Famine Early Warning and Information Systems in Conflict Settings: Challenges for Humanitarian Metrics and Response

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Famine early warning systems began with support from international donors in the aftermath of the Sahelian famine of the 1970s—though in some ways trace their origins back as far as the Indian Famine Codes of the nineteenth century. Attention to the growing number of people caught in crises characterized by extreme and often protracted levels of food insecurity, malnutrition, and mortality is increasing. The information systems that track these conditions and inform humanitarian decision-making have expanded substantially in the past two decades and in many cases have reached a degree of unprecedented sophistication. Advances in remote sensing technology, cell phone utilization, and even artificial intelligence have all been incorporated into what used to be limited to tracking a handful of production, market, and rainfall indicators supplemented by methodologically diverse rapid assessments.

These systems have become increasingly sophisticated in the past decade, but they still tend to be based on several assumptions that are important to understand. This paper briefly describes existing famine or food security early warning systems and outlines some of the assumptions on which they are based— both in theory and in practice. Then it gives four brief case studies of recent famine or “famine-like” events and pieces together the formal analysis process with an attempt to reconstruct events on the ground from a conflict analysis perspective—highlighting the extent to which the formal famine analysis did or did not deal with conflict analyses and the political kryptonite around the discussion of “intent.” It closes with a summary of gaps in the current system and an assessment of the risks of trying to address those gaps through famine EWS or alternative means.

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Daniel Maxwell

Acting Director, Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, USA
Dan Maxwell leads the research program on food security and livelihoods in complex emergencies at the Feinstein International Center, where he is also leads the overall strategy of the center. Dan works with governments, humanitarian agencies, and affected communities at the grass roots, national, and regional levels to build the evidence base for improved humanitarian and resilience programming and policy. He developed the coping strategies index (CSI), one of the most commonly used food security indicators that enables governments and NGOs responding to crises to quickly understand the food security status of large numbers of people.

From 2008–2011, he served as the chair of the Department of Food and Nutrition Policy at the Friedman School. Prior to joining Tufts, Dan spent twenty years in leadership positions with international NGOs and research institutes. He was deputy regional director for CARE International in Eastern and Central Africa, Rockefeller Post-Doctoral Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, and worked for the Mennonite Central Committee for ten years in Tanzania and Uganda.

He holds a B.Sc. from Wilmington College, a master’s degree from Cornell University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin.

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