The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


Definition and Criteria of Famine

The commonly held perception of famine is severe lack of food, but there is no standard or agreement on the definition of famine. This is why the mere reference to “famine” often triggers debate as to whether the situation in question really amounts to and qualifies as famine.

There are several possible definitions for famine. For example, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) refers to famine as “a situation in which access to, and availability of food is severely reduced. Households are completely destitute and dependant on aid. Survival strategies such as distress migrations of entire populations are employed. This is an exceptional situation, where the prevalence of global acute malnutrition is substantially elevated not only in children, but in adolescents and adults as well, and accompanied by high mortality. Large-scale deployment of food distribution and feeding programmes is essential.” Another food-consumption-based definition states that famine is a “sudden collapse in level of food consumption of large numbers of people” (Scrimshaw, 1987). Another mortality-based definition defines famine as an “unusually high mortality with unusually severe threat to food intake of some segments of a population” (M. Ravillion, 1997).

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates the number of people undernourished in each country based on the number of people who do not have enough food to lead an active and healthy life (based on the food energy one person needs daily; for example, for an adult male, it is 2,100 kcal a day).

Armatya Sen, recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics, explains that famine can occur even when food is available and that one should therefore consider primarily the issue of access to food and the capacity of the population (social, means) to get food.

Famine is very much a political matter—and so is the definition given to it. It is therefore no surprise that many definitions exist and that different stakeholders use different indicators and definitions to qualify famine (kilocalorie intake, food supply, food consumption, mortality, etc.).

There is nevertheless broad consensus around the fact that food security and famine should be understood in their complexity, which means taking into account their multidimensional aspects: medical, social, environmental, food security, security, and so forth.

To that extent, there have been efforts to standardize and organize the way to assess and qualify contexts of food scarcity (Howe and Devreux, 2004). This led to the creation in February 2004 of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which was developed by a multiagency partnership of eight major UN agencies and international NGOs (including WFP, FAO, and FEWSNET).

The IPC approach is gaining weight, and this tool has been officially used to qualify the situation in Somalia in 2011 as a famine.

Medical and Food Security Indicators for Famine

According to the IPC classification, evidence of three specific outcomes is required for a famine to be declared: (1) at least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope; (2) the prevalence of global acute malnutrition must exceed 30 percent; and (3) crude death rates must exceed two deaths per 10,000 people per day.

In order to classify a situation, the IPC use multi-sectoral indicators that take into account the multidimensional aspects of food security: crude mortality rate, acute malnutrition, stunting, food access/availability, dietary diversity, water access/availability, coping mechanisms, livelihood assets, civil security, and hazards.

For a given geographical area (region, country, or more confined zone), the IPC then classifies the food security situation according to five levels, called “phases,” which represent different levels of severity: (1) Generally Food Secure, (2) Moderate/Borderline Food Insecure, (3) Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis, (4) Humanitarian Emergency, and (5) Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe.

Critics of this approach point at the fact that the quality, methodology, and reliability of information collected is often questionable, particularly in complex and politically sensitive settings where famine occurs; information or data is often the result of political compromise, which in turn undermines the quality of such an approach.

Interestingly, IPC defines famine as a “regional failure of food production or supply, sufficient to cause a marked increase in disease and mortality due to severe lack of nutrition and necessitating emergency intervention, usually at an international level.”

Famine early warning systems have been set up by major international stakeholders; they include, notably, the Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) set up by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the integration of IPC on an ongoing basis within national countries and other UN agencies’ initiatives led by the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) and WFP (World Food Program).

The Causes of Famine

Contrary to many notions set forth, famine does not belong to the category of natural disasters. Rather, its origins are political and social. Often, the causes of famine cannot be summarized as a general problem of food availability. Many studies on situations of famine have demonstrated that the famine was the result not of a general shortage but of political and social problems that affect the distribution and sharing of existing foodstuffs inside a country. The work of Amartya Sen has shown that the non-democratic nature of a political regime and the existence of a state of conflict are also factors that affect the evolution of famine.

Thus, famine is not an inevitability tied to natural scourges or climatic conditions. Rather, it can be related to the weakness or failure of social or national solidarity. In the context of an armed conflict, it may also highlight a certain political or military will to weaken part of a population and their leaders. In such contexts, relief action and international solidarity cannot be satisfied with a quantitative approach or with a delivery system that goes through national authorities. They must also develop mechanisms that make it possible to guarantee victims’ access to food aid, and they must analyze the causes of a famine closely.

Humanitarian Law Provisions That Prohibit Famine

In situations of conflict, international humanitarian law prohibits the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare (API Art. 54, APII Art. 14). This prohibition has been recognized as a rule of customary law in the study published by the ICRC in 2005 (Rule 53). Customary law is binding on all belligerents, including non-state actors, whether they have ratified humanitarian conventions or not.

It is also prohibited to attack or destroy food products; agricultural areas intended for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock; drinking water installations and supplies; and irrigation works. These goods are considered protected objects, because they are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (API Arts. 54.2, 54.4; APII Art. 14; Rule 54). Besides, the Statute of the International Criminal Court establishes that starvation of civilians constitutes a war crime when committed in international armed conflicts. In other situations, it may, under specific circumstances, be a crime against humanity, such as persecution or “extermination” (Arts. 8.2.b.xxv and 7.2.b of ICC Statute).

Starvation remains an authorized method of warfare only against combatants.

Special rules are applicable to besieged locations. The parties to a conflict must ensure the “free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases” (GCIV Art. 23).

In internal or international armed conflicts, humanitarian law authorizes relief actions that are of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature if civilians are suffering undue hardship owing to a scarcity of supplies essential for their survival, such as foodstuffs and medical supplies (APII Art. 18.2; GCIV Arts. 17, 23, and 59; API Art. 70).

This right to relief and supply has also become an obligation in customary international humanitarian law. Rule 55 of the customary IHL study provides that “parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, which is impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction, subject to their right of control.”

FoodFood and Agriculture OrganizationProtected objects and propertyReliefSuppliesWar crimes/Crimes against humanityWorld Food Program

@ Famine Early Warning System: /

Integrated Food Security Phase Classification: /

For Additional Information: Action Against Hunger. Geopolitics of Hunger: Using Hunger as a Weapon . Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001.

Crombé, X., and J. H. Jézéquel, eds. A Not-So-Natural Disaster: Niger 2005. London: Hurst, 2009.

Howe, P., S. Devereux. “Famine Intensity and Magnitude Scales: A Proposal for an Instrumental Definition of Famine.” Disasters (2004): 353–72.

Kracht, Uwe. “Human Rights and Humanitarian Action: The Right to Food in Armed Conflict.” In Human Rights and Criminal Justice for the Downtrodden: Essays in Honour of Asbjørn Eide , edited by Morten Bergsmo, 261–92. Leiden: Nijhoff, 2003.

Macalister-Smith, Peter. “Protection of the Civilian Population and the Prohibition of Starvation as a Method of Warfare.” International Review of the Red Cross 284 (September–October 1991): 440–59.

Ravallion, Martin. “Famines and Economics.” Journal of Economic Literature , American Economic Association, Vol 35 (33): 1205–1242, September 1997.

Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Setting Up Emergency Feeding Programs . OCP Practical Handbook, 2011.

Scrimshaw, N. S. “The Phenomenon of Famine.” Annual Review of Nutrition , 1987, Vol 7, pp. 1–22.

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