It seems there is a never ending cycle of war and famine throughout the Horn of Africa. As a child in the ‘80’s, I first heard about this issue while listening to “We Are The World”. Like millions of other people, I wanted to help. I thought I was doing my part by belting out the catchy charity anthem. Those within ear shot claimed it was far from help--in fact, they deemed it torture. I needed to find another way. One night at dinner, I was reminded of all the starving people who would love to eat the food left on my plate. At the age of seven, I was pretty sure I had found the solution to world hunger: we could send over planes filled with leftovers. If only things were that easy.

Famine, and the role of food within it, is not as simple as I once thought. Although many countries in the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Kenya, have also been affected by one of the worst droughts in over 60 years, the only places where the United Nations has officially declared famine are regions controlled by Al-Shabab in Somalia. Dr. Unni Karunakara, international president of Médecins Sans Frontières, recently acknowledged the challenges of situation in Somalia. Dr. Karunakara explains that challenges are often exacerbated when famine is combined with conflict. Consequently, the idea that simply sending over food, or money to procure food, to resolve the issue sets up unrealistic expectations. Exploring the different aspects of famine within the context of war helps explain the complexity of the crisis.

Famines are often defined through loss: loss of livelihoods, loss of dignity, and loss of life. When it is characterized in such a way, it is difficult to see how famine perpetuates. However, defining famine solely in relation to its victims and loss does not fully explain it. If one person's loss is another person's gain, those who stand to benefit from famine need to be included in understanding the process of famine.

In some instances, famine may not just be a consequence; it can represent a goal. David Keen (1994) noted how the process of famine yielded several benefits to the Baggara in Sudan. At first, it would seem the famine only had negative effects for the Baggara--the 1984-1985 drought devastated their cattle supply, contributing to their economic crisis. Also, war had decreased the Dinka population, which the Baggara were reliant upon for labor. However, warring and famine also offered relief from economic pressures for the Baggara. Their militias raided towns for their cattle that could either be kept or sold for profit. Similarly, the capturing of Dinka civilians during militia raids created a solution to the labor shortage--captives could be used as slave labor or be sold. Benefits were not just limited to retaining captives. They could also be held for ransom and profits could be derived from the captive’s release.

The situation of benefiting from famine is not exclusive to Sudan. In Somalia, food scarcity has led to increased food prices and decreased employment. By offering food or a salary to purchase food, Al-Shabab has taken advantage of this desperate situation with a reported increase in recruitment.

Food plays a critical role in war-famines. The availability of food can biologically sustain life. The sale of food can economically help to maintain livelihoods. However, food can also be used as a weapon through the use of scorched earth tactics. Capitalizing off the vulnerability of civilians in war-famines, opponents deliberately contribute to food shortages by attacking means of producing and procuring food. By ravaging livestock and food supplies and contaminating water sources, government militias and rebel forces can starve their opposition to death.

Government and rebel groups may also use food as a weapon by intentionally blocking food relief efforts through the banning of international relief agencies. Currently in Somalia, Al-Shabab has impeded access of food aid in the areas it controls by prohibiting the access of most organizations.

Even when agencies are allowed in, there are obstacles to delivering relief supplies. Echoing a theme of beneficiaries, the misappropriation and theft of food has resulted in a loss of food relief. Piracy has also hindered relief efforts. Organizations have resorted to using longer alternative routes, resulting in delayed delivery.

Following the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, there was a pledge from individuals and organizations worldwide to never allow it to happen again. Nonetheless, war and famine continued to ravage Sudan and Somalia. Currently in Somalia, despite warnings from famine prediction systems, the United Nations estimates up to 750,000 people could die within the next four months.

This makes me wonder what has changed in the last 25 years. The cycle of war and famine continues throughout the Horn of Africa. People still covered their ears in agony as I sang along with the 2010 remake of “We Are the World”. One thing is different though--before, when I thought about famine, I saw food only as an answer. Now, it seems like it should also be included in a question: what does food really feed?


DeWaal, A. 1989. ‘Famine Mortality: A Case Study of Darfur, Sudan 1984-85” in Population Studies 43. pp 5-24.

Keen, D. 1994. The Benefits of Famine. Princeton University Press: New Jersey.

_______.1998. The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Prendergast, J. 1995. ‘Roots of Famine in Sudan’s Killing Fields’ in Disaster and Development in the Horn of Africa. Sorenson, J. Ed. Macmillan Press Ltd: London. pp 112-125.

Image credits:

1) Reaching Out: Famine relief does not have straightforward solution (Courtesy of Lauranne Boyd); 2) Shifting Focus: Kevin Carter’s photo of a vulture and a victim received worldwide attention and defined famine in Sudan. (nostriimago on Flickr); 3) In the Right Hands: Not all food relief has reached its intended beneficiaries. (Courtesy of Lauranne Boyd)