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Operational definition of a famine

Summary of workshop1

A one day workshop was held on March 14, 2003 by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) Sussex, with the aim of developing an operational definition of famine. Convened as a follow-up to an IDS 2002 conference on famine, it was attended by a group of academics, donors, agencies and the ENN.

Dried out sorghum harvest with barely any crops on it , Wollo.

Four cases were highlighted to focus discussion. Ethiopia (1984) was unanimously declared a famine while Iraq during the 1990s, Ethiopia (2000) and Malawi (2002) were more equivocal. The ensuing discussion highlighted factors to consider in defining a famine, including:

Need for an operational definition of famine An operational definition of famine was deemed necessary in order to strengthen the following:

Identified limitations of developing an operational definition included:

A static definition may restrict responses until a situation is finally defined as a famine, when intervention may be too late. Also, it may focus responses on food at the expense of other sectors, or even at the expense of other foodrelated, non-famine disasters.

Politics and accountability.

An operational definition may provide excuses for donors and agencies not to respond to situations unless a situation is labelled as famine, and could be subject to political manipulation and misuse.

Difficulties in establishing indicators.

It may prove difficult to reach consensus on one operational definition, e.g. how to take into account cultural differences, different target audiences (donors/NGOs), etc.

Following a review of existing famine definitions and group discussions, consensus was achieved on the following issues:

Outstanding disagreements/ambiguities included whether a famine was a process or event, what time-frame should be included in an operational definition, for whom the definition was designed, and whether economic and social factors should be taken into account in determining causality.

Strengths and weaknesses of definitions

The strengths and weaknesses of recent definitions/frameworks of famine (Howe and Devereux2, Banik3), which involved gradation or scales, were discussed. It was suggested that scaling risks implies different, mutually exclusive, levels of famine. Also, the type of information included (malnutrition, mortality) may be difficult to gather, tended to be outcome focused or may only become available when the famine is well advanced. It was countered, however, that early warning mechanisms, as well as some aid agencies, have the capacities to collect timely key data. Alternative (qualitative) forms of criteria/indicators exist or could be developed for earlier stages. Even if certain data could only be obtained if/after a famine has occurred, it may still be used as a determination of accountability, for future advocacy and improved response.

Despite these issues, the concept of scale or gradation was deemed a useful one, since it includes the idea of a "threshold" which is crossed when a famine crisis occurs, and gives some focus to the process as well as the "event" of famine. Indicators that point to the likelihood of a famine were considered necessary, so that preventative steps may be taken. However in reality, it was considered difficult to mobilise resources for "prior stages of famine" and donors will need to be convinced that "something special is happening". Critical to a definition is how, and who, will determine that the "threshold" has been crossed?

Workshop conclusion

An operational definition was not agreed at this meeting, but key attributes of a definition were, with suggestions for taking the process forward.

Given the high levels of emergency situations and crises, an operational definition was considered a matter of extreme importance. Consensus building was necessary to approach a common position amongst stakeholders and with significant input from donors early on in the process. Gaps in the process as it stands need to be identified, with action points, eg conducting regional case studies on famine threshold issues.

The workshop was deemed successful in gaining operational insights into academic frameworks that are being generated, and giving momentum to taking the process forward through a wider consultation with stakeholders and decision-makers.

For further information, contact Stephen Devereux, IDS Sussex, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.

Show footnotes

1Report and minutes of "Operational Definition of Famine Workshop" IDS Sussex, Friday 14 March 2003

2Howe, Paul and Devereux, Stephen, 2002. Notes towards an operational definition of famine. Mimeo: Institute of Development Studies, Sussex.

3Banik, Dan, 2002. Democracy, drought and starvation in India: Testing Sen in Theory and Practice, PhD thesis submitted to The Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Oslo. (Chapter 3: Refining Sen (1):Operational definitions of famine and related terms)

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Reference this page

Operational definition of a famine. Field Exchange 19, July 2003. p25.



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