A declaration of famine is a declaration of failure – a failure to prevent widespread deaths, malnutrition and failing livelihoods. As the UN declares a famine in Somalia (Report, 21 July), the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit is also calling for "a massive multisectoral response … to prevent additional deaths and total livelihood/social collapse". But for many people this is far too late. Previous experience in the region, for example in 2001 in Gode, Ethiopia, showed that by the time the relief programme had started more than 77% of the mortality had already occurred.
Little has changed – it still takes a declaration of famine for the world to take notice, despite major investments in regular monitoring. This makes a mockery of famine early warning systems that are intended to produce a graded response. More disappointing is that the UN is juggling the different famine mortality benchmarks in order to be able to declare that famine is occurring and launch the media response. Famine mortality benchmarks were first set in 1991 and since have been confirmed in 2009 by an international technical group. But the UN earlier this week resorted to using a lower benchmark for defining famine which was equivalent to an under-five death rate of 4 per 10,000 per day.
The reason for this is unclear, given that some mortality indicators in Somalia are within the recommended higher benchmark level (13.2 and 20.3), except that it gives the UN more opportunity to use the emotive F-word and so grab the headlines. Some population groups in Somalia have regularly shown unacceptably high rates of acute malnutrition over the past 20 years, and the cumulative deaths over this time are almost certainly record-breaking. So why is it that these long-established monitoring systems are only able to justify and elicit such a response when they can describe the many lives lost as a famine in the media?
Helen Young Feinstein International Center, Tufts University