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What classifies as a famine, and how does ongoing conflict contribute?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Half of Gazans are experiencing catastrophic hunger and famine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The U.N. is also warning Haiti is facing the risk of famine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: In Sudan, more people have been displaced because of fighting than in any other conflict on Earth. As many as 5 million people face starvation.


Across three continents, famine is once again gripping the world. Forty years ago, news reports from Ethiopia brought devastating hunger into Western living rooms.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Dawn and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine.

RASCOE: It was a moment that shocked the world, and leaders vowed never again. So why haven't lessons been learned? Joining us to discuss this is Paul Howe, director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. Welcome to the program.

PAUL HOWE: Thank you, Ayesha. It's great to be here.

RASCOE: So you worked for the World Food Programme for many years. Just how shocked or surprised are you by what we're seeing today in Gaza, Haiti, Sudan, all of these places?

HOWE: In one sense, Ayesha, unfortunately, it's not a surprise. If we look back to the 20th century or the 19th century, we saw large number of famines and some at a really great magnitude. At the turn of the 21st century, there was actually a lot of optimism among scholars and humanitarians that famines might be limited to much smaller scales and also that it might be possible to eradicate them. And that optimism was based on a couple of things. One, there were improvements in infrastructure. There was a large global humanitarian system that was focused on these issues. There were international norms in place. However, when we look at Gaza, Haiti and Sudan, but also other ones that are going on in the world right now, one common denominator is often conflict.

RASCOE: So is this what's known as a last-mile problem, especially when the last mile that humanitarian assistance needs to traverse is in a war zone?

HOWE: It is very much a last-mile problem, and it's really thinking about that issue of being able to access populations in need and how important that is. But one of the real challenges that we're facing at the moment is that the resources for this humanitarian response are not adequate to the level of need, so we're seeing actually a disparity between what the level in terms of human requirements are and the funding that's available to address them.

RASCOE: So the lack of money is a big issue is what you're saying right now.

HOWE: Yeah, especially right now, given the needs and the requirements. And so that is an issue, and it can constrain responses.

RASCOE: The official determination of a famine comes from a country's government, the U.N., and something the U.S. set up in the '80s called the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. You know, if you take a look at the FEWS NET website right now, we see food insecurity alerts in Haiti, Sudan, but not in Gaza. Like, what explains that?

HOWE: If we look at the situation in Gaza, there's been a recent report from something called the Famine Review Committee, which is brought in to really do a technical examination. And that's the one that's been publicized, saying that famine is imminent.

RASCOE: Well, I guess, when you're looking at famine being imminent or food insecurity alerts, where would you place Gaza at this point based on the information you have?

HOWE: Yeah. If we're, you know, using this criteria, this technical definition to guide us, then Gaza, based on the information and the analysis that have been done so far, is the most worrying situation that we have, because the technical group that has looked into this has said that famine is imminent. We don't have those declarations or those indications yet from other locations that we're quite concerned about.

RASCOE: Does the official declaration of a famine unlock channels of aid or leave anyone liable under international law, or is it just something designed to heighten awareness?

HOWE: It doesn't have legal implications, but it does focus our attention on how desperate the situation is, and therefore it can unlock channels of assistance. So for instance, in Somalia there was - in 2011 and '12, there was a lot of concern about counterterrorism legislation. And when there was a declaration of famine, it enabled governments to find workarounds that allowed humanitarian assistance to flow. And so it has the possibility to unlock some of those channels, though it doesn't, of course, in every situation. But it doesn't have legal force per se. There's other mechanisms that address that.

RASCOE: That's Dr. Paul Howe, director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. Thank you so much for joining us.

HOWE: Thank you, Ayesha. It's a pleasure.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.