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A famine is a phenomenon in which a large percentage of the population of a region or country are so undernourished that death by starvation becomes increasingly common.
In spite of the much greater technological and economic resources of the modern world, famine still strikes many parts of the world, mostly in the developing nations.

Famine is associated with naturally-occurring crop failure and pestilence and artificially with war and genocide.

In the past few decades, a more nuanced view focused on the economic and political circumstances leading to modern famine has emerged.

Modern relief agencies categorize various gradations of famine according to a famine scale.

Many areas that suffered famines in the past have protected themselves through technological and social development. The first area in Europe to eliminate famine was the Netherlandsmarker, which saw its last peacetime famines in the early-17th century as it became a major economic power and established a complex political organization. A prominent economist on the subject, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, has noted that no functioning democracy has ever suffered a famine, although he admits that malnutrition can occur in a democracy and he does not consider mid 19th century Ireland to be a functioning democracy.

The bulk of the world’s food aid is given to people in areas where poverty is endemic; or to people who has suffered due to a natural disaster other than famine (such as the Asian Tsunami victims), or have lost their crops due to conflicts (such as in the Darfur region of the Sudan). Only a small amount of food aid goes to people who are suffering as a direct consequence of famine.

Famine response methods

In his book on famine, Fred Cuny stated that "the chances of saving lives at the outset of a relief operation are greatly reduced when food is imported. By the time it arrives in the country and gets to people, many will have died." He goes on to say that "evidence suggests the massive food shipments sent to Somalia in 1992 had little impact on the outcome of the famine . . . and that by the time it arrived in sufficient, steady quantities in the rural areas, the death rate had peaked and was already declining."" - Andrew S. Natsios (Administrator U.S. Agency for International Development)

There is a growing realization among aid groups that giving cash or cash vouchers instead of food is a cheaper, faster, and more efficient way to deliver help to the hungry, particularly in areas where food is available but unaffordable. In a major endorsement of the approach, the UN's World Food Program, the biggest non-governmental distributor of food, announced that it will begin distributing cash and vouchers instead of food in some areas. Josette Sheeran, the WFP's executive director, described the plan as a "revolution" in food aid.

However, for people in a drought living a long way from and with limited access to markets, delivering sacks of grain and tins of oil may be the most appropriate way to help. Fred Cuny further pointed out "Studies of every recent famine have shown that food was available in-country — though not always in the immediate food deficit area. Usually, merchants begin hoarding food as a crisis develops — in conflicts, to keep it from being stolen, in famines, to get higher prices. Even though by local standards the prices are too high for the poor to purchase it, it would usually be cheaper for a donor to buy the hoarded food at the inflated price than to import it from abroad." from memorandum to former Representative Steve Solarz (United States, Democratic Party, New York) - July 1994. The Irishmarker aid agency Concern is piloting a method through a mobile phone operator, Safaricom, which runs a money transfer program that allows cash to be sent from one part of the country to another. Concern donated more than $30,000 for distribution via cellphone to some of Kenyamarker's poorest people so that they can buy local food.

In the past four years, Ethiopiamarker has been pioneering a program that has now become part of the World Bank's prescribed recipe for coping with a food crisis and, as a result, it had been seen by aid organizations as a model of how to best help hungry nations. Through the country's main food assistance program, the Productive Safety Net Program, Ethiopia has been giving rural residents who are chronically short of food, a chance to work for food or cash. In addition, foreign aid organizations like the World Food Program were then able to buy food locally from surplus areas to distribute in areas with a shortage of food. Since then, the percentage of Ethiopians living in poverty dropped to 39 percent in 2006 from 44 percent in 2001, according to the World Bank.

Temporary therapeutic foods

Malnutrition is a medical condition, not just a lack of food. The bodies of severely malnourished children are unable to process regular food. Instead of being fed food such as rice or porridge, children are fed what are known as therapeutic foods for up to one month, or until their bodies are able to process traditional foods. There are three main types of therapeutic foods in use; these consist of powdered milk formulas named F-75 and F-100 and a ready-to-eat peanut paste named Plumpy'nut. F-75 and F-100 are formulated specifically for the severely malnourished and is to be used only under supervision. Plumpy’nut can be used at home without supervision.

  • F-75 (phase 1 therapeutic milk) is a milk based powder mixed with water that is given to severely malnourished children when they first arrive for treatment. It is normally given for one to three days, in case of kwashiorkor it can be given for a maximum of seven days. It is not intended to cause the child to gain weight, but only to condition the body to digest food.
  • F-100 (phase 2 therapeutic milk) is a milk based powder mixed with water. It contains more protein and calories than F-75 and is designed for rapid weight gain, so that the body can rebuild and be able to handle normal foods.
  • Plumpy'nut: a ready-to-eat mixture of peanut paste, sugar, fats, minerals, and vitamins. This is the newest of the three, and is generally used as an alternative to using F-100.
  • When the bodies are able to digest more, products containing more protein can be used to increase muscle buildup. Vegetable Protein Foods such as Textured vegetable protein have been advocated as besides having high amounts of protein, also feature a long storage life and is quite cheap. Also, just as tofu, ... vegetable protein can be made quite sustainably (unlike true meat), another important feature in areas such as Darfur (which has been made unarable just because of holding cattle).

Plumpy’nut has two main advantages over F-100: it comes in a ready-to-eat packet that requires no water or mixing; and it puts mothers in charge of feeding their own malnourished children in their own communities, rather than forcing them to always bring their malnourished children to hospitals or therapeutic feeding centers for assistance.

"Nutritionists for the first time can take treatment beyond crowded emergency feeding centers and hospitals settings, where disease can spread rapidly, and into communities where malnourished children live," - Wall Street Journal - referring to Plumpy’nut

Celebrity famine relief

On August 1 1971 Ex-Beatles member George Harrison enlisted the aid of fellow musicians Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan and many more in a concert at Madison Square Gardenmarker to raise money for Bangladeshmarker famine relief. Known as "The Concert for Bangladesh", it was attended by more than 40,000 people.

In 1984 Irishmarker musician Bob Geldof and Scottishmarker Ultravox member Midge Ure organised a charity fundraiser record for the starving of Africa. Under the name of Band Aid, they collected together most of the singers then making the Britishmarker pop charts and got them singing together on a charity single called "Do They Know It's Christmas?" The pair followed up with re-recordings of the song, with different groups of musicians, in 1989 and 2004

The following year, 1985, Geldof and Ure followed up their success with a large-scale concert: Live Aid. This led to other fundraising famine relief projects such as Sport Aid and Comic Relief.

The success of this single was followed by several other 1985 celebrity ensemble songs benefiting famine relief, including American group USA for Africa ("We Are the World"), the Canadian Northern Lights ("Tears Are Not Enough"), and the heavy metal group Hear 'n Aid ("Stars").

Modern relief

Today, the Peace Corps, religious groups, and charities feed hungry people all over the world, especially in countries hardest hit by famine. In addition to giving them food, they teach the hungry to grow their own food crops, so that they can feed themselves. In some environments (such as the desert, rocky areas, or cold wastelands) farming is difficult to impossible. Such land is called unarable. This is why famine repeats in those areas. New methods have been invented to grow food crops in these difficult areas. These new methods include: nitrogen fertilizer, hybrid food crops, digging wells, reverse osmosis water processors to turn salty ocean water into fresh water, greenhouses, hydroponics, canal digging, dirt hill walls stacking for protection against wind and dust, mylar insulation, and sustainable agriculture.

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