Famine in 2017 – the forgotten crisis

We are facing the greatest humanitarian crisis since WW2 – yet many have never heard of this. More than 2o million people are facing the risk of starving to death unless they get help – and it is urgent. Driven by climate change, war, social instability and drought – the four areas in Africa and the Middle East hit the worst by this disaster are Yemen, northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia. The UN and NGO’s have worked intensely to gather funds to get relief to those in need but they struggle to get heard. In fact, David Beasly, who heads the UN World Food Programme recently told the Washington Post that “The last 10 months the world has been distracted. It’s all Trump, Trump, Trump… and here we are in crisis mode”. Also the UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien is worried: “Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations [in 1945]”, according to an interview in the Guardian. Hunger is thus not a thing of the past, and we need to act now.

food on a plate
We all need food to eat – the way we produce it and distribute it will change radically over the next decades if we are going to be able of feeding a growing global population while the areas suitable for agriculture are shrinking due to climate change.

One of the sustainable development goals of the UN is to end hunger. Poor nutrition causes nearly half of all deaths of children under 3 years. A massive famine like we are risking in the 4 drought-struck areas in Africa and the Middle East can thus set societies back for generations.

To end hunger in the long term, and secure that immediate emergency relief is reaching those in need of help, we need to understand some of the key drivers of this hunger catastrophe, and also other similar problems. The following fishbone diagram shows some key factors we need to understand to treat the underlying causes and not just the symptoms.

Fishbone diagram
Fishbone diagram showing some key causes of hunger disasters.

What we as human beings need to do, is first to give emergency relief to those countries – and then we need to consider longer-term action. For the long-term we need to increase agricultural productivity, secure diversity of crops, and ensure that goods can be distributed to people all over the globe. These are all tremendous challenges but they are necessary.

Increasing productivity in the agricultural sector is a challenging task, as growth areas become scarcer with global warming. At the same time as productivity must increase, for food safety and ethical reasons it is important to maintain the genetic diversity of the crops. These are challenging issues that we have yet to solve, and companies can contribute massively here – doing good while making a profit. Key areas to investigate further involves:

  • Urban farming: non-traditional ways of producing food in urban areas
  • Ocean farming: aquaculture still has enormous growth potential and can in particular contribute with protein sources from both plants and animals (primarily fish). This sector must, however, solve growth limiting challenges with respect to ecological pressures in areas they operate, as well as parasites that tend to attack dense fish populations
  • Use of automation to drastically increase ability to handle dynamic challenges like irrigation and non-toxic ways of protecting crops from insects and parasites
  • Use of automation and robotics to make agriculture less dependent on manual labor

The role of the Paris Accord on Climate Change in the Hunger Question

Drought and famine are immediate and visible disasters, whereas the sustainability goal receiving by far the most attention is climate change. How are these related? Climate change is not the only driver of famine, and we have seen resource limitation crises occur throughout the entire human history. But climate change is definitely a big factor at play – both as a driver for increased pressure on crops, increased frequency of droughts, and as a social and political factor driving attention to reducing emissions from energy production and cutting fossil fuel consumption.

The key achievement of the Paris accord was that for the first time all countries agreed to work together to limit climate change, and to pursue efforts to reduce the increase in global average temperature to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius above the average prior to industrial times. Perhaps the biggest achievement was to make both the United States and China agree to the agreement. Unfortunately, the United States have withdrawn from the Paris accord – although businesses seem to take more responsibility than American politicians do. The Paris agreement basically requires us to reduce emissions as fast as possible and to peak well before 2050, and after that to balance all emissions by “sinks” removing CO2 and other climate gases from the atmosphere. While this is perhaps one of the biggest challenges the world has agreed to tackle, it does not free us from the responsibility to take other sustainable development goals into account – and right now the most pressing one is hunger.

What is the effect of the climate change focus on longer-term food supply to the world? There are obvious positive effects: global warming is threatening crops, creating more frequent droughts, and increasing conflict in many areas. This is truly unsustainable and must be tackled. The Paris accord is a positive contribution to some of the most aggressive drivers of hunger in the world.

At the same time, the climate change focus may take resources away from solving the productivity problem in agriculture, and from providing the necessary financial resources to technology development in the food sector. These are challenges that can be managed and are smaller risks than not trying to limit the global temperature increase would create.

Soundbite media coverage and attention sinks

A truly staggering effect of modern media consumption and production is the shift towards fast click-friendly and loud news – dramatic, visual, and meme-friendly. Trump is a gift to this trend with his unconventional style and aggressive approach to politics. Brexit is dramatic and close for Europeans, driving focus to local affairs. Terrorists are hunted by newspapers, police and militaries. They are creating fear, and they are creating unrest also in western societies. But do they threaten the lives of 20 million people? No, they don’t.

In the beginning of this post I quoted David Beasly, addressing this problem. I don’t know how to fix it, but I don’t think people are less compassionate or rational than before – but data-driven news production seems to favor click-friendly soundbites that go well together with online advertising. Perhaps should we recognize the fact that not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured? We need to draw attention to the really important challenges – because to take action we need to be consciously aware of an issue. When the largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years is drowning in news about Mar-a-Lago, celebrities problems with leaked nude selfies and endless commentary on terrorism with no depth at all in that discussion – democracy stands to lose, and then humanity stands to lose. Let us give the data analysis a break while we figure out how to create the attention we need to the biggest issues at hand.

Analysis must drive decisions and actions

A common problem in businesses today (partially fueled by endless data streams and fancy dashboards) is paralysis by analysis: making a decision and taking action seems to be a rare ability in many companies. Also as societies we need to be able to actually take action. Our societies consists of individuals, organizations, and larger groups like countries or regions. Starting at the top level, with the politicians, and moving down towards the individual – what should we do to drive action for sustainability, and today in particular to provide relief to the people in Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia? Here are some thoughts form my side.

Politicians and international communities

  • Think about the “greater good” in terms of our global population, not just smaller groups of people
  • Work to find common ground on key issues, and allow cooperation even if there is significant disagreement on smaller issues
  • Work to end protectionism and export subsidies in rich countries – contributing to reduced food production in poor countries
  • Work to find agreements on food supply chain security – including logistics route under pressure today
  • Give immediate aid to the areas struck by the current hunger disaster

Companies and organizations

  • Work actively on solving the biggest problems within food supply (productivity, distribution, safety)
  • Take a holistic view on sustainability – do not support drivers of hunger, or other big threats to human beings around the world
  • Take social responsibility seriously – and build value from that view
  • Give immediate aid to the areas struck by the current hunger disaster


  • Be aware of how individual choices affect the sustainability of our societies
  • Be part of democracy – vote to make the world a better place, or be a politician for the right reasons
  • Use your consumer power – buy from companies that care, and work for companies that care
  • Give immediate aid to the areas struck by the current hunger disaster if you can
  • As parents, raise your kids as responsible human beings – and remember that teaching by example is way better than anything else




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