In South Sudan, the politicization of famine may hinder a response

Beneficiaries gather at an aid distribution point in Pibor, Greater Pibor Administrative Area, South Sudan. Photo by: Andreea Campeanu / Reuters

JUBA, South Sudan — In December, seven grieving mothers in Lekuangole village in South Sudan told Devex that 13 of their children had starved to death between February and November, after fleeing deadly violence. The local government also said it had reports of 17 hunger-related deaths between September and December and didn’t understand why the central government wasn’t acknowledging the crisis.

“I’m not happy,” said Peter Golu, head of Lekuangole’s government. “I see children dying because of hunger; why is the government saying this isn’t happening?” he said.

4 new areas at imminent risk of famine, UN food agencies warn

The world has been put on a heightened famine alert for Burkina Faso, northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen.

More than 30,000 people in South Sudan are likely to be in famine, while tens of thousands more are on the brink of starvation, international food security experts say. However, the government says only 11,000 are facing starvation, nearly 10 times less than estimated by food security experts.

South Sudan government’s refusal to acknowledge the scale of the crisis and to endorse the findings is creating a rift between them and humanitarians trying to respond.

‘Famine likely’ state

In a recent report, the IPC Famine Review Committee, a group of independent global experts, that said South Sudan’s western Pibor County  — where Lekuangole village is located — was in a “famine likely” state, a new classification that warns that famine is likely occurring and tries to prevent a deterioration in contexts with limited data.

The report stopped short of declaring famine because it lacked mortality data. But based on available information, famine is thought to be occurring — meaning that at least 20% of households face extreme food gaps and at least 1 in 3 children under 5 are acutely malnourished.

“We’re defying the government to get this crucial information out, but no one’s willing to publicly stand behind it.”

— Anonymous aid worker

Food security experts also said 105,000 people in six counties  — including western Pibor — were in phase five catastrophe, facing starvation as a result of deadly violence, unprecedented floods and an economic crisis fueled by a drop in oil prices and the fallout from COVID-19.

Chair of South Sudan’s food security committee, John Pangech, told Devex that the Famine Review Committee’s report lacks “substance” and those involved were not familiar with the context.

Conflict, government denial, and a breakdown of consensus

Since civil war broke out in 2013, almost 400,000 people have been killed and millions displaced. Aid groups and the United Nations have accused South Sudan’s rival parties of using starvation as a weapon of war and creating a man-made famine. Last year, major violence in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area, Jonglei, and Warrap States — all with counties in phase five catastrophe —  displaced some 260,000 people, according to the U.N.

While fighting between the main parties has largely subsided since a coalition government was formed last February, politically driven violence continues, directly impacting the most food-insecure areas.

Food security experts say that having people in famine is seen as a failure by the government to protect its citizens. “Among its citizens, a regime that hasn’t been able to provide the essentials is often seen as unfit to govern,” said Alex de Waal, author of “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine” and executive director of the World Peace Foundation.

Regarded as the global standard for classifying food insecurity, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification is relied on by donors and aid groups to make decisions for funding and targeting in food-insecure countries. While the classification in South Sudan has taken place multiple times a year since 2008 — when the country was still part of Sudan — those involved in the latest analysis told Devex they’d never seen a process as fraught and as damaging as the one that just occurred.

The breakdown centered around a lack of consensus on the classification of six of South Sudan’s 79 counties. The Technical Working Group, which is led by the government and includes the U.N and international agencies, did not agree on the number of people in phase five catastrophe —  facing starvation, with disagreements centering on the reliability and interpretation of the data.

Those involved said there was also a lack of consensus within U.N. agencies, with UNICEF reportedly having credible reasons to question the findings based on its own technical nutrition data. UNICEF did not respond to specific questions about the data, but pointed Devex to a joint-agency statement. Mohamed Ayoya, UNICEF representative in South Sudan said that “the data leaves us with no doubt about the sense of urgency for all of us.”

The lack of consensus resulted in an independent review being launched by the IPC Global Support Unit, and those findings triggered a review by the Famine Review Committee.

Aid workers say an initial lack of consensus is normal, and days of debating the data, usually results in people getting on a similar page. However, this time the space was less conducive than usual. As soon as the possibility of phase five is mentioned, tensions rise and it is no longer possible to have an open technical debate. “The debate becomes about keeping phase five on the table, rather than debating the data itself,” said an aid worker involved who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal.

Other humanitarians also told Devex that the process was marred by intimidation and aggressive language from the government and culminated with the government and agencies agreeing to disagree.

The government released its own version of the food security report, without the usual U.N. and aid group logos and during a press conference, the chairman of the National Bureau of Statistics, Isaiah Chol Aruai, warned that any unilateral release of findings would be a “violation of the sovereignty” of the country.

‘We’re defying the government to get this crucial information out’

The government’s refusal to endorse the findings doesn’t prevent organizations and donors from scaling up assistance, which is what usually happens when a famine is declared. However, this incident has fractured trust between agencies and the government, with the potential for longer term consequences.

“This will strain the relationship and collaboration between the government and the U.N and between the government and the donor community and could potentially impact aid delivery,” said Luca Russo, senior global food crises analyst for the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

In future, the IPC process will need to change its approach, he said, but would not elaborate on what that might look like. Aid workers expressed the need for a neutral space to discuss the data in order to more accurately detect and verify growing hunger crises, or risk missing things like famine.

Some humanitarians felt that while the U.N. took a strong step in pushing the government to accept that some people were facing starvation, the agencies should have been more publicly vocal about the crisis.  

“They are deciding to take a bold stance, but then no one was willing to talk about it. What kind of message are you sending? We’re defying the government to get this crucial information out, but no one’s willing to publicly stand behind it,” said another aid worker familiar with the process, who also chose to speak anonymously. It doesn’t create trust in the report and the IPC, it creates speculation, she said.

Two aid organizations told Devex they chose not to disseminate the “famine likely” announcement, and peddled back planned promotion for fear of retaliation by the government.

“We decided to be reactive, not proactive,” said one group who did not want to be named. The agency said it privately reached out to donors to explain the IPC analysis and to ask for funding to scale up assistance.

In December, the U.N.’s Central Emergency Response Fund allocated an additional $7 million for South Sudan, part of nearly $40 million given last year to address food insecurity, said U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock. Aid groups are scaling up assistance in the six most affected counties, but they need more government support to safely reach the most vulnerable people, he said.

In the joint statement, three U.N. agencies expressed alarm at the crisis and called for immediate access to parts of Pibor County, “where people have run out of food.”

Meanwhile, desperate civilians continue bearing the brunt. In February last year, Kong Kong, a 20-year-old mother of four, lost her four-year-old son and three-year-old daughter who died of starvation after her family fled fighting and hid in the forest for two weeks surviving off fruit from the trees. Now she sits in Lekuangole waiting for food aid, pleading for someone to step in.

“We’re losing our children,” she said. “We need help.”

Update, Jan. 20, 2021: This article has been updated to reflect that a “famine likely” state is a new classification that warns that famine is likely occurring. 

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.