You Should Know

You Should Know

The World's Largest Humanitarian Crisis since WWII

By Marcus Glassman

20 million people are on the brink of famine across four countries in the Middle East and Africa—northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. Here’s what #YouShouldKnow about the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since WWII.

Violence and drought are the main drivers of these crises. Years-long civil wars in both South Sudan and Yemen have driven millions from their homes, ruined farms, and created widespread food scarcity.

In northeastern Nigeria, insurgent fighting between the government and Boko Haram has displaced hundreds of thousands, leaving those trapped behind battle lines on the brink of starvation.

The Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought in recent memory, displacing millions. Somalia is on the brink of famine, with relief efforts hindered by violence between the United Nations, the government, and al-Qaeda–backed insurgents.

Across these four countries, 5.3 million children are dangerously undernourished, 1.4 million are at risk of death from severe malnutrition, and 600,000 are at imminent risk of death from starvation.

While the situation in all four countries is dire, Yemen is currently witnessing the most widespread hunger: 17 million people there are in need of food assistance, more than those in need in South Sudan (5.5 million), northeast Nigeria (5.2 million), and Somalia (3.2 million) combined.

Of all four countries, only Somalia officially declared a famine, the most severe form of food insecurity. Although the situation has since improved in Somalia, the risk of famine persists.

The consequences of famines last a lifetime. Children born during famines may be stunted, limiting their physical and mental potential as adults. In countries with extreme stunting, it can lead to as much as a 16 percent reduction in GDP, hindering personal, family, and national progress.

The effects of famine last long into the future: following a 1944 famine in the German-occupied Netherlands, not only did the children affected experienced lifelong effects themselves, but their children experienced elevated rates of heart disease and schizophrenia

Perhaps because of this history, the Netherlands, as well as Ireland, a country with a history of famine, and the United States, a recipient of many famine refugees over its history, are among the world’s largest donors to food aid.

In the last century, it is estimated that 70 million people died from faminesincluding 30 million in China from 1958-1962.

Over time, however, famines have become smaller, and rarer; and with political will, famines are preventable.

Ethiopia, where a 1984 famine killed almost half a million people, for example, has spent the last decades making concerted investments in its agricultural sector and smallholder farmers.

Today, Ethiopia is experiencing the same drought as Somalia and Yemen, but due in large part to its investments in resilience, it has been able to better maintain food security and keep famine at bay.

Learn more about how agricultural development can advance global food security at thechicagocouncil.org/globalag.

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©2017 Chicago Council on Global Affairs