Book Classic: Famine, Conflict and Response by Fred Cuny

Book Classic:  Famine, Conflict and Response:  a Basic Guide

By Fred Cuny, with Rick Hill      (West Hartford, CN:  Kumarian Press       1999)

This basic, extremely readable text about famine prevention and relief remains a preferred textbook decades after first written by Fred Cuny, and published after he was killed along with his team near Chechnya.  Compiled posthumously by Fred’s colleagues Rick Hill and Pat Reed, the text style is not academic, but practical, reflecting Fred’s own frontline problem solving in a wide range of emergencies.

Chapter one addresses the causes of famine, including war, drought, disruptions to markets, failure to plant, collapse in purchasing power and environmental degradation.  This is followed by an examination of the consequences of famine, including measles, diarrhea, the separation of family members, and challenges to social bonds.  In chapter three, Cuny puts forward the notion famines spread geographically, how famine ‘belts’ shift.  Chapter four explores the economy of rural subsistence communities and herding pastoralists.  He observes how famine coping strategies, such as eating seed stocks, prolong the famine by decreasing the next year’s harvest.

Chapter five shifts to aid agency response, namely early warning, including the USAID Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) which watches for indicators of famine;  increases in distress sales, livestock deaths, crop failure, poor rainfall, low food reserves, and then – at a late stage – increases in the rate of child malnutrition.  Fred pointed out the value of “food demand models” that “attempt to find out whether people have reasonable access to that food..  Access is measured by the market price and whether people have the money to buy an item or barter for it.”  Notably:  “a rapid increase in food prices or a drop in family income may indicate the onset of famine.”

The book then has several chapters of “counter-famine” interventions, including food, cash, “market interventions” including loans, market sales, food-for-work, price supports for livestock, barter, grain-for animal exchanges, subsidies, price controls, and income-generating projects that improve agricultural systems.  Page 76 presents a novel and brilliant diagram matching stages of famine (hoarding, migration, starvation, etc.) against preferred interventions (monetization, food-for-work, price support, intensive feeding, etc.)  Fred encourages counter-famine operations “aimed at keeping the local market system from collapsing, preventing people from having to sell their assets, stopping migration and maintaining the family.”

Decades ahead of his time, Cuny outlined the use of vouchers or coupons, to be redeemed with identified food vendors set up for each community.  He also recognized the counter-famine dynamics of tapping local merchants and food supplies:  “Once merchants release food they are hoarding, others will also start to sell… helping to reactive the normal market system.”

The book explains food rations and the logistics of moving and storing food to camps.  His explanation of the use of aircraft is short but clear.  The book concludes with chapters about effective aid monitoring and cross-border operations which are frequently necessary for reaching conflict zones.  The book concludes with discussion of helping populations along border “enclaves” and their long-term shift to rehabilitation and return.

In the volume’s introduction former OXFAM, CEO John Hammock, and former USAID administrator, Andrew Natsios, explain that Fred’s “powers of observation and analysis were his greatest strengths, allowing him to aggregate disparate and seemingly unrelated data into a coherent explanation of what was happening and then design a comprehensive strategy to address the crisis.” Then, “Whenever Fred traveled to a food emergency, he would first stop at the local market to review prices for price and livestock and to talk with merchants about inflationary pressures, the volume of commodity turnover in the market, the sources of commodity supply, and to which local ethnic or political groups the merchants were allied.  And then he would simply stand and observe:  who was buying, what they were buying, and what they were using for currency.  By the end of the first day, he would understand much of the economy of famine in the region.”

They also summarize key themes that ran through Fred’s analyses:

  •  The context of the emergency is crucial;
  •   Traditional responses by international agencies can cause more harm than good;
  •   International aid is a drop in the bucket compared with local aid;
  •   The key to success in relief aid is involving local people directly;
  •   Relief and development are intricately linked;
  •   Relief aid is not a logistical exercise to get goods to people – it is a process to accelerate recovery; and
  •   Relief intervention teaches us lessons; we should heed the lessons learned from the past.
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