Government and International Responses

Famine through the ages has invoked from law abiding governments preventive action, where believed indicated, and relief responses in the face of imminent catastrophe. In Genesis, Pharoah's grain taxes during years of plenty were aimed at relieving dwindling food stores in famine. During China's

Eastern Chou and Ch'in dynasties of the third century bc, as well as in India over 2000 years ago, steps formulated to prevent or relieve famine included disaster reporting procedures, cropping alterations, grain distribution, feeding kitchens, tax remissions, vulnerable group relocation, and public works construction to facilitate irrigation, food shipment or flood control. In sixteenth century England, to counter inflationary effects of speculative grain hoarding, the Tudor First Book of Orders called for enforced extraction and marketing of private grain stocks as a way to control staple prices and thwart famine. Policy response can also amount to inaction. The Great Irish Famine from 1844 to 1848 evoked a different response from the British Government: a flawed 'laissez-faire' policy intending to allow market forces to equilibrate on their own to meet local food needs, a course that never materialized as entitlement collapsed among Irish peasantry. However, learning from a century of repeated famine, Famine Codes emerged in British India in 1880 that called for massive public works coupled with food distribution and feeding centers for vulnerable groups, which served as the core famine relief policy on the subcontinent for more than a half century and have continued to guide famine relief efforts to the present day.

Today, modern preventive response by international agencies and governments can be informed and guided by surveillance systems with regional, national, and local data collection mechanisms. Examples are the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS), which functions across Sub-Saharan Africa and has been supported by the US Agency for International Development over the past two decades and the Global Information Early Warning System (GIEWS) managed by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The primary aim of surveillance is to detect worsening conditions in high-risk populations in sufficient time to permit effective preventive or pre-emptive action. The task is a 'tall order' given widespread, often complex, component causes that must converge in certain ways to cause famine, against a usual plethora of endemic risk factors. With early, adequate, and effective response serving as the criterion of success, modern surveillance has so far failed to prevent famine. In part, this may reveal a basic epidemiologic dilemma: Against a background of profound, widespread economic and nutritional need throughout the developing world, including numerous prefamine but intact situations arising under surveillance, famine is a rare event. Even with presumed high sensitivity and specificity, low predictive value stemming from infrequent occurrence makes action to prevent a particular famine unlikely given the enormous political and financial resources required to mount preventive responses.

Thus, the most effective preventive action relates to setting and enacting a development agenda that recognizes high risk areas and seeks to strengthen the productivity and well-being of famine-vulnerable population groups in those areas of a country. These can include boosting infrastructural, commercial, education, agricultural, and other inputs into priority areas that improve long-term economic conditions.

Preemptive government policies are directed toward relieving a prefamine condition once it becomes apparent. Setting up famine early warning systems that monitor climatic, agricultural, population mobility, economic, and nutritional indicators is considered preemptive in that such information is intended to identify high-risk trends so that corrective action could be taken long before famine becomes imminent. Normally, early warning surveillance is only possible in high-risk countries with significant international assistance. Another example is a government making large purchases of food on the international market and releasing the commodities through ration shops, food-for-work and other programs that do not disrupt the local food economy but stabilize local grain market prices instead as a means to prevent speculation throughout the period of high risk.

Lagged or relief-oriented responses comprise emergency responses to acute and enormous need that typically are enacted after famine begins and its harsh consequences are already evident in a population. These actions, usually in coordination with major international relief and donor agencies, are typically intended to relieve acute suffering and death and promote the rehabilitation of those masses who have survived to migrate, and reach encampments. By definition, lagged responses represent policy failure for governments intending to minimize the destruction, malnutrition, and mortality of famine.

See also: Hunger. Malnutrition: Primary, Causes Epidemiology and Prevention; Secondary, Diagnosis and Management. Nutrition Policies In Developing and Developed Countries. Starvation and Fasting.

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