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Policy Brief: There is no place for famine in the 21st century

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World Vision is deeply concerned about the shocking increases in global food insecurity and malnutrition driven by a deadly mix of conflict, climate change and the socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19. Of most urgent concern are the more than 34 million people already suffering from “Emergency” (IPC 4) levels of food insecurity according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) levels of food insecurity or worse, including the 166,000 girls, boys, women and men who are currently living in famine-like (IPC 5) conditions in Yemen, South Sudan and Madagascar.

The vast majority of people facing these life-threatening crises were already living in humanitarian and fragile contexts, where humanitarian access is constrained and violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and human rights are rife. Food crises and state fragility are closely linked – of the top ten countries facing the highest burden of Emergency and Catastrophe/ Famine levels of food insecurity, all have longstanding humanitarian response plans and seven are categorised as ‘extremely fragile’ by the OECD.

Food insecurity is a leading cause of wasting in children, and malnutrition is the main underlying cause of 45% of all preventable deaths of children under five. Young children with wasting are eleven times more likely to die from preventable diseases than well-nourished children.

The Lancet’s modelling estimated that the Covid-19 pandemic could increase wasting by 50%, which could lead to an additional 1,157,000 preventable child deaths through disruptions in critical health services and decreased access to food. Poor nutrition in the first 1000 days, from pregnancy to age two, can have irreversible and lifelong negative physical and cognitive consequences, undermining longterm development and the resilience of individuals, households and nations.

While meeting urgent needs to prevent famine is the most pressing priority, it is not the first time the world has faced this situation in recent years. The last large-scale famine occurred in Somalia in 2011, where failure to act quickly on early warnings of famine and restricted humanitarian access due to conflict left 260,000 people dead, half of whom were children.

As famine was declared and the UN Secretary-General made his plea to the international community to save ‘children from a truly terrible nightmare’, it was already too late. Half of all of the people that perished did so before famine was officially declared by the international community. The world’s failure to heed early warnings led to thousands of preventable child deaths.

World Vision believes that famine is preventable and has no place in the 21st century. With strong collective leadership, political will and the right financing, large-scale food and nutrition crises could be a thing of the past. This requires the international community and national governments to support a triple nexus approach to food and nutrition crises, complementing short-term emergency response with commitments to support long-term solutions to the underlying drivers of those crises. Both short-term and long-term measures must prioritise the realisation of human rights; support peaceful resolution to conflict; and transform food systems to be more inclusive, sustainable and resilient.