World hunger setback: famine hits South Sudan

Empty stomachs: There are 794.6m hungry people in the world; 511.7m of them live in Asia.

The young African country of South Sudan is suffering the world’s first famine for six years. Long-term trends suggest hunger could one day be eliminated — but is this wishful thinking?

One hundred thousand people facing starvation. A million on the brink of famine. And 4.9m — over 40% of the country’s population — in urgent need of food.

This is the stark reality in South Sudan, where aid agencies declared a famine yesterday. It is the first time that has happened, anywhere in the world, for six years.

‘Our worst fears have been realised,’ says Serge Tissot, a UN representative in the country. ‘The people are predominantly farmers and war has disrupted agriculture. For months there has been a total reliance on whatever plants they can find and fish they can catch.’

South Sudan is in the midst of a brutal three-year civil war, and UN investigators have warned of a risk of genocide. All factions in the fighting have been accused of using hunger as a weapon of war. Food prices have risen and the economy has collapsed.

Last week the UN said wars and drought may cause further famines in Yemen, Somalia and north-eastern Nigeria. The World Food Programme said more than 20m people may face starvation in the next six months.

‘We are facing a major crisis that we have not seen before,’ warned Gareth Owen, humanitarian director of Save the Children.

The long-term global trend is much more positive. In 1992 UN estimates suggested 18.6% of the world’s population was undernourished; last year the figure was 10.9%. Despite a rapid population expansion, the number of people in hunger has declined by over a fifth.

Aid donations are at a record high. Humanitarian aid is being distributed at a record rate, thanks to systemic improvements. And in 2015 the UN committed to the target of eradicating hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

But frustrations remain. Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s humanitarian chief, says only half of his requirements were met last year. Others argue the system is too focused on responding to ‘predictable’ crises. Obstruction from corrupt governments, global inequality and climate change are also commonly cited problems.

So will we ever see the back of world hunger?

Hungry for solutions

One day, say optimists, hunger will go the way of diseases like smallpox. Technological progress will deal with practicalities, such as creating the infrastructure needed to grow and transport food. Globalisation will increase our awareness of others’ suffering and encourage greater sharing of resources and more open governments.

Wishful thinking, pessimists respond. We cannot eliminate hunger any more than war or suffering; globalisation may even exacerbate it. Human nature remains self-interested — and attempts to re-engineer it to deal with major problems often make things worse. No wonder the situation in countries like South Sudan is getting worse.

You Decide

  1. Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
  2. Will world hunger ever be eradicated?

Activities

  1. List five questions you would like to ask someone working for an aid agency in South Sudan. Compare in pairs and discuss your choices as a class.
  2. Find out more about an instance of famine from history (including recent history) which interests you. Write a one-page memo explaining its causes and whether you think something similar could happen again.

Some People Say...

“There is no problem on Earth so big that human beings cannot solve it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I do not live in South Sudan. Is it worth me knowing about this?
Around 11m people do live in South Sudan. The UN says more than 40% of them urgently need help. And the problem is more widespread globally. Most importantly, that means many of your fellow human beings are suffering. But famine also means more than that. Hunger is not just a result of problems like poverty — it is also a cause. If people are hungry, they cannot contribute to the global economy that we all rely on.
But what can I do about it?
You can study the work that charities are doing in regions hit by extreme hunger. If it impresses you, perhaps you could donate to them or volunteer to help. You can also lobby politicians in your country to adopt policies which you think would help address the problem.

Word Watch

Famine
Famine is only declared when at least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30%; and the death rate is over two people per 10,000 per day. It places no obligations on world bodies but helps to raise awareness of the problem.
Weapon of war
For example by attacking aid workers, obstructing food supplies and stifling crop production.
Risen
Inflation in South Sudan is around 800% per year.
Before
Owen has 25 years’ experience of working in the Horn of Africa. He worked during the Somali famine of 2010–12, when 260,000 people died.
Fifth
Just over a billion people were undernourished between 1990 and 92, according to the UN.
Predictable
Sara Pantuliano, of the Overseas Development Institute, said last week that 80% of the situations humanitarians face are ‘protracted and predictable’, and the aid system needs an overhaul to focus more on preventing such crises.
Smallpox
An acute contagious disease, which killed an estimated 300m people in the 20th century alone. It was declared eradicated in 1980.

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