Famine in the 21st Century Must be a Red Line. Here’s What We Can Do  

5 minute read
Ann Lee co-founded and leads CORE as CEO, drawing on her experience in humanitarian response, and community development.
Reena Ghelani is the United Nations Famine Prevention and Response Coordinator with over 25 years of experience in humanitarian operations across the globe.

Famine is back and the threat is real. And not just in one or two countries, but in multiple regions. The good news is that we have the resources and skills to make famine a thing of the past. But past strategies won’t work. 

Until recently, success in the fight against global famine was one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Between 1990 and 2019, the rate of chronic malnutrition around the world dropped from 38% to 7.9%. However, It is now again rising rapidly with devastating consequences. Today, over a quarter-billion people grapple with severe hunger and malnutrition, a 100% increase in just the past five years.

As aid workers, we have worked with communities who are on the front lines of this crisis. From Haiti to Somalia, and Afghanistan to Yemen, we have heard from countless desperate mothers in too many nutrition wards and displacement camps.

Growing hunger is fueled by a toxic mix of climate change, armed conflict, and a global economic crisis that has exacerbated poverty and inequality, exhausting the ability of many families and communities to cope. The global food system, responsible for feeding billions of people, is under increased strain due to structural weaknesses, repeated shocks, and unsustainable use of the planet’s resources. At a time when the world needs to come together to solve global challenges, we are seeing rising political tension and fragmentation. Current efforts are falling short, failing marginalized communities and lower-income countries. 

As aid workers, we also see hope. Affected people and communities, when empowered with the right tools and knowledge, are innovating in the face of disasters. On a small scale, with tools and cooperation, the poorest and most impacted by climate change (and yet least responsible) are not waiting to be saved. These communities are fighting poverty, deprivation and drought through climate smart agriculture, feeding their families and building a brighter, greener future. But they need support.

First and foremost, we need to invest in climate adaptation, as well as mitigation, to help communities withstand the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Recent research shows that climate change was the leading factor behind the deadly drought that killed thousands of people in the Horn of Africa from 2020-2022. By directly impacting food, water, and energy supplies, climate change also leads to increased competition over natural resources and displacement, fueling conflict and destitution. Should the global temperature rise two degrees Celsius by 2050, 80 million more people will face hunger.

Conversely, climate adaptation initiatives—through, for example, using drought-resistant crops or more efficient irrigation techniques prove remarkably effective—yielding high returns on investment. For example, the Haiti Takes Root project leverages Haitian farmers' knowledge to foster climate resilience strategies that adapt to changing weather patterns. By planting fruit and hardwood trees alongside perennial food crops, the project boosts local agricultural production, improves food security and restores biodiversity, all of which strengthen the community by both supporting the economy and preparing for climate change. Such success stories need to be scaled up, shared, and replicated.

Secondly, we must address persistent poverty and inequality both within and between our countries. According to Oxfam, 10 people on the planet today own more wealth than 200 million African women. Similarly, our attention should extend to the global financial architecture, described by the United Nations Secretary-General as “outdated, dysfunctional and unjust.” It must be reformed. External debt levels among low-income countries have more than doubled in the last decade, exacting a heavier toll on climate vulnerable nations. Some countries pay more to service public debt than for their education or health care systems, leaving limited resources to support their people in times of crisis. It is urgent to reform the global financial system and enable sustainable debt restructuring. 

While the climate and economic crises are increasingly driving food crises, we cannot overlook the fact that conflict and insecurity remain key drivers of famine. Each of the seven countries – Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen – where people faced famine-like conditions last year were affected by armed conflict or extreme levels of violence. There is a moral imperative in redoubling our efforts to prevent, reduce and end conflict, while at the same time, mitigating its impacts. Programs such as the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allowed the export of millions of tons of grain and contributed to bringing down global food prices, provides an example of how to mitigate the impacts of conflict even before peace is realized.

Third, we need to shift the way we work, by investing in local actors and putting women and girls front and centre of the response. It is clear that women are key to the solution. They are the ones doing the bulk of the agricultural work and putting food on the table. Yet, they are often excluded from ownership of land, or access to credit and productive assets. By bridging the gender gap in agriculture alone, we could keep 100-150 million people from going hungry. This would benefit not only women, but their families, communities, and countries. We have seen proof in countless examples—in Niger, Kenya and elsewhere.

Finally, it is about prioritizing prevention and forward-looking risk management. That requires the involvement not only of humanitarian actors, but also development, finance and private sector partners. With a combination of improved early warning and early action, communities are able to safeguard their livelihoods, hunger is kept at bay, and lives are saved. 

We cannot wait for another famine declaration before we take action. The challenge is monumental, but the good news is that we can turn this devastating trend around. In the 21st century, famine must be a red line for the world. The red line where we come together and act. 

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.