3 Questions with Chris Hillbruner: Why Famine No Longer Takes the World by Surprise


Chris Hillbruner is the deputy chief of party of analysis for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a USAID-funded project that compiles data and warns of impending food insecurity in almost 40 countries around the world.

The eyes of the world are on South Sudan right now after famine was declared on February 20. The threat of famine also looms in Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria. What caused these crises and what does the international community need to do now?

Sometimes food insecurity is caused by drought. When that’s the case, humanitarian workers are able to respond to prevent the worst outcomes and there’s always an opportunity for the situation to improve during the next rainy season. For example, Ethiopia had the world’s largest food-insecure population last year, primarily due to a severe drought related to El Niño. Humanitarians mounted a large response, and rainfall in 2016 was very good, and now the number of people who need emergency assistance in Ethiopia has dropped by 50 to 60 percent.

The situation in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria is different. Long-term conflict in these four countries is driving food insecurity and is also preventing humanitarian workers from providing relief. Whereas Ethiopia was able to move forward after a serious emergency, conflict in these four countries has continued year after year, making recovery extremely difficult.

FEWS NET’s role during these crises is to use a five-phase system, called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale to identify where needs are most severe. According to the IPC scale, an urgent humanitarian response is required starting in Phase 3. By Phase 4, we start to see a major spike in acute malnutrition and excess mortality. The international community needs to respond at Phases 3 and 4 with lifesaving assistance to prevent a crisis from reaching Phase 5.

It is likely that famine (IPC Phase 5) occurred in northeast Nigeria last year and may be ongoing in some inaccessible areas. Parts of South Sudan are also classified as experiencing famine (IPC Phase 5) and there is an elevated risk of famine in parts of Somalia and Yemen.

There has been a lot of debate about what the threshold should be for declaring a famine, but whenever we’re discussing whether or not a famine needs to be declared, it means that national governments and the international community already haven’t responded appropriately.

FEWS NET was created in the 1980s in response to famines in East and West Africa that killed hundreds of thousands of people. How much of what we know about food insecurity comes from FEWS NET?

Every year, appeals are made for billions of dollars of emergency food assistance. Though USAID is the largest food assistance donor, it is only able to meet a portion of this need each year, and even with many countries making donations, the need is never fully met. Because there are never enough resources to meet the need that is identified, we need a mechanism to help us make difficult decisions about how to allocate the limited resources the international community has. Moreover, the international community also needs to make those difficult decisions six to nine months in advance to allow for time to procure and distribute in-kind food assistance.

FEWS NET serves as that mechanism to help decision-makers like USAID decide how to use scarce resources. One of the key differences between FEWS NET and other institutions is that we are able to put food insecurity into a global context, because we have 300 people working in 25 countries in our regional and headquarters offices.

We also provide a uniquely neutral perspective. Because we don’t focus on any one country in particular, and because we don’t receive funding to implement humanitarian responses, we don’t have any stake in the outcome of the decision-making. In comparison, an NGO that focuses on a specific country will naturally advocate strongly for resources to be sent to that country, but FEWS NET is able to provide an unbiased comparison of the food security situation in each country.

What are some of the most important best practices and research that FEWS NET has produced in the past 30 years?

FEWS NET was the first project to operationalize the use of satellite-based remote sensing products in emergency work in the mid-1980s, by working with partners on the cutting edge of remote sensing like NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). FEWS NET was also heavily involved in developing the common language and standards that are used by the global community to analyze food security, for example by revising the IPC scale between 2010 and 2012.

More recently, FEWS NET has focused on developing early warning tools so that we’re not simply classifying the current situation, but can actually give advanced warning to decision-makers before a crisis develops. We use tools like price, malnutrition, and herd size projections, and are exploring how to leverage big data since information is regularly being collected by various groups around the world.

We’re also piloting new techniques to monitor labor markets. Because poor farmers usually don’t produce enough food to feed themselves in a typical year, most of these farmers also work as casual laborers and use the income to buy more food. If we only focus on how much food these farmers are actually producing, we’ll never have a full picture of households’ access to food and income. In fact, tracking the labor market is as important as tracking the harvest because this source of income is very critical to food-insecure populations.

Learn more about the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) on the project’s website.

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