Amid funding shortfall, doubts over why UN links 4 food crises together

A view of the U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in Somalia. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

Senior United Nations officials have reiterated a call to action for the four food insecurity and famine situations in Africa and the Middle East that have been labeled together as the worst humanitarian crisis in the U.N.’s history.

U.N. Emergency Coordinator Stephen O’Brien noted in a briefing to the General Assembly that the protracted “complex” food insecurity and health crises were deteriorating in Yemen, Northern Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan. Yet so far, the U.N. has received only 21 percent of the $4.4 billion it requested last month to respond to the approximately 25 million people requiring emergency humanitarian assistance.

However, aside from all experiencing conflict, each of the four countries have different histories, challenges and needs. Some development and humanitarian relief experts are wondering why they are being grouped together in the U.N.’s broad, public funding appeal. Some believe this overall joint messaging impacts the ability to fundraise effectively for the individual situations and to draw enough sustained attention to these populations’ needs.

“We know the U.N. put together in a package South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. It is a mistake to compare and put them in the same situation,” said Eric Jeunot, the former head of the Médecins Sans Frontières mission in Yemen. “They all have a specific context with different roots of famine that are very different. I think it is irrelevant to say there is famine in Nigeria and then to compare it to Yemen’s.”

Nor does the funding appeal’s joint approach reflect reality on the ground. In actuality, the response of U.N. agencies such as the World Food Programme, and of international NGOs, is country-specific, says Arif Husain, the WFP’s chief economist and director of food security analysis. The U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs’ emergency appeal also provides individual breakdowns of the four countries — Yemen and South Sudan are both in need of at least $1.25 billion, for example.

The U.N. Refugee Agency warned last week that funding shortfalls are heightening the risk of mass avoidable deaths in all four countries. The U.N. has also pushed for a dual-track approach of humanitarian and development work, as Devex reported. 

“People are potentially facing mass starvation on a massive scale in different countries and each one is a different situation. It’s entirely unprecedented — the level of humanitarian need is huge,” said Ben Webster, the head of emergencies for the British Red Cross. “The complexity of the crises are not short-term things that have cropped up in the last few months. These are long-term issues that do not have straightforward solutions.”

Economic collapse and ongoing conflict in Yemen, considered on the brink of famine, has dramatically impacted food access across this country’s cities, as well as its rural areas. An estimated 17 million people — more than half the population — are considered food insecure there.

Somalia, meanwhile, unlike the other three countries, is facing a protracted conflict, as 6.2 million food insecure people face the threat of another famine that hit the country in 2011.

In Northern Nigeria, drought, as in Somalia, in addition to the radical group Boko Haram have posed challenges for the seven million struggling with food insecurity.

Famine — a technical measure of mortality in a particular area — has only been declared so far in parts of South Sudan, where approximately 100,000 are experiencing famine conditions.

Daniel Muchena, the South Sudan country director of Plan International, also questioned the approach of “bundling countries together,” and the impact this could have on donor fatigue. Plan International, much like the U.K.’s Disasters Emergency Committee, made up of 13 U.K. aid agencies, has appeals for the East Africa emergencies, and then a separate one for the crisis in Yemen.  

“South Sudan has a combination of factors — complete economic collapse, armed conflict going on and famine here currently and it should be treated differently,” he said. “If nothing is done we could have half the population that is declared as part of a famine situation and to me that is a bit scary. It is the most serious here it has ever been.”

Yet there are some commonalities. Conflict “is the common denomination for the four countries, even if in Somalia, the protracted crisis is exacerbated by a severe drought,” said Dominique Burgeon, the director of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s emergency and rehabilitation division.

And all of these countries are also experiencing “big emergencies at the same time, with similar consequences at the same time,” said the WFP’s Husain in an interview, explaining that it can be helpful to discuss them together, even as the humanitarian responses differ. This approach could draw attention to the cross-border aspect of the food insecurity crises and the severity of the problem, he added.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.