Hunger and Famine

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
World hunger
A short summation regarding the concept and issues pertaining to famine and hunger in the world.

Written by Ryan Duncan



Hunger is simply weakness or discomfort due to a lack of food. It can just be temporary, but for too many people it can be a persistent and harmful condition, one that leads to malnutrition, which means the body lacks the proper nutrients to survive. On a global scale, however “the simplest definition of hunger is a scarcity of food in a country. This occurs when the population of a country quite literally does not have enough to eat” (The Borgen Project). Famine, however, is a specific situation that is characterized by a widespread food shortage situation, where at least 20% of households (1 in 5), experience an extreme lack of food, more than 30% of the population suffers from acute malnutrition or wasting, and at least one person in 5000 dies from these conditions each day (Famine Early Warning Systems Network).

Developed by a global partnership of governmental and nongovernmental agencies, the IPC (Integrated Phase Classification) is a useful tool to describes the severity of food crises:


More than four in five households (HHs) are able to meet essential food and nonfood needs without engaging in atypical, unsustainable strategies to access food and income.


Even with any humanitarian assistance at least one in five HHs in the area have the following or worse: Minimally adequate food consumption but are unable to afford some essential non food expenditures without engaging in irreversible coping strategies.


Even with any humanitarian assistance at least one in five HHs in the area have the following or worse: 
· Food consumption gaps with high or above usual acute malnutrition
· Are marginally able to meet minimum food needs only with accelerated depletion of livelihood assets that will lead to food consumption gaps.


Even with any humanitarian assistance at least one in five HHs in the area have the following or worse:
· Large food consumption gaps resulting in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality
· Extreme loss of livelihood assets that will lead to food consumption gaps in the short term.


Even with any humanitarian assistance at least one in five HHs in the area have an extreme lack of food and other basic needs where starvation, death, and destitution are evident. Evidence for all three criteria (food consumption, acute malnutrition, and mortality) is required to classify Famine.

(IPC 2.0 Manual)

While hunger is a risk on every level of this chart, and none of these situations would be pleasant for anyone, famine is the final and most severe classification. 


Historic Roots

There are historical mentions of famine going back as far as ancient Egypt, biblical times, and ancient Rome. Europe was plagued by famine through the middle ages into the 19th century, and “Only after 1850 did a massive increase in food availability go hand in hand with more food security, declining relative food prices, and a decimating agricultural population. This process could only be sustained in a rapidly changing, globalizing and ever more unequal world” (Van Haute, p.5).  Famine was also widespread throughout the rest of the globe. Many of these events were touched off by natural factors such as weather events, crop failures, and overpopulation, but were exacerbated by social conditions such as class/feudal/caste systems or economic instability.

In the modern era, notable famines tend to have human and political roots. These include such instances as Soviet famines under Lenin (1921-22) and Stalin (1932-33) which were caused by government takeover of agriculture. The famine in Bengal (1942-44) occurred because the British ruled India and exported large quantities of rice in World War II. Famine in China (1959-61) was a result of collectivized farming during Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, and in North Korea (1995-1999) it was also caused by government policy (Ten Worst Famines of the 20th Century). Since the 1980s the vast majority of famine events have been limited geographically to Africa, mostly due to its chronically unstable political climate (A History of Famine in Africa).

While famines are specific historical events, food insecurity happens worldwide, regardless of political, economic, or demographic conditions.  In general, poverty is the leading cause of hunger, because people simply cannot afford all the food they need.  There are always families and individuals living on the margins of survival, and sadly this story is as old as society itself (Food Crisis? The Real Problem is Poverty).



Obviously, food and proper nutrition are important to everyone because they are among our most basic needs. But the scope of hunger is enormous.  According to the 2017 United Nations Food Security Report in 2016, the number of undernourished people in the world has increased to an estimated 815 million, up from 777 million in the previous year, but still less than the year 2000 (about 900 million). As such, the prevalence of undernourishment is projected to have increased to an estimated 11 percent in 2016, but it is still well below the level of a decade ago. With numbers on the decline in general, the recent increase is still cause for great concern and will pose a great challenge for international commitments to end hunger by 2030 (The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017). In addition, The Global Hunger Index lays out some additional concerns based on these trends, “Despite these improvements, a number of factors, including deep and persistent inequalities, undermine efforts to end hunger and undernutrition worldwide. As a result, even as the average global hunger level has declined, certain regions of the world still struggle with hunger more than others, disadvantaged populations experience hunger more acutely than their better-off neighbors, and isolated and war-torn areas are ravaged by famine” (Global Hunger Index 2017, p.11). At this moment, more than 30 million people face a severe food crisis in just four countries, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen (Fighting Famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Hunger and famine are acute problems that have long drawn the attention of nonprofit organizations.  There are two main approaches to the problem:  relief and prevention. Organizations such as UNICEF, CARE, and Oxfam operate within famine stricken areas to provide immediate nutritional assistance and relief.  Medical organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and The Red Cross provide medical care to treat malnutrition and its associated diseases and epidemics that can target a weakened population.

Another approach is to increase food security, with the involvement of entities such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), World Food Programme, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. And then for hunger in general, there are many, many local organizations and food banks, as well as larger groups such as Feeding America and Action Against Hunger. 


Key Related Ideas

  • Malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients. There are two basic types of malnutrition: Undernutrition includes stunting of growth, being underweight and wasting (low weight compared to height), as well as micronutrient deficiencies in terms of important vitamins and minerals. The other type is being overweight, such as obesity and diet-related conditions, which is a growing problem globally (What is malnutrition?).
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “food insecurity” as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Hunger and food insecurity are closely related but distinct, concepts. Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the level of the household. In 2015, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure, equating to 42 million Americans including 13 million children (Understand Food Insecurity).
  • Poverty is a primary cause of hunger. Not every poor person is hungry, but almost all hungry people are poor. Millions live with hunger because they simply cannot afford to buy enough nutritious good food for their families. Hunger can be seen as a dimension of extreme poverty. It is often called the most severe and critical manifestation of poverty (The Hunger Project/Poverty).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Hunger Project is a global, non-profit, strategic organization committed to the sustainable end of world hunger. Their vision is a world where every woman, man, and child leads a healthy, fulfilling life of self-reliance and dignity.
  • UNICEF USA supports UNICEF's work and other efforts in support of the world's children, through fundraising, advocacy, and education in the United States. They work with governments, civic leaders, celebrities, corporations, campus groups, churches, teachers and people just like you; anyone willing to help advocate for the survival and well-being of every child.
  • Feeding America seeks to help the people they serve build a path to a brighter, food-secure future. In a country that wastes billions of pounds of food each year, it's almost shocking that anyone in America goes hungry. Yet every day, there are millions of children and adults who do not get the meals they need to thrive. They work to get nourishing food – from farmers, manufacturers, and retailers – to people in need.


Reflection Question - Why do people go hungry? What is the difference between hunger and famine? What is philanthropy’s role in solving the hunger crisis? What do malnutrition, food insecurity, and poverty have to do with hunger?



  • The Borgen Project. What Is the Definition of Hunger?
  • Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  • Fighting Famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.
  • Food Crisis? The Real Problem is Poverty.
  • A History of Famine in Africa.
  • IPC 2.0 Manual.
  • “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World”. (2017). Building resilience for peace and food security. Rome: FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, p.2.
  • Ten Worst Famines of the 20th century.
  • Understand Food Insecurity.
  • Vanhaute, Eric. "From famine to food crisis: what history can teach us about local and global subsistence crises." Journal of Peasant Studies 38, no. 1 (2011): p.5. doi:10.1080/03066150.2010.538580
  • von Grebmer, Klaus; Bernstein, Jill; Hossain, Naomi; Brown, Tracy; Prasai, Nilam; Yohannes, Yisehac; Patterson, Fraser; Sonntag, Andrea; Zimmerman, Sophia-Maria; Towey, Olive; and Foley, Connell. 2017. 2017 “Global Hunger Index: The inequalities of hunger”. Washington, D.C.; Bonn; and Dublin: International Food Policy Research Institute, Welthungerhilfe, and Concern Worldwide. p.11
  • What is malnutrition?


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.