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As famine looms in Gaza, we look at why modern famines are a 'man-made' disaster


If you ask people who study the topic, they will tell you that a modern famine is a man-made disaster. Natural disasters can play a part. For example, flooding and drought can destroy crops, but relief agencies and wealthy governments can now get aid where it needs to go. So it is ultimately war and political will that keeps enough food from being grown or delivered in places like Ethiopia and Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, Haiti and North Korea and, of course, now in Gaza.

Alex de Waal has studied global hunger for decades. He's the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. Welcome.

ALEX DE WAAL: It's good to be with you.

CHANG: So can you just briefly define what famine is? Like, if people are already starving to death in a region, as has been the case in Gaza for quite some time, why do you not necessarily declare that to be famine?

DE WAAL: Well, over many decades, there was a lot of controversy among the people who studied and tried to prevent famine. And about 20 years ago, they, or we, all converged on a standard metric. And it has five levels, which vary from normal through stressed, crisis, emergency and the last one being famine.

CHANG: I see.

DE WAAL: And there are various requirements of horror that are needed to hit that threshold of famine. You need to have a food system that has collapsed so that households just really struggle to get the basic necessities. You need to have child malnutrition hitting terrible levels, children suffering from wasting and also the bloating or edema that you sometimes see from famine camps. And you have to have deaths from starvation and hunger at more than 2 per 10,000 per day. So that would mean in a population such as Gaza today, that would mean a couple of hundred people, most of them children, starving to death every day.

CHANG: So from what you know of what is happening in Gaza now, how close to famine would you say that Gaza is?

DE WAAL: Well, the first thing to say is that children are dying of starvation and starvation-related causes like disease well before famine hit. So you could already have thousands, even tens of thousands of children perishing even though we haven't actually determined famine. The other point is that in all the decades I've been studying this, I've never seen statistics as bad as they are in Gaza today. Obviously, the famine isn't a huge famine. The population of Gaza is only 2 million people.

CHANG: Right.

DE WAAL: So compared with the 25 million in need in Sudan, the 30 million in need in Ethiopia, it's a smaller population. But the intensity of suffering is something that is really without precedent in modern times.

CHANG: Well, when you look at famine that is indeed happening in different countries around the world at this moment, what are the common things that you see?

DE WAAL: Well, the most remarkable thing is that famine is actually back. If you'd asked me this question eight or 10 years ago, I'd have said, oh, famines, those have been consigned to the past. This actually...

CHANG: Right.

DE WAAL: ...Is a problem.

CHANG: Eight years ago, you wrote an op-ed for the New York Times saying we might be past the age of famines, right?

DE WAAL: Indeed, and I actually started writing a book on the topic of how we conquered famines. And during the writing of my book, famines made a comeback, so I had to make a rather terrible swerve and try and explain why they were coming back.

And what all contemporary famines have in common is that they are man-made, gendered language deliberate. There are men, usually generals, who use starvation as a weapon of war, either - in some cases, they actually want to starve people, case in point being Bashar al-Assad in Syria and this terrible surrender-or-starve policy of these enclaves in Syria. But more often, it's when a politician or a general wants to achieve some military objective and just doesn't care whether the civilians starve or not. They're still culpable because they know that what they're doing will create these terrible conditions, but they go ahead and do it anyway.

CHANG: Maybe this is a question for the universe and not for you, but why do we increasingly see hunger being weaponized?

DE WAAL: I think there's a sense of impunity among the politicians and generals who use it. There was certainly a pushback, including at the United Nations and at the International Criminal Court, trying to strengthen the international legal prohibitions against the war crime of starvation, but it really hasn't worked. We've seen Putin using it in Ukraine. We've seen the Ethiopian government using it in Tigray, the different sides in the civil war in Sudan. Both are ruthlessly ready to destroy everything that is necessary for people to survive. And I'm afraid the Israelis are showing much the same inclination in Gaza. And while, until very recently, the United States and Western democracies could present themselves as saying, you know, we are the champions of humanitarian principles, we don't do this, I'm afraid we're letting the Israelis get away with it.

CHANG: Well, as you watch the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza, what do you think are the most pressing needs as someone who's been studying global hunger for decades?

DE WAAL: The most immediate need is for a cease-fire. It is to actually stop the destruction of the infrastructure, everything that is necessary for people to survive, and to enable essential services to resume. And then, along with that, allow a sort of full spectrum of humanitarian assistance to go in. So international agencies are actually extremely skilled and competent at dealing with this type of crisis, a very challenging environment, but they're simply not being allowed to do it. The restrictions on the - on who's allowed to operate and what aid can be brought in are so onerous that this famine is being allowed to develop really without being checked.

CHANG: Alex de Waal, professor and executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. Thank you very much.

DE WAAL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.

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