Poor harvests, high prices for food. The UN warns that West Africa could be facing the prospect of another famine. But it's not all bad news, experts say.
20 million West Africans are at risk from famine this year, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Other parts of the continent could also experience severe food shortages. These include conflict states such as South Sudan, Central African Republic and Somalia. The UN blames this development on a combination of man-made conflicts which frequently force large numbers of people to leave their homes and natural causes such as droughts and floods. All this leads to poor harvests and spiraling food prices. The UN's warnings create the impression that Africa is still helpless in the face of hunger, despite the efforts of a wide variety of African and international organizations and helpers.
Famine every year
It is a fact that hunger is still an acute problem in Africa. According to latest UN figures, almost a quarter of the population of sub-Saharan Africa either have too little to eat or suffer from starvation.
Droughts are one cause of the shortage or unavailability of food but not the only one. "Famines are generally the result of a combination of different factors," says Sabine Dorlöchter-Sulser from the Catholic aid agency Misereor. "A famine is not something that becomes visible immediately, from one day to the next, but is rather a gradual process."
The UN World Food Program (FAO) quotes experts who say there must be evidence of three specific outcomes before a famine can be declared. "At least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope. The prevalence of global acute malnutrition must exceed 30 percent. Death rates must exceed two deaths per 10,000 people per day."
International organizations report fresh famines in West Africa almost every year – for a region that is nearly as large as the United States. In early February 2014, OCHA announced that a total of 1.5 billion euros ($.2 billion) would be needed to stem the food crisis in the Sahel zone. The money would be used not only to buy food but would also be invested in health care and rural development.
Jean Senahoun, an economist with the FAO who specializes in West Africa, says there can be regionally limited food crises caused mainly by displacements and irregular rainfall. However he warns against overdramatising the situation. "It is not the case that malnutrition or even deaths from hunger are so widespread that one could speak of a famine disaster in West Africa as a whole," he said.
Hunger makes headlines
The problem is that malnutrition is often put on a par with starvation, says foreign correspondent Petra Ramsauer, author of the book "So wird Hunger gemacht" (How Hunger is Made). She thinks that particularly western observers have become indifferent to Africa's problems. "I think this is linked to the fact that we have lived for decades in a world full of media overkill and only drastic terms such as ‘famine' serve to wake people up and persuade them to donate money." Many Africans, however, say that this generalized, often inaccurate use of language helps maintain an out of date picture of Africa as a underdeveloped, needy continent.
For Sabine Dorlöchter-Sulser from Misereor, there are pragmatic reasons for the health organizations' warnings. "In principle, timely calls for donations to help fight hunger are not a false alarm but the right action at the right time," she says.
Good news is often ignored
There are also reports of success in the fight against hunger. According to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the number of undernourished people in the organization's fifteen member states fell from 24 percent in 1991 to 11 percent in 2012. ECOWAS has set itself the ambitious goal of completely eradicating malnutrition and hunger in the region by 2025.
There has been little public awareness of this so far. Instead, newspaper headlines and TV news bulletins generally create the impression that there are more famines today than before.