Famine in Somalia: When Does the World Decide to Use the ‘F’ Word?

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The word ‘famine’ may be a familiar one, but it is not thrown around lightly by the people who decide when there is one. The fact that most of us today probably associate the term with the 1984 crisis in Ethiopia is testament to its exceedingly careful dispensation; to use it too often would dilute its power to command the attention of the press and governments around the world. Famines don’t happen overnight, but when the United Nations declares one, those governments are expected to pay attention – and help pay to get the situation under control.

On Wednesday, the U.N. declared two regions in southern Somalia as being in the midst of a famine. It’s the first time the word has been used in that country in nearly 20 years and the first time it’s been employed anywhere in the 21st century. The famine comes after months of the worst drought in East Africa in more than half a century, and is affecting about 3.5 million people around the country, most of whom are in the south. Over 165,000 Somalis have already fled to Kenya to get access to food and water; every day, over 1000 refugees are arriving in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, pushing conditions there to the limit.

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But when did an emergency morph into a full-blown famine? For the U.N., there is a precise and technical set of criteria used to determine when a famine is occurring. At least 20% of the population must be consuming less than 2100 kilocalories a day, 30% of children must be suffering from acute malnutrition, and two adults or four children out of every 10,000 people must be dying of hunger each day.

Those numbers are gathered from field assessments that several UN groups and NGOs jointly evaluate before establishing the world has a famine on their hands. “It has such a huge connotation,” says Arif Husain, deputy chief of the World Food Program’s Food Security Analysis Service. “It’s basically saying a government failed to provide food for its people to the extent that people are dying. If you’re going to say that you have to be very careful you’re correct.”

That’s true even in Somalia, widely regarded as a failed state in which the current government controls little of the country, including the capital. This vacuum had no small part the widespread hunger that we have seen splashed across our computer and television screens this week. The drought, of course, played its role, too, destroying back-to-back crop seasons, and food prices are, once again, soaring. But in the absence of a functional government, the militant Islamist group al-Shabab has routinely hampered aid operations in recent years, prompting groups like WFP to stop its food aid in Somalia last year after delivery became too fraught with questionable conditions and too dangerous.

“Somalia is a different animal. There is no government. There is nobody responsible,” Husain says. The famine has been caused by an environmental catastrophe, but an intact state could at least try deal with it. No government means there are no officials or institutions to try to do anything. “In cases where those things don’t exist, it just becomes the responsibility of the international community if you don’t want to see people dying.”

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Good governance — or rather lack of it — has been the tipping point before in turning a food shortage into a famine. As Jeffrey Sachs wrote in this magazine in 1998, Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen concluded that the Bengal famine of 1943, in which millions of rural workers starved in the midst of an economic boom, came to pass because India’s British rulers were not concerned with monitoring the condition of the colony’s working poor. Sachs writes: “This political observation gave rise to what might be called Sen’s Law: shortfalls in food supply do not cause widespread deaths in a democracy because vote-seeking politicians will undertake relief efforts; but even modest food shortfalls can create deadly famines in authoritarian societies” — or, in the case of Somalia, in societies where there is scarcely a government at all. Hence another nation where residents suffer chronic bouts of hunger and malnutrition: North Korea.

So far, the attention the international community has paid to the simmering problem in Somalia has been pretty unimpressive; sending millions of dollars to a lawless state more or less run by insurgents is an unsavory prospect to the committees that determine where aid flows. But aid groups argue cutting off help is shortsighted. When hundreds of thousands of people are going hungry in one place, their suffering will not remain isolated. “Without an urgent infusion of emergency funds, the famine is likely to spread to other regions in Somalia leading to more starvation, disease and displacement,” Nora Love of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in a statement released on July 20.

The U.N. estimates that at least $300 million will be needed to address the famine in the next two months. The U.S. has responded with an extra $28 million in emergency funds, in addition to the $431 million in aid already sent to the Horn of Africa this year. Others have yet to follow. “It’s not enough as we speak right now… [but] we do expect a good response,” says Husain. “If not, this is a very bad situation.” If the sudden crop of images of kids with IVs in their arm are any indication, we’re already there.

Krista Mahr is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.