At the World Food Conference in 1974, governments proclaimed that ‘every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties’. They promised that, within a decade, ‘no child would go hungry’.

Ten years later, in Ethiopia, between 800,000 and a million people died in one of the worst famines in the country’s modern history. The scale and severity of the famine eventually triggered an unprecedented international response. Such events as Band Aid and Live Aid marked the moment when, for many, the world woke up to the huge challenge of famine and food insecurity in the world’s poorest countries.

In Ethiopia today, much of the population is extremely and increasingly vulnerable. Most years bring famine warnings and appeals for food aid from the government and international aid agencies. This year, according to the Ethiopian government, seven million people are unable to feed themselves for the whole year, and need 900,000 tonnes of food aid.

According to Amartya Sen, ‘Famines are extremely easy to prevent. It is amazing that they actually take place, because they require a severe indifference on the part of the government’. The term ‘famine crimes’ was used by Alex de Waal in relation to the causes of and response to famine. However, the complex interaction of political, social, economic and environmental factors makes the task of famine prevention far from easy.

Significant advances have been made, in early warning and food security policy for example, but new challenges such as HIV/AIDS have emerged, and conflict and weak and poor governments remain key factors in allowing famines to continue. Three decades after the proclamations and promises of the 1974 World Food Conference, a major development theme of the recent G-8 summit in the US was famine in the Horn of Africa. Famine and the threat of it remain a shameful challenge to the world.

The challenge to humanitarian organisations is to define an effective role in the face of famine in Ethiopia and elsewhere. The special feature of this issue of Humanitarian Exchange takes Ethiopia as a focus to consider the complex, often controversial question of famine response. It explores the role of humanitarianism amongst all the various approaches and forms of action, and asks what humanitarian actors can do to try to save lives and alleviate suffering.

Articles on a wide range of other humanitarian policy and practice issues are also presented in this issue. As always, we welcome submissions for publication, and your feedback on HPN’s publications.

Issue 27 articles