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Opinion: ‘Famine’ is Something Different

 
“Words matter, you know.” A former boss once looked at me, his head of communications, in earnest as he bestowed this wisdom. I thanked him like a true elder millennial and an even truer Canadian. But we both knew he was right, and sometimes the obvious is worth repeating. 

I have the intense privilege of communicating with and on behalf of humanitarians, emergency responders, and experts in social impact on a daily basis. My team and I get to listen to and then help tell their stories, in different ways and with different outcomes in mind.

We’ve all watched authorities attempt to convey the raising stakes on our planet with ever more vivid language. “Climate change” becomes the “climate crisis”, which is lately a “climate catastrophe.” Civilians are described as being killed – no, murdered, slaughtered, massacred – as advocates try to capture and hold our attention. I’ve done this myself, whether aiming for hearts, minds, or clicks.

But some words are chosen for their technical definitions, with too little mind to the reality that most of us don’t know the difference.

For instance, “slaughter” and “massacre” are generally synonyms when referring to humans (a horrific concept on its own) and used as such. The same is true of every new label we put on the reality of climate change.

“Starvation” and “famine”, however, are not the same thing, and terms like “extreme hunger”, “malnutrition,” and “food insecure” further muddy the waters.

As I write this, famine is imminent in Gaza. What does that really mean?

I turned to conflict expert and Palladium co-CEO Sinéad Magill to explain.

“Famine is extreme,” she tells me. “By the time you’ve reached famine, people are already dying of starvation on a daily basis.”

Famine is also incredibly rare. Over the course of the 20th century, famine was practically eradicated as warfare waned (believe it or not) and aid agencies have increasingly effectively prevented the loss of life. Agricultural yields are higher; fewer people are living in extreme poverty; there’s more food per person available overall.

“A quarter of a billion people live on the brink of famine – we’re not saying the problem is solved,” Magill clarifies. “But famine is now largely man-made. It’s political. It’s preventable.”

The non-profit Action Against Hunger uses a similar definition, calling famine “the most severe kind of hunger crisis.”

“Some deadly emergencies happen suddenly, like earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters,” they explain. “This is not the case with famine. A famine happens slowly, caused by long-term conflict, climate shocks, extreme poverty, and other drivers. Famines are never inevitable.”

The UNs World Food Programme, Oxfam, and others all share the same definition, every piece of it carrying huge implications and effectively placing blame on people and governments. To use the word “famine” is deliberate, but it doesn’t have the intended effect if regular people don’t know what it means.

Now that we know, what can we do?

“In the case of Gaza, as well as in Ethiopia and other food rich contexts facing famine, the opening up of aid routes is a bare minimum and an absolute must,” says Magill.

This is the only way humanitarian teams like the ones at Palladium can continue to deliver live-saving aid, the most recent of which has been on behalf of the UK Government.

Any progress on this front, like the crisis itself, is man-made; a result of foreign and domestic policy and influenced by public opinion. Our opinion.

Words matter. They can reveal the truth or help to conceal it – and both can be done unwittingly or with full intent. Experts and activists across the globe are crying ‘famine’ because they know what it means, and the rest of us need to know, too.


Contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com to get in touch. 

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