The UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food surveys the catastrophic state of hunger and malnutrition and their man-made causes—war and conflict, climate change, massive displacement and global economic inequality. The paradox of this landscape of desperate need is that the world produces more than enough food to feed the planet, but the poor cannot afford it.


Despite decades of economic growth and development, the world continues to be haunted by the specter of mass starvation. Food insecurity and malnutrition remain a universal challenge for rich as well as poor countries. In conflict-torn regions, famine is the most severe form of food insecurity. Last year, the United Nations added South Sudan to northeast Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen as countries with catastrophic famine conditions, marking the first time since World War II that four countries were simultaneously under such threat. The number rose to five in 2018 when the Democratic Republic of Congo was added to the list, along with Burmese Rohingya in Bangladesh refugee camps. According to the 2018 Global Report on Food Crises, current food crises requiring urgent humanitarian action reached 124 million people in 51 countries, an increase of 40 percent since 2015.

While the nature of food crises differ greatly, they all stem from man-made causes, whether armed conflict, political turmoil or climate change-related extreme weather events. Hunger and starvation kill approximately nine million people every year, more than malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined. More than 1.5 million children are at imminent risk of death, and 5 to 6 million children die every year from malnutrition and related diseases. Child malnutrition, even for a short period, has lifelong consequences.

Famine is only the tip of the hunger and malnutrition iceberg. Even in the richest countries, food insecurity is pervasive. For instance, in the United States, 49 million people do not have enough to eat and in Great Britain, after recent austerity measures were instituted, hungry people increased to approximately 5 million. Obesity, misconstrued as the opposite of hunger, recently has come to be recognized as a form of malnutrition and a universal epidemic. Approximately 1.9 billion people are obese, and this is increasing in all regions, including Africa; in the United States, 40 percent of adults are obese.

Ironically, while hunger and malnutrition increase globally, per capita food production has also increased significantly. The world makes enough to feed 10 billion people—more than one and a half times enough to feed everyone on the planet. But people making less than $2 a day—most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating small, unviable plots of land and fisher folks living in highly vulnerable coastal zones—cannot afford to buy this food.

In a world of plenty, hunger and poverty are intertwined. In poor countries, 60 to 80 percent of family budgets go to food, as opposed to 10 to 15 percent in richer countries. The poor suffer not only a lack of money but also higher food costs. Half of the world’s extreme poor live in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, mostly employed in the agricultural sector, and over half are under 18 years of age. Further, over 75 percent of the world’s poorest depend on natural resources to sustain their livelihoods, and most of them are subsistence farmers, making them especially vulnerable to climate change-related natural disasters. They are typically more exposed to natural hazards, lose a greater portion of their wealth and are unable to draw on support from family, friends, financial systems or even their governments. As a result, natural disasters may exacerbate gender-based violence, including sexual violence and the risk from diseases.

The direct and indirect impacts of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, desertification, hurricanes, wildfires, tsunamis and earthquakes contribute to hunger and malnutrition. Almost 80 percent of weather-related disasters are associated with climate change. The frequency and intensity of such disasters has almost doubled in the past decade, now averaging 335 events annually.

Hunger and War

Conflict, a major cause of food emergency, often leads to famine. Rarely, however, does any one factor cause famine; instead, famine results from the convergence of multiple circumstances and reflects the influence of political decision-making. Contrary to popular belief, it is not casualties resulting directly from combat but rather hunger and disease that are the greatest cause of death in conflict zones, and the proportion of undernourishment in areas of protracted crisis is almost three times as high as in other poor countries where hunger and malnutrition are pervasive. Moreover, the effects of climate change, which limit supplies and access to food, can lead to armed conflicts as people fight for scarce resources in devastated environments.

A 2017 World Food Programme (WFP) study found that countries with the highest level of food insecurity, often a consequence of armed conflict, had the highest outward migration of refugees. Globally, displacement levels are at the highest since record-keeping began. Currently 65.6 million people have been forced from their homes, including 22.5 million refugees. Some 28,300 people are forced to flee every day because of conflict or persecution. Those fleeing conflict must often leave behind their assets, and host communities may also experience strains on their food supplies, especially if they are already facing economic instability. In situations of massive displacement, humanitarian agencies are often unable to fully meet food demand, leaving displaced communities in dire circumstances.

Conflicts hamper the human right to food in various ways. Food shortages can undermine resilience to absorb or recover from other shocks, such as extreme weather events or new forms of political unrest, which may lead to a spiral of conflict and severe hunger. Farmers in conflict zones may be unable to work owing to restrictions on their movement, or they might be forcibly recruited into armed forces or militias. Crops are often plundered, serious damage is inflicted on farming and fishing infrastructure and, as a result, vital food supplies are destroyed. Pastoralists and herders are particularly vulnerable to losses of livelihood in conflicts, being either forced to abandon their livestock, or if maintaining them, facing challenges of gaining access to food and water for their animals.

Conflict also affects household incomes and purchasing power. Mass unemployment and the breakdown of social services limit people’s ability to gain access to food, while currency devaluation, price inflation, market disruptions and reliance on costly food imports owing to shortages may render basic food items prohibitively expensive. Extreme food insecurity forces people to turn to negative coping mechanisms, including rationing or skipping meals, begging, early marriage, child labor and transactional sex in exchange for food. Access to information on the availability and accessibility of food assistance is also limited, putting vulnerable groups at increased risk of exploitation and abuse.

Famine as a Crime against Humanity

In many contexts, parties to armed conflict deliberately undermine the food security of civilians by intentionally targeting markets and ports or looting or besieging communities with the aim of causing hardship and starvation. Although starvation and famine historically have been used as tactics of warfare, contemporary international law experts contend that it is criminal to cause starvation. Nonetheless, parties to current conflicts in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen deprive civilians of access to food. Frequently, states and their adversaries use food as a weapon against opposing groups by destroying or poisoning crops, blocking relief supplies and displacing people from their homes with the aim of depriving them of their livelihoods. In other cases, vulnerable groups, such as women, children, the elderly and sick, are subject to neglect or left to starve. Such actions not only constitute violations of the right to food, but also may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.

Famine becomes a crime under international law if there is sufficient evidence of an intentional or reckless effort to block certain groups from access to food. The crime of famine could result from acts of omission, but also from indirect action such as blocking humanitarian assistance, failing to uphold the relevant laws of war or failing to provide international relief systems with the necessary resources in the context of famine conditions. Yet there has never been a criminal case against people accused of using starvation as a war tactic.

Humanitarian Emergency System

In recent decades, the international humanitarian response system has been essential in lowering death tolls and reducing the negative impacts of conflict and weather-related causes of food insecurity. Emergency aid plays a critical role in filling gaps in situations where states are unable or unwilling to meet the basic needs of their populations. However, the humanitarian assistance response often faces serious political, security and infrastructure-related impediments that obstruct effective delivery of food assistance. Countries suffering from long-standing conflict tend to be particularly fragile and have poor governance and weak infrastructure, which hampers the effective coordination and delivery of food assistance. Interference by political forces and cumbersome negotiations can also slow down the humanitarian response.

Humanitarian assistance may also be seriously hindered by fighting. For example, in April 2017, active hostilities in South Sudan forced 100 aid workers from an assortment of relief and UN agencies to be relocated, and this stopped the delivery of assistance to 180,000 people. In northeast Nigeria, attacks by Boko Haram and military operations against the group continue to limit humanitarian access to an estimated 700,000 people who remain extremely hard to reach. Access is further restricted by the presence of mines and improvised explosive devices. An alarming number of explosions were reported in 2017, killing 28 aid workers.

As part of the larger panoply of humanitarian institutions—UN agencies, charitable organizations like Save the Childrens and national and regional organizations—food aid intrinsically suffers from more general shortcomings that plague the system. Rather than being carefully coordinated and deliberately engineered, the humanitarian structure evolved from fragmentary endeavors and is composed of a multitude of autonomous entities with separate governance and accountability structures. Humanitarian assistance also suffers a serious financial shortfall. Donor countries promised to spend 0.7 percent of their gross national income on aid. However, most of them have failed to reach their agreed obligations. The WFP estimates that food aid expenditures more than doubled between 2009 and 2016, from $2.2 billion to $5.3 billion. Despite this increase, international food assistance still falls about $3 billion short. Almost all foreign food aid goes to short-term relief operations just to keep people alive. Therefore, there are no available funds for long-term agricultural investment and rural development that could raise food security and build resilience in regions vulnerable to climate change and conflict crises.

This disparate humanitarian system, which lacks leadership and coordination, is susceptible to inefficiencies, poor communication, bureaucratic restrictions, corruption and costly duplications that prevent rapid, flexible and effective responses to changing needs. Poorly designed, charity-based food aid can do more harm than good, can have negative effects on small farmers in recipient countries by exerting downward pressures on domestic food prices and can adversely affect trade, production incentives and labor markets. In some cases, food aid practices might even violate the right to food, if the aid were distributed unfairly or did not prioritize the most vulnerable. Food aid should serve the best interests of a recipient country’s food and agricultural policy, provide long-term livelihood for people and uphold environmental best practices rather than consist of only emergency responses.

Humanitarian Future

The world is experiencing unprecedented levels of famine, mass starvation and hunger, massive displacements, devastating conflicts and a globally warming environment that is having devastating consequences. If world politics continues on its current course, there will be no possibility to realize the ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate hunger and poverty by 2030. The challenges of thinking outside the business-as-usual box are formidable, given the disturbing rise in chauvinistic politics, state racism and unfettered, predatory global capitalism.

An effective humanitarianism demands more than an uncoordinated conglomeration of (sometimes) good intentions, more than short-term emergency responses, more than “just” saving lives. The test is whether it is possible to develop a humane mindset that can give rise to compassionate politics that are responsive to global challenges and forms of collective action capable of tackling the root causes of crises. The health and wellbeing of all people must be at the center of this political imagination. Overcoming the paradox of massive hunger in a world of plenty is one example of a change that seems, still, imaginable.

How to cite this article:

Hilal Elver "Suffering from Hunger in a World of Plenty," Middle East Report 286 (Spring 2018).

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