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When is a Famine a Humanitarian Crisis?

When is a Famine a Humanitarian Crisis?

Dear Editor,

All available evidence suggests that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is suffering, to use the word in the older sense of generalised dearth, a famine; and there is every reason to believe that some people in North Korea have access to less food of a lower quality than they require. The DPRK, in common with other countries of the former Soviet Bloc, has suffered a long-term and now severe national economic decline. Agricultural production is fundamentally restricted by the small arable area available in a mountainous land and has been further sharply reduced by a succession of natural disasters. The population of 24 million has an absolutely large food requirement, and the country has no apparent access to any alternative food source other than a comparatively small amount traded from China and the 800,000 tonnes of relief food so far pledged/provided by the West. The case is strengthened by reported official actions which suggest real shortage, such as the decision to withdraw the supply of food for animal feed. Although there is no objective evidence of food shortage specifically there is no representative information on nutritional status - anthropometric data of a reliable quality from State kindergartens and nurseries shows that the nutritional status of the children in some is low (40 institutions: range 0-33% < -2 Z scores, weight-for-height). It would be difficult to argue that these results reflect normal conditions.

Circumstantial as the evidence is, the working conclusion must be that, unless some element of the case has been grossly misjudged, e.g. that privately traded food from China is on a vastly greater scale than has been estimated, this is a country in crisis; and that any further reduction in food supply may well be followed by starvation. There is of course much that is not known. It is not known how the available food is distributed within the population, with the inevitable suspicion that some population groups, the military being mentioned most often, are favoured above others. This, however, is not unique to the DPRK - similar suspicion having been voiced in many other situations involving foreign food aid to closed societies, although in this, perhaps the most closed of all societies, our ignorance is extreme.

Against this case must be set the description of the situation as it has been represented in the western media by international agencies which tends to suggest that the DPRK is in the grip of generalised mass starvation. World Vision, for example, has said that "At least half a million people have died, probably closer to one to two million' (CNN, September 1997) and that "If this data is countrywide, we're facing one of the terrible famines of this century" (Reuters, 16 September 1997) presumably referring to measurements of 52 children in 5 provincial children's centres which showed that 58% were < -2 Z scores, weight-for-height. Another example was Oxfam's claim that "An estimated 600,000 North Korean children are suffering from malnutrition" (Guardian, 8 August 1997); or UNICEF: 'It is estimated that the loss of life could be as extreme as that endured in the Ethiopian famine of the 1980's" (Guardian, 16 August 1997) - both of these used official DPRK Government figures (15.6% and 38% malnutrition (moderate and severe), despite the fact that the data is of unknown provenance; malnutrition is undefined, and it is known that no representative survey has been conducted. The reasons why agencies have sought to dramatise the situation are unclear but is presumably, as in many previous cases, related to fundraising and perhaps to the belief that a dramatic statement is more likely to ensure a response.

Whatever the reasons, and however good the intention, the misuse of information is so blunt as to demand comment. Two immediate thoughts arise. The first is about the information required to define a famine. The word 'famine' defies adequate semantic definition, but the question here is rather one of practicalities - is the information which we have on food supply to the DPRK sufficient to demand action? Or, is action only proper after it has been objectively demonstrated that there is currently widespread starvation? For many years, agencies, and particularly the international non-governmental agencies, have argued for famine prevention - that food be made available as food aid, by subsidised sale or whatever means is appropriate to the case, in time to avoid the need for starvation relief. In these terms, the evidence required is of current or impending food shortage such as to endanger people's access to sufficient food, not measured mass starvation. Clearly in the case of the DPRK we would have more confidence if we had more evidence for shortage, and complete assurance that food aid would in fact reach the intended beneficiaries. But that is not an option which is currently open. Anthropometric data would be helpful, not least as a baseline - but even if we had representative data which did not show a very low nutritional status, this would not necessarily change the case for intervention.

The second is about which agencies should act and how. The use of information in this way has, to anyone familiar with the history of international disaster propaganda, a curiously dated feel to it. What was normal and would pass without public comment in the 1970s and 1980s, when the world was in the grip of the cold war and the relationships between western and developing countries were often stressed, will not pass now. During the cold war, the humanitarian agencies, and particularly the larger NGOs, often had a privileged access to information about what was happening in crisis affected countries and, by default, often played an intermediary role between the western public and those affected by crisis. One might, for example, argue that NGOs played a crucial role in stimulating the response of western governments to the Ethiopian famine in the mid- 1 980s, and that at that time an element of overstatement sometimes served a higher cause. In the late 1990s, when the agencies rarely have a unique access to a crisis, the use of information which is so widely known to have no basis strikes a dissonance: it serves no obvious purpose other than perhaps the interest of the agencies concerned.

Post cold war, where Governments have reasserted their position, there is a need for humanitarian agencies to reassess their role in relief. In the 1990s, there is often both the political will and the practical possibility of preventing large scale starvation through the provision of food and its distribution in a timely way through the normal mechanisms. The need to define famine in terms of mass starvation and famine relief as food aid directly administered by outside agencies is increasingly a mark of political and technical failure. The logical basis of action is now government-to-government or, (although with the relative normalisation of relationships between states perhaps less often than before) multilateral, with the humanitarian agencies becoming an increasingly marginal and exceptional player.

In the case of the DPRK, the useful humanitarian roles seem to be very restricted. Decisions on the supply of food aid are made by the US and other Governments, albeit presumably primarily on the basis of wider security interests rather than humanitarian concerns. Although we are ignorant of the internal affairs of the DPRK there is every reason to believe that, given sufficient resources, the Government has a considerable capacity to administer and control its own internal economy and to care for its own children. NGOs might play a role in training, as the DPRK, in common with much of the eastern bloc, seems relatively backward in assessment and some other technical areas. There is perhaps also a role in advocacy with western governments and people; possibly a role in supporting the UN in monitoring; and beyond famine relief there are a wide range of social and other needs to which they might address themselves. But there seems to be currently no logical reason for humanitarian agencies to be clamouring or a direct operational role. On current evidence it would be more logical and certainly more cost-effective to put the money into a greater supply of bulk food.

Famine is, fundamentally, a political and economic event with an economic solution; it is not automatically a humanitarian crisis.

Yours, etc.,
John Seaman
Lola Gostelow
SCF(UK)

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Reference this page

John Seaman and Lola Gostelow (1998). When is a Famine a Humanitarian Crisis?. Field Exchange 3, January 1998. p21. www.ennonline.net/fex/3/when