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Why food shortages occur and what aid agencies do to help


Picture: World Food Programme

Women in Niger queued to have their children weighed during a recent food crisis


As a severe food crisis strikes Kenya, Somalia and the Horn of Africa, we ask the United
Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) what lies behind such food shortages and how hungry people are helped.

What causes a severe food crisis?

Serious food crises occur when people cannot get
enough nutritious food to eat.

They can be triggered by natural disasters, conflict,
political instability, economic failure or even epidemics
such as HIV.

Famine occurs when several of these factors are made
worse by governments' failure to deal with the situation.

Food prices are driven up, overwhelming systems of
health, law and order and causing widespread death
from malnutrition and disease.

What does it mean when someone is acutely

Acute malnutrition is the result of sudden weight loss
due to starvation and disease.

Characterised by "wasting" - which means children are
far skinnier for their height than healthy children - acute
malnutrition often leads to rapid death as it increases
the risk of infection and can mean that vital organs stop

Acute malnutrition, if caught in time and treated
correctly, can be treated but it may have long-term
effects on physical and mental growth.

More than 50 million children worldwide are acutely

How do aid agencies keep track of hunger?

They already know which areas are most at risk and use
a wide variety of tools to measure changes in food

These include satellite weather technology to estimate
rainfall and crop assessments which can help predict

They also carry out nutritional surveys so that they know
how much people are eating and also examine the
political situation which might affect the hunger of a

Local staff in the field also channel information from the

Areas of hunger can change dramatically within a single
country and these tools create a picture of areas that
need special help.

How and when do aid agencies intervene?

The World Health Organization considers a situation to
be "emergency out-of-control" when four children of
every 10,000 die per day from malnutrition and other

Non-governmental organisations, aid agencies and
charities are often present long before crises erupt.

But when they are and the local government cannot
handle the problem alone, major emergency operations
are initiated to get much larger quantities of food aid to
hungry people.

Food can be on the ground in as little as 48 hours. But
aid agencies rely entirely on donations from the public
and private donors for their work and if money is not
provided, there may be little they can do to help.

What are people given to eat and why?

WFP's emergency ration includes about one and a half
cups of rice or flour, a tablespoon of beans or lentils, a
spoonful of oil and a pinch of salt.

It costs an average of US$0.29 and provides 2,100
kilocalories - the recommended daily energy intake for
active adults.

The people most at risk of malnutrition - especially
women and children - often receive specially blended
foods that contain all the vitamins and minerals they
need to survive.

They may be given this food in biscuit form or in a flour
which can be mixed into porridge.

The average cost of a day's ration of high-energy
biscuits is US$0.55.

In the very first days of an emergency - such as a
refugee exodus or natural disaster - when people are
not able to cook their own food - aid agencies can
provide biscuits, rations or even freshly baked bread for

Where does food aid come from?

Food can be bought in the country affected, in
neighbouring countries, from overseas or directly

Buying food locally means that the locally economy is
supported and food can arrive quicker.

In a crisis situation, aid organisations use any means
they can to transport food, by air, sea or land or even by
elephant, donkey or yak.

They make a rapid calculation to decide which means will
get the food there in time, at the lowest cost.

Acute malnutrition in children under five  

Afghanistan 25%
Somalia 17%
Cambodia 15%
Laos 15%
Madagascar 14%
Niger 14%
Sri Lanka 14%
Burkina Faso 13%

Editor's Note: With thanks to World Food Programme
and Unicef}

The Explainer on Food Crisis

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