State of the Humanitarian System 2022 | Briefing: Hunger

20 Dec 2023

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By any definition - caseload, breadth of countries affected, funding - food crises have resurged to dominate humanitarian need and caseload over the past decade. 161 million people faced a food crisis, emergency or catastrophe in 2021, an increase of 33% since 2017, and the amount of funding requested to address hunger rose by 45% between 2018 and 2021. Food insecurity is getting worse, largely because of climate change and armed conflict; within the SOHS period armed groups restricted access to food in Myanmar, Syria, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Yemen. For the second consecutive SOHS survey of crisis affected people, food was the most commonly cited priority need (cited by 38%). While it occurred outside the study period of the State of the Humanitarian System Report (which covers up to December 2021), the Russia–Ukraine conflict threatens to have severe impacts on food security in multiple countries; 36 countries facing food crises rely on Ukraine and Russia for 10% or more of their wheat imports.

High-level context and key stats 
  • In 2021 food security accounted for nearly 40% of all humanitarian funding. 
  • The World Food Programme (WFP) alone receives 28% of all humanitarian funding directly. 
  • Within the study period Yemen was experiencing the world’s worst food security crisis. At the end of 2021 the WFP was providing food assistance to 13 million people in the country. $456 million of food aid was distributed in cash and voucher assistance to 6.8 million people between January and September 2021, and 91% of recipients spent the money on food.
  • When sufficiently resourced, humanitarian nutrition programmes were generally effective in reducing severe and moderate acute malnutrition, probably contributing to a reduction in deaths of children under five.  
Threats and challenges

Conflict is interfering with humanitarian aid and principles, and access to food is being weaponised. 

  • Conflict is considered the most significant driver for hunger and food crises.
  • Over 2018–2021 armed groups restricted access to food in Myanmar, Syria, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Yemen. 
  • In Syria, there was evidence of food items being systematically diverted to feed the military. 

Climate change is causing slower-onset and more cyclical crises that challenge established ways of doing things. 

  • The system is accustomed to responding to acute, short-term crises - famines - but it is less attuned to longer, slower crises. In South Sudan and Somalia, excess mortality was greater before and after the 2017 famine period than during it. 
How is the system coping? 

Principled humanitarian action and high-level advocacy is increasingly important, while the system for classifying food emergencies and famines is under political pressure. 

  • 2018’s UNSC Resolution 2417 prohibited the use of starvation as a method of warfare, a major achievement in the multilateral effort to address the effects of conflict on food security.
  • IPC, the process for classifying food emergencies - a generally positive example of data-driven interagency and government decision-making - broke down in South Sudan in 2020 and has faced challenges from governments elsewhere.

There is growing evidence that anticipatory action is more effective than traditional post-crisis response. 

  • Payments made in anticipation of flooding in Bangladesh resulted in improved household food consumption. 
Views of crisis-affected populations

SOHS aid recipient surveys show that food remains a priority need for crisis-affected people. 

  • Food was the most-cited need in both 2018 and 2022.
  • While food continues to be a priority concern for people in crisis, aid recipients in food-insecure areas in Yemen, DRC and Ethiopia reported an over-emphasis on food aid that neglected other needs such as healthcare, psychosocial support, education, livelihoods and protection.
  • In Tigray, Ethiopia, where access was blocked, just 8% of survey respondents reported that they were satisfied with the amount of aid they received, compared to 39% and 53% respectively in Oromia and Somali regions. 

Note: We use the term 'aid recipients' to describe crisis-affected people who have been supported by humanitarian assistance.


About ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report 

Humanitarian action can be a lifeline to people experiencing the worst that conflict and disaster can inflict. For over a decade, ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report (SOHS) has provided a unique, evidence‑based understanding of the system and how well it works for affected people. Based on a huge body of evidence including exclusive research with crisis-affected people and practitioners, SOHS addresses key questions about performance and effectiveness in areas such as hunger and mortality reduction, as well as giving a comprehensive picture of funding, resource flows, staffing and organisations. Consultations with people affected by crises were central to the research from the outset, and shaped the focus of the report. This edition of the SOHS looks at the period from January 2018 to December 2021 - a period that encompassed the global COVID-19 pandemic as well as multiple armed conflicts - and draws comparisons with previous editions to take the long view on trends, accomplishments and challenges in the humanitarian system.