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The Politics of Information and Analysis in Famines and Extreme Emergencies: Synthesis of Findings from Six Case Studies

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By Daniel Maxwell and Peter Hailey

1. Introduction

This study considers the constraints on data collection and analysis in extreme food security emergencies in countries with a high risk of famine. In many contemporary crises, good quality data are not always readily available. Analysis procedures have built-in processes for ensuring the validity and reliability of data. But there is relatively little emphasis on analyzing what data are missing, why, where and when the data are missing, and what can or should be done about missing and poor-quality data. And there is little attempt to analyze the ways in which data collection or analyses processes are undermined or influenced by political factors rather than (or in addition to) being guided by the evidence. These problems are especially pronounced where there is a high risk of famine.

Much of contemporary food security analysis, and virtually all of the contemporary analysis of famine, has been consolidated under the rubric of the integrated phase classification tool (IPC). IPC has become an invaluable analytical tool and process in areas of the globe where acute food security crises remain a problem. Evidence on food consumption, malnutrition, and mortality is collected and analyzed under the auspices of IPC at least twice a year in nearly all countries in the East Africa region (or Cadre Harmonisé in West Africa) and some thirty other countries worldwide. While IPC was not specifically designed to be the main tool for analyzing famine, it has assumed that role. Recent experience in several countries has demonstrated limitations in the availability of high-quality data. And more critically, these analytical processes are subject to considerable external influences and pressures that have little to do with the promotion of good analysis and much to do with political considerations (Bailey 2012, Maxwell and Majid 2016, Maxwell et al. 2018a and 2018b, Hailey et al. 2018, Buchanan-Smith et al. 2019).

Broadly speaking, states and governments don’t want to admit that crises have deteriorated to the point of widespread malnutrition and death under their administrations (neither do armed-opposition groups such as al Shabaab in Somalia, or Ansar Allah in Yemen). Donors likewise may have political objectives but may also be surprised that even after funding a major humanitarian effort, humanitarian conditions continue to deteriorate. For humanitarian actors, famine is the dramatic manifestation of response failure (Maxwell and Majid 2016). Lurking in the background is the age-old humanitarian dilemma of sovereignty: is it the sole right of sovereign states to declare crises (and famines) within their own boundaries? What is the role and obligation of the international community? The consensus that seemed to be developing around the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine in the early-to-mid 2000s has distinctly fallen apart, and the serious decline of the multilateral institutions that underpinned not only R2P but humanitarian action broadly is now a major concern (Fiori 2019). Agencies are often caught between waiting for a government or an “official” process to declare an emergency and the humanitarian imperative to push ahead with a response. All of this leads to considerable pressure on data collection and analysis processes—both within IPC and well beyond—that the system has been extremely challenged to handle.

The word “famine” has both human and political connotations. Humanly, it means large numbers of people going hungry—to the point of increased severe malnutrition, disease epidemics, and excess death. It means the destruction of livelihoods—to the point of destitution. And it frequently means a breakdown of institutions and social norms. Politically, above all it means a failure of governance—a failure to provide the most basic of protections. The word retains the power to shock—for both good and bad. On the one hand, mention of “famine” awakens humanitarian actors to the fact that a serious food/nutrition/health crisis has been ignored or under-funded: the risk of famine in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen prompted the US Congress to allocate an additional $990 million in 2017 (Oxfam 2017), despite budgetary uncertainty and great pressure to reduce—not increase—foreign assistance budgets. On the other hand, both states and agencies are reluctant to use the word “famine” (Howe and Devereux 2007, de Waal 1997, Lautze and Maxwell 2007). This is not a recent phenomenon: O’Grada (2015) and Dikötter (2010) both note the cover-up of information about the “Great Leap Forward” famine in China from 1958–62 (in which humanitarian agencies were not present). Noland and Haggard (2005) make the same point about the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s (in which at least some humanitarian agencies were present but had very different objectives from those of the North Korean regime). And Banik observed about India, “There appears to be a general consensus among successive ruling parties in India that the term ‘starvation’, like ‘famine,’ must be avoided at all cost” (Banik 2007, p. 301).

Research questions

This study came to largely similar conclusions about the impact of the word “famine,” but the point of this study was not just to establish the extent of the intrusion of politics into humanitarian analysis but also to suggest better ways of managing these intrusions (ridding the humanitarian information system of political interference is simply not a realistic goal). This report synthesizes the main findings and recommendations from six country case studies: Somalia, South Sudan, Northeastern Nigeria, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The individual cases are analyzed in detail elsewhere. Four main questions drove the research:

  1. In the analysis of famine or food security/nutrition crises, what data were available for analysis? Where do such data come from? What are the chronic “gaps” in data and why?
  2. What are the constraints or influences on information collection and on the analysis of humanitarian emergencies resulting in severe food insecurity, malnutrition, and disease? How are these constraints manifested?
  3. How is missing information or information with low reliability managed in analysis frameworks, and what is the impact of missing information (e.g., missing mortality data)?
  4. What would improve processes for managing the political interference in the analysis of severe humanitarian emergencies look like? What good practice emerges?

This report is organized as follows. It briefly reviews the research methodology and then reviews the literature on the central question of the research: the political influences on the processes of data collection and analysis of famines and extreme food security and nutrition crises. The main section provides a summary overview, across six case studies, of the politics of information and analysis in famine-risk countries. The final section summarizes the main findings and concludes with policy recommendations that grow out of the findings.


The overall objectives of this study were to understand the constraints to robust and independent collection and analysis of information in famines and food security crises and to suggest methods to ensure independent and objective analysis of humanitarian emergencies. Considering all six case studies for this review, the specific objectives were the following:

  1. Assess data collection processes in food security crises and identify the key constraints to their completeness, independence, rigor, and reliability in famine-risk countries.
  2. Assess the process of analysis to understand any pressures or influences on it.
  3. Document good practice in managing influences on data and analysis.
  4. Synthesize findings from country case studies to develop global recommendations to protect the independence, objectivity, rigor, and reliability of humanitarian assessment information.
  5. Engage with policy makers, information system managers, humanitarian leaders, and donors to take up the findings of the study to improve the independence, objectivity, rigor, and reliability of humanitarian information for decision-making.