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Donation Funnel
Two men looking at how much the ground has dried up in their village.

Famine: Everything you need to know

Around the world, millions of people face starvation and malnutrition, which has led to a global hunger food crisis. According to the UN, the number of people living with hunger rose to as many as 828 million last year, an increase of about 150 million since the outbreak of the pandemic. 

Many people are on the brink of famine, particularly in East Africa, where a drought in the region, one of the worst in recent history, has eradicated crops and livelihoods, with Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya being the hardest-hit. 

In Somalia, one in six children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, which is 25% higher than previous forecasts. Two major areas in the country are now likely to enter a state of famine. 

But what does famine really mean? 

When we think of famine, we imagine a futile situation, without food and the means of growing any. 

But the term ‘famine’ is more complex than we think. In order for a famine to be announced, a set of strict conditions must be met. What’s more- a state of famine must be announced by a special committee- the United Nation’s  Integrated Food Security Phrase classification (IPC), as well as the government of the affected country. 

The IPC defines famine as ‘the absolute inaccessibility of food to an entire population or sub-group of a population, potentially causing death in the short term (1). 

When is a famine announced? 

The IPC is used as a tracking tool for global hunger. It has a sliding scale from phase 1 (no or minimal food insecurity) to phase five (catastrophe or famine). 

The criteria of famine are met when 1 in 5 households in an area face an extreme lack of food. As well as this, at least 30% of children will be suffering from malnutrition and at least  2 people out of every 10, 000 will die every day from starvation or malnutrition. 

The UN also uses the term ‘famine likely’ to describe situations where humanitarian access may be limited. In these cases, although it may seem likely that conditions have reached famine level, there may not be enough evidence available for it to be officially announced. 

A state of famine was last declared in parts of South Sudan in February 2017, where nearly 80, 000 people faced famine conditions

What causes famine? 

We tend to associate famine with drought and a lack of crops. However, there are actually many factors which can contribute to the onset of a famine. Usually, it’s the result of multiple factors such as climate changes, increasing food prices, conflict and policy decisions. The result is that those most vulnerable in society face a desperate situation in which they do not know where their next meal is coming from. 

So famine is announced, what happens next?

Although it is the IPC who declare famine, it isn’t actually their responsibility to deal with the situation. 

The idea is that announcing a state of famine will trigger decision-makers to take action to prevent the hunger crisis from deteriorating further and to help save lives. It gives them all the information they need to inform an emergency response and help inform policy policies and draw global attention to the situation. 

What famine looks like on the ground 

Famine can destroy people’s health, their livelihoods and take their loved ones. 

When a famine occurs, often it is children who are most severely affected.

Malnourished children are more likely to suffer serious or life-threatening consequences from illnesses such as diarrohoea, cholera and malaria. Without enough food, even if a child does survive such illnesses, their long-term physical and mental development may be impeded. 

Famine may also cause or exacerbate social issues as early-forced marriage as parents cannot afford to feed their children. 

What Islamic Relief are doing to help prevent hunger 

Here at Islamic Relief, it goes without saying that we’re striving to ensure that no child or adult goes hungry. For this week’s UN General Assembly, Islamic Relief along with 237 agencies called on UN Member States to show political leadership on the global food crisis and aimed to translate promises into immediate action. 

The  catastrophic effects of the global food crisis are unprecedented, and we urgently requested that they act immediately to prevent more unnecessary suffering. A staggering 345 million people are now experiencing acute hunger, a number that has more than doubled since 2019. 

At Islamic Relief we also work year-round  to provide sustainable long-term food solutions for communities in need, as well as offering short-term lifesaving interventions in response to global emergencies.

We need to come together and support starving families 

We are all witnessing the slow death of 50 million people who are on the brink of starvation in 45 countries, which translates to one person dying of hunger every four seconds. 

Our plea is to those who have the power and finances we cannot turn our faces away, as history will become witness to our inaction. 



  1. (ACF, Introduction to Food Security Intervention Principles, 2008).

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