1. Definition and assessment of a famine

Famine is broadly defined as the most severe kind of hunger crisis, resulting in widespread acute malnutrition and loss of life by starvation and disease.

To determine the level of food (in)security and declare a famine, certain conditions need to be met. These conditions are set by the International Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), an international framework used to assess the severity and magnitude of food insecurity and malnutrition. The IPC contains five phases of hunger crisis, ranging from phase 1 (minimal/none) to phase 5 (catastrophe/famine). Each phase has its own set of criteria, with urgent action required for phases 3 to 5. Figure 1 illustrates the IPC phases and associated criteria.

In this framework, famine occurs when at least 20% of the population face extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30%, and at least two in every 10,000 people die every day from hunger.

Figure I. The five phases of the International Food Security Phase Classification system
Figure 1. The five phases of the International Food Security Phase Classification system

(Source: The International Food Security Phase Classification Global Partners, ‘Integrated Food Security Phase Classification Technical Manual Version 3.1’, August 2021)

2. The food crisis in the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa (HOA) is a large peninsula and geopolitical region in the easternmost part of Africa. Definitions of HOA vary, but they most often include the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda. Part of the HOA is also known as the Somali Peninsula, but this term is typically used when referring to Somalia and eastern Ethiopia. The HOA has a history of food insecurity. The region entered a food crisis twice in the previous decade, once in 2011 and again in 2017–18.

Following five consecutive seasons of below-average rainfall, the HOA is facing its longest drought in four decades. Compounded by years of conflict and instability, the impact of climate change and Covid-19 as well as the rising food prices due to the war in Ukraine, millions in the HOA face acute hunger. Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have been particularly badly affected. In its most recent review of the HOA drought from 30 November 2022, the United Nations (UN) reported that 36.4 million people (including 19.9 million children) were affected by the drought, and 21.7 million people (including 10.8 million children) needed food assistance. UNICEF estimated that up to 5.7 million children in the region require treatment for acute malnutrition, with 1.8 million children experiencing life-threatening malnutrition.

At the time of writing, famine has not been officially declared in the HOA. However, with projections of a sixth consecutive below-average rainy season, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network has estimated that the HOA, especially Somalia, will face a famine in 2023. Figure 2 highlights the situation during the October 2022 to January 2023 rainy season, and the projections for the following rainy season in February to May 2023.

Figure 2. International Food Security Phase Classification of the Horn of Africa by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network
Figure 2. International Food Security Phase Classification of the Horn of Africa by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network

(Source: Famine Early Warning Systems Network, ‘East Africa’, November 2022)

The effects of the food crisis in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are examined below.

2.1 Ethiopia

Drought has affected 24.1 million people in Ethiopia, and 10.6 million are in need of food assistance. The World Food Programme reported that, although Ethiopia has demonstrated economic growth over the past two decades, food insecurity and malnutrition remain a major concern across the country.

Sharp reductions in grain and fertiliser imports, primarily due to the war in Ukraine, as well as severe droughts in the south and south-east of the country have had an adverse effect on the Ethiopian food crisis. However, the region most affected remains the north of the country, Tigray. This is due to the recent conflict between the regional forces and the Ethiopian federal government. On 2 November 2022, the two parties agreed to a permanent cessation of hostilities. Nevertheless, the ‘2022 Global report on food crises’ by the World Food Programme indicated that seven out of eight areas in Tigray were in emergency IPC phase 4, while in five of these areas up to 10% of the population was already in famine IPC phase 5. The report warned that the number of people facing famine in Tigray was the highest estimated anywhere since the 2011 famine in Somalia.

There have been no formal IPC classification projections for Ethiopia since July 2021, yet the Famine Early Warning Systems Network has said that Tigray and the bordering regions of Afar and Amhara remain of high concern.

2.2 Kenya

Drought has affected 4.5 million people in Kenya, and 4.4 million are in need of food assistance. Kenya has had rapid economic growth in the past decade and has achieved lower-middle-income status, according to the World Food Programme. The inclusion of food and nutrition in the government’s policy priorities has also improved nutrition in some areas, but over a third of the population still lives below the poverty line. Access to adequate quantities of nutritious food remains a challenge for a large part of the population, especially in arid and semi-arid regions which make up 80% of the country’s land area.

Similar to the wider region, the primary reasons for the food crisis in Kenya are the prolonged drought, which resulted in poor crop and livestock production, and the high food prices due to Kenya’s dependence on grain imports from Ukraine and Russia. The World Food Programme has indicated that 16% of the Kenyan population was in crisis IPC phase 3 or above, with 2% being in emergency IPC phase 4. The most recent IPC projections show that the situation in Kenya is likely to worsen.

2.3 Somalia

Drought has affected 7.8 million people in Somalia, and 6.7 million are in need of food assistance. The ongoing war in Ukraine has also had a severe impact on Somalian food security. Somalia is heavily reliant on food exports, and, in 2021, the country sourced almost 90% of its wheat supply through imports from Ukraine and Russia. As a result, the country recorded the second highest percentage increase on the average price of its local food basket. Compounding on the adverse effects of the drought and high food prices, Somalia has been plagued by decades of civil unrest and the country has not had a stable government since 1991.

The latest IPC projection for Somalia, published in December 2022, highlighted that 23% of the country’s population was in crisis IPC phase 3; 9% was in emergency IPC phase 4; and 1% was in famine IPC phase 5. The report warned that, between January and March 2023, the number of people in crisis phase 3 or worse is projected to increase to up to 48% of the population. Famine IPC phase 5 was projected for 4% of the population, affecting rural residents and displaced people in the Bay and Banaadir regions. Several other areas in eastern and southern Somalia are also at an increased risk, and they could face the threat of famine if rainfall in the next season is lower than predicted.

3. Response of the international community

The UN has published a call to actioncall for action for the Horn of Africa, setting out $3.7bn in requirements for response funding, with the aim to target 27.4 million people in affected areas.

The UN also recognised the efforts of nearly 500 humanitarian organisations which swiftly responded to reports of the evolving drought. As of November 2022, more than 17.1 million affected people—62% of the UN’s total target—had received humanitarian assistance. This included 9.6 million people in Ethiopia (56% of the targeted population), 948,000 in Kenya (36% of the targeted population) and 6.5 million in Somalia (85% of the targeted population).

In its call to action, the UN mentioned that humanitarian workers have proceeded to regularly review and prioritise their response in each one of the affected countries. However, faced with delayed and inadequate funding as well as the potential of another drought, even with the most robust prioritising, humanitarian workers have been struggling to respond to all needs of the affected population.

3.1 Country-level appeals

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has published appeals to the international community for help in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia:

  • The revised ‘Ethiopia drought response plan’ published on 17 July 2022 called for $1.66bn to respond to the 2022 food crisis. This response plan is included in Ethiopia’s wider call for over $3.3bn in funding to respond to all humanitarian crises across the country in 2022.
  • In October 2022, the ‘Kenya flash appeal’ was extended until December 2022 and it called for $290mn in funding. The appeal has received $171mn, 59% of its requested total. Three sectors have received less than 30% of the required amount, including health, protection and water hygiene, while education has received almost no funding support.
  • The ‘Somalia humanitarian response plan’ published on 24 October 2022 called for almost $2.3bn in funding to support the lives of 7.6 million affected people. Of those funds, $1.08bn is estimated to go directly to support food security, with water hygiene ($286mn) and nutrition ($250mn) being the second and third largest expenditures, respectively. The plan has received $1.5bn, 66% of its requested funding. Three sectors have received less than 30% of the required support amount, including education, protection and water hygiene.

3.2 Organisation-level appeals

In addition to appeals for help in each individual country, several humanitarian organisations have also published calls to action for the region:

In its own call to action, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs highlighted the lack of equal country contribution towards the humanitarian aid funds for the HOA:

It is […] vital that additional donors immediately step-up their solidarity, as the drought response continues to rely predominantly on a single donor, the United States of America. The US currently accounts for more than 70% of funding against the Ethiopia Humanitarian Response Plan, nearly 69% of the Somalia Humanitarian Response Plan and over 84% of the Kenya Drought Flash Appeal. With year-end approaching, donors are urged to prioritize the Horn of Africa drought crisis in any supplemental allocations that may be considered.

4. Response of the UK government

In the financial year 2022/23, the UK government has allocated £156mn in funding for humanitarian aid in East Africa, of which £93mn has already been spent. Announcing this funding budget on 21 September 2022, the then Minister of State for Development in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Vicky Ford said the UK had a “leading role” in the international response to the food crisis in the HOA.

The 2021–22 funding allocation for the HOA is lower than the £221mn spent in 2021–22 for the same purpose, and less than a fifth of the £861mn funding provided by the UK government during the last famine in 2017–18.

On 6 December 2022, in an open letter to the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, 30 signatories criticised the government’s response. Among them were senior academics, members of the clergy, the CEOs of Oxfam and Action Aid UK and politicians such as the former secretaries of state for international development, Hilary Benn and Clare Short, as well as Lord Malcolm Bruce, a former chair of the International Development Committee. In their letter, the signatories said:

Although a full-scale famine is yet to be officially declared, what we are seeing on the ground is a famine in all but name. Services that treat malnutrition are struggling to cope with the numbers. Despite the rapidly mounting death toll, the international response is woefully underfunded and the UK has failed to do its bit. As Prime Minister, you have an opportunity to help prevent a huge humanitarian catastrophe, but action is needed now.

On 17 January 2023, the Minister for Africa Vicky Ford announced an additional $17mn funding package to support people affected by the drought in Ethiopia (£5mn), Kenya (£1mn), Somalia (£8mn) and South Soudan (£3mn).

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Cover image by Tucker Tangeman on Unsplash.