargas: Deepmala Mahla is the country director for MercyCorps in South Sudan. To learn more about the big international push that MercyCorps is a part of to address the ongoing famine, visit Deepmala, thanks for being with us.

Deepmala Mahla: Thanks for having me, Luke.


Luke Vargas: Let’s expand the discussion now and bring in two new voices.

First from Washington D.C., Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. special envoy to South Sudan from 2011 to 2013 and, in past lives, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, an official at USAID and currently the senior advisor to the president of the United States Institute of Peace.

Ambassador Lyman, a privilege to have you with us, thank you for the time.

Amb. Princeton Lyman: My pleasure.

Luke Vargas: And joining us from Denmark tonight is Olivier Rubin, associate professor at Roskilde University. He’s written extensively on this phenomena of famine and how it interplays with politics. Olivier Rubin, thank you so much for being with us as well.

Olivier Rubin: Thanks for inviting me.

Luke Vargas: Olivier, I want to start with you. We are hearing about a very dire hunger crisis, bordering on famine, which is a technical definition and a very extreme one, and it is occurring at the very least in four countries – South Sudan, Somalia, parts of Nigeria and Yemen.

Are you surprised these are the countries we are hearing about that are experiencing this hunger crisis?

Olivier Rubin: Not at all. Famine today usually strikes in fragile strikes or failed states, even. And that is of course because famine is very much linked to politics and to conflict today, as opposed to just 30 or 40 years [ago] when you could have more production, directly production failures, or market-based failures.

Today it’s very much political failures, if you can term them as such. So I’m not surprised at all. That is a pattern and I think it will be, unfortunately, continuing in the future.

Luke Vargas: I want to follow up on that. Our previous guest sort of said these famines are not entirely accidental, and I suspect that given the fact that we were talking to an aid worker, that may have been an understatement.

What have you found in your research about, generally, the countries that seem to have these famines pop up?

Olivier Rubin: Yeah, so usually you would think that a famine is caused by – even if you agree that it is political, that it’s a political sort of failure – but for a lot of governments in these countries it’s an opportunity, it’s actually in their political interests, or at least factions within these countries.

So for instance if you look at the South Sudanese famine you can see that, for instance, just days after the U.N. declared famine the government raised the price of business visas from $100 to $10,000, mostly aimed at aid workers, to increase government revenue. But of course they did that at the expense of aid workers.

So that’s not sort of a political failure, that’s more of political obstruction.

And the same with the 2001 Somalia famine. That famine was very much targeted at certain regions in the southern [part] of Somalia that were controlled Al-Shabaab, the extremist Islamist militant group. And here, they controlled the areas, they obstructed or redirected the aid that tried to get through.

The U.N. famine declaration was just brushed aside as Western propaganda, and they actually used the famine as a recruiting tool. They promised foreign fighters or volunteer fighters a piece of food each day. And they also had very judgmental policies to prevent famine victims from migrating [from] the affected areas. They actually set up internment camps and imprisoned people who tried to escape the famine.

So it’s sort of very much a political failure in the sense that, for a humanitarian failure but it’s not necessarily a political failure because it serves a purpose, and we’ve known that since [David Keen] wrote his monograph in 1994 about the Sudanese famine in 1983, that famine can be used as a benefit – the benefits of famine.

Women gather water from a water bore in Panyjiar county, South Sudan. Courtesy: Bruno Bierreenbach/Oxfam
Women gather water from a water bore in Panyjiar county, South Sudan. Courtesy: Bruno Bierreenbach/Oxfam

Luke Vargas: Ambassador Lyman, you were the special envoy to South Sudan as recently as four years ago. What do you make of what Olivier just told us? If any of that is true, it must be sort of an uncomfortable realization to have hanging over your head as you’re there to try and help –

Amb. Princeton Lyman: It’s one of the great tragedies brought about the failure of leaders, the greed of leaders and a lack of strong political institutions.

And it weighs heavily on all of us who worked on behalf of giving the South Sudanese the right of self determination and independence.

What I find extremely disturbing – and it goes along with what Professor Rubin has said – is that the government of South Sudan not only put obstacles in the way of humanitarian activity, but it becomes for both sides, all sides in the war, kind of a weapon of war – food as a reward, withholding food as pressure.

And I think it raises a very difficult question for the international community and the humanitarian organizations: how much do you continue at enormous costs and great inefficiency to provide assistance in a situation in which you are blocked at almost every direction by both government and elements of the opposition?

You don’t want to turn away, but as the professor has indicated, some of those resources go into the economy to sure up the very government that is throwing up these obstacles.

Luke Vargas: Can I follow up on that? You are now out of your government role. I wonder if you could speak broadly to the existence of any sort of pressure that is felt by government officials to perhaps not talk about famine in those sorts of political terms, fearing that if you were seen as not just doing a humanitarian role, but trying to sort of meddle in any way in a political crisis, that that would jeopardize access and the ability to do humanitarian work.

Is that a reality of this sort of humanitarian response?

Amb. Princeton Lyman: I think it’s a reality for the humanitarian agencies. They have to be extremely careful what they say and what they say publicly because it has the risk of the government throwing up more obstacles, or even removing them from the country. And you find humanitarian agencies torn in these situations as to how much they want to say publicly and how much they don’t.

But I think it’s up to others – the U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan, political figures and others – to raise these issues and bring about political pressure on the parties.

Unfortunately, the peace process in South Sudan is in the hands of the regional states under the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, called IGAD, and they are so divided in their own interests and approaches that they do not put sufficient pressure on either the government or some of the opposition to bring about even a ceasefire, let alone a peace agreement.

Staff at the Dusuman health clinic near Maiduguri, Nigeria weigh malnourished children. Courtesy: Save the Children
Staff at the Dusuman health clinic near Maiduguri, Nigeria weigh malnourished children. Courtesy: Save the Children

Luke Vargas: Olivier, did you want to weigh in?

Olivier Rubin: I very much agree with the Ambassador. And maybe I could just weigh in with – I think that maybe there is room to criminalize famine in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – which we haven’t really used so far – because there are some obstacles that talk about depriving people of access to food and medicine with the purpose of destroying parts of the population. That would be a crime against humanity, but it’s not really been invoked.

And of course the ICC is pretty weak at the moment. There are some especially African countries that are withdrawn from cooperation. But it would be an important signal to send that these famines are just as much a crime against humanity as are pogroms or ethnic cleansing or something like that.

So that would be sort of a venue that we could try to pursue, because it can’t be solved alone by increasing funding for NGOs, because in a lot of places it has to do with security and conflict.

Luke Vargas: Olivier, in your research you looked at famines going back into the beginning of the 20th century when there was not a global economy and many of the technologies – transportation, agricultural technologies – we enjoy. Why can’t technology and globalization prevent famines from occurring?

Olivier Rubin: I think the short answer would be that any improvements that you have in food technology and logistics can be canceled out by the destructive forces of conflict and political partisanship.

So that’s not to acknowledge that there is some good news, like that we consistently produce more food or calories per capita, you have a strong presence of humanitarian NGOs and international organizations in almost all corners of the world, we have early warning systems in place and all that.

And actually famines today are almost exclusively restricted to the small enclave of fragile states that you mentioned before, and then North Korea as well, as sort of an outsider where we could see a famine as we did in the 90’s again.

But other than that, in a large part of the world which had famine previously, we have sort of eradicated it. So we have limited sort of the problems to sort of a few countries. So that’s the good news.

But the bad news is it’s almost impossible to solve now because of the link to conflict – the very sort of complex emergency that sort of interacts with the famine – it’s not sort of a monocausal relationship that you need to just to this to fix it. So it’s very complex in these regions – South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, parts of Nigeria and so on.

A 15-month-old child is cared for in the Garowe General Hospital’s stablisation unit in the Puntland State of Somalia. Courtesy: Save the Children

Luke Vargas: Ambassador, you were working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, in Ethiopia in the 1970’s. Was there a hope that in some technological future that these problems would be engineered out of existence? And what has been like to not see that come to fruition?

Amb. Princeton Lyman: Well there has been, as the professor indicated, a great deal of progress in building up food production. And the U.S. government under the Obama administration, they had this program Feed the Future, which in places like Ethiopia did a great deal to increase production, but you have climate and geographical factors that even in a stable government, relatively speaking, in Ethiopia, you still have pockets of great need when rain fails. And here again we get into climate change.

Ethiopians tell me that where they used to have a major drought every decade, they now have three per decade.

And so you have to respond to people moving, people in emergency situations. But where you don’t have conflict, where you don’t have political resistance, you can reach people, you can reach people with food from the surrounding areas or bring it in food internationally. You have a serious drought factors in eastern Africa right now, in Kenya and in Ethiopia, et cetera. You don’t hear of famine because there are response capabilities that you can employ.

I would like to say a word about the situation in Nigeria, because it’s different from what we’ve described in Somalia and South Sudan. There you don’t have government so much throwing up obstacles, the problems from Boko Haram, the extremist rebel group, but you also have inefficiencies, you have corruption, you have bureaucratic rivalries that are getting in the way of an effective international response in that situation.

People are not only in camps, they are living with other people in the area – either relatives or people who have taken them in – and reaching those is among the most difficult in that situation. But there’s a lot of frustration in the rivalry between the central government and the state governments, and some corruption, et cetera, as well as the problems of Boko Haram, that have created the famine situation in that particular part of the country

Luke Vargas: Olivier, I’m going to finish the show by asking the ambassador a pair of questions about U.S. development assistance right now. But before I do that, I’m curious. In your research on famines, have you been able to unearth any best practices for how the world should respond to famine outbreaks given what we are now talking about very clearly as being the political precipitating factors?

Olivier Rubin: Whoa, that’s a big question. I mean, I think that we might need to think about the International Criminal Court of the responsibility to protect missions to help famine victims.

There’s also, and even though we haven’t touched on that too much, as the ambassador rightly says, I think in the future we could see more “traditional famines” that are caused by climate change or environmental degradation where you simply have huge production failure where it’s very very important that you have these humanitarian aid agencies being able to step in. And of course they need funds to do that.

I know the U.N. has estimated the annual funding gap for all humanitarian actions to be $15 billion. But that’s just 0.2 percent of the global wealth generated annual. So if we could at least close that gap to make sure that key humanitarian agencies are not just getting sort of tranches, small tranches, two-month tranches, three-month tranches, but sufficient funds to be able to deal with these very complex situations, that would help.

So a dual strategy of a little bit more funding – I’m not talking about overfunding – but also trying to criminalize famine much more than it is today.

Luke Vargas: Ambassador, more funding doesn’t look like it’s at least an option being talked about much in Washington, where the President’s proposed budget calls for, if this is to be believed, a 32 percent cut in foreign aid, maybe $19 billion in cuts.

Now there is a quote that everyone is talking about in the development world from Defense Secretary James Mattis, that he would have to buy more bullets if the State Department cut its diplomatic budget. Is there a way you’d modify Mattis’s saying to suit your experience?

Children gather at at a water filling station in Yemen. Courtesy: Moayed Al Shaibani/Oxfam

Amb. Princeton Lyman: Well I think there are several things to keep in mind when looking at these levels of cuts, which are quite severe and I think the Congress is going to moderate that a good deal, and it goes to something Professor Rubin was saying earlier.

We have to make a lot of progress in shoring up the capability of countries in the international community to meet these massive crises when they occur. That means investing in technology, capability, et cetera. So your regular foreign aid programs or development programs, and in deed your diplomacy, plays a big role in the that; you can’t simply have a situation where you’re only responding to crises when they occur.

There’s something else that I think is coming into play, in spite of all the debates over budgets and cutting back, and that is, Americans don’t really turn away from huge famines like this. It hasn’t gotten the same attention that some famines have in the past, but I notice that President Trump just allocated some $690 million additional toward these famine areas. And this goes against, if you will, the idea that you have to cut back.

And I think there is a fundamental element of how Americans see themselves in the world, that you don’t stand by if huge numbers of people and children are the biggest victims here.

And I’m hoping that’s going to prevail, and to look a second time at these proposed cuts and realize it really does a great disservice to not only our interests overseas, but to the way we have always acted in the world.

Luke Vargas: Finally Ambassador, I just want to jump in with a final question. You mention the $639 million just given by the U.S. to this famine response, I’m wondering if the thinking in the U.S. government is that all aid dollars are created equal if they’re coming from USAID or the U.S. government, as opposed to from the World Food Program or from Mercy Corps.

Do you think there’s a line of thinking in Washington that, better to have this coming from the U.S. in a package that says “from the American people,” as opposed to from the U.N., where we seem to be obsessed with finding more value now?

Amb. Princeton Lyman: Well I think a substantial amount of this is going to go through organizations like the World Food Programme and humanitarian agencies.

I used to direct the refugee program at the State Department, and almost all our emergency funding went through the U.N. High Commission for Refugees or humanitarian agencies working in the area.

So I think you’ll that see that some of this money as well as our traditional money does go, along with direct U.S. programs, with international agencies. And that’s essential. You take an organization like the World Food Programme, they are the experts in delivering food. And I’ve seen them do marvelous work under very difficult circumstances. You can’t duplicate that bilaterally in many cases.

Luke Vargas: Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the senior advisor to the president of the United States Institute of Peace, thank you so much for being with us today.

It’s been a real pleasure to be on with Professor Rubin. Thank you for doing this program.

And with us from Denmark, Olivier Rubin, associate professor at Roskilde University. Olivier, thanks to you as well.

Olivier Rubin: Thanks for having me.


Luke Vargas: After taping this interview we stepped back and looked at the claims made by our guests that some of these famines might be intentional, not accidental or just driven by the environment.

And given the severity of those allegations, we decided to ask what the United Nations thinks about the root cause of these famines. Stéphane Dujarric is the spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres –

Stéphane Dujarric: I think what is clear is that the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen is not an act of god, it’s an act of man. The humanitarian situation, as it currently stands, is an act of man.

Luke Vargas: What about Somalia?

Stéphane Dujarric: In Somalia there is a layering of drought, which is making the situation worse, but it’s clear that the ongoing fight with extremists, with Al-Shabaab, is making humanitarian access extremely difficult.

Luke Vargas: And South Sudan?

Stéphane Dujarric: In South Sudan I think the suffering of the people of South Sudan is also clearly man made, and we’ve called out the political leaders for putting their own interests ahead of those of their own people.

Luke Vargas: I think we’ll leave it there.

If you like what you just heard, please leave us a review on iTunes or follow this program on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

And while we’ve got a long list of topics we want to explore on future episodes, we’re always open to suggestions. If you’ve got an idea, send it in via email to

I’m Luke Vargas, signing off. Join us again next week, on Wake.

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