Guide: What does famine mean?

  • 20 July 2011
Hungry women and children queue up for food at a camp in Somalia's capital Mogadishu Image copyright AP

The United Nations has declared that parts of Somalia in east Africa are suffering from a famine.

The 'Horn of Africa' area is suffering its worst drought in 60 years.

But what does the term 'famine' mean?

What is a 'famine'?

The word famine is used to describe a hunger crisis at its worse.

Famine is the most serious of five phases that are used by the UN and most aid agencies.

Certain requirements have to be met for a situation to be called a famine. These include:

  • At least 20% of the population doesn't have enough food for the average person to lead a healthy life (2,100 kilocalories a day)
  • There is acute malnutrition in more than 30 percent of children
  • And there are two deaths per 10,000 people every day, or four child deaths per 10,000 children every day

What happens next?

The declaration of a famine doesn't force governments and charities to act or do anything. But it's hoped it works as a wake-up call.

The word is used carefully though. "It is a very strong word, with a strong impact," according to Brendan Paddy of the Disasters Emergency Committe, an organisation that launches big appeals for aid overseas. "We have to be precise about how we use it."

"We have to raise the alarm before it's too late but we also don't want to be accused of crying wolf."

What is the British government doing to help?

The UK government has announced that it will give £52million of aid to help a million people affected by the disaster in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The minister in charge of the government's international development work, Andrew Mitchell, has also promised to try and persuade other countries to do more to help.