After a decline in the early 2000s, food crises regained prominence over the past decade, with food insecurity and malnutrition accounting for a significant proportion of the humanitarian caseload. Within the course of this SOHS study period, the number of people facing acute food insecurity458 rose by 33% – from 124 million in 2017 to an estimated 161 million in 2021459 – and the amount requested in appeals to address these needs rose by 45% between 2018 and 2021.460 Food continued to be the most commonly cited need by aid recipients in the SOHS survey (38%).

While drought and other climate events played a role in driving these increases, conflict and a return of ‘intentional starvation’461 as a strategy for population control were the primary causes.462 COVID‑19 also increased food insecurity via its effects on livelihoods, although the impact was not as dire as initially projected by agencies, who had predicted a doubling in the number of food-insecure people worldwide.463 Even so, the ripple effects of COVID-19 on food security are likely to be felt for years, as rising inflation and the strains on the global supply chain have left the global food system less able to absorb and adjust to shocks. 

The 2018 SOHS covered the effectiveness of the humanitarian response to the ‘four great famines’ of 2017: Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. It concluded that the system had generally succeeded in learning lessons from the flawed and delayed response to the Horn of Africa drought in 2011.464 In Somalia in particular, the system acted much faster, and interventions were perceived to be effective at averting famine and preventing deaths. Further evaluations of the famine responses published in 2018 or later have provided additional evidence for these conclusions.465 There are, however, widespread concerns that the 2017 famine response was a one-off, rather than an indication of system change.466 Key decisions in the 2017 famine were made by individuals who had direct experience and memory of what had happened in 2011, making performance highly contingent on individuals rather than systematic reforms; one evaluation from 2018 notes that, while the 2017 response featured a number of innovations in early action and anticipation, ‘There is no plan as yet to ensure that the innovations adopted in 2017 will be sustained.’467 

Key decisions in the 2017 famine were made by individuals who had direct experience and memory of what had happened in 2011, making performance highly contingent on individuals rather than systematic reforms.

Data and evaluations continue to show that the political barriers to acting early to address food crises take precedence over issues with effectiveness. As described in Chapter 7, the technical performance of the system at addressing hunger remains strong. Since 2018, however, the system has grappled with several challenges alongside the resurgence of famine and hunger crises, particularly around conflict-driven famine, the politicisation and manipulation of food security data, insufficient funds and, in some cases, an over-emphasis on food aid that is seen as potentially undermining other forms of support.  

Conflict-driven famine

A defining feature of the humanitarian system’s response to hunger in recent years was the continued weaponisation of access to food that made principled humanitarian action increasingly important for food crises and highlighted the need for stronger humanitarian advocacy at the highest levels. Over 2018–2021, state and non-state armed groups restricted access to food in conflicts in Myanmar, Syria, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Yemen.468 In what was considered a positive exception to the new age of declining multilateral support for humanitarian space, the UN Security Council passed UNSC Resolution 2417, which prohibited the use of starvation as a method of warfare. Further resolutions followed on South Sudan and Yemen, based on confidential reports submitted by OCHA on conflict-induced food insecurity in both countries. In April 2021, the Secretary-General established a High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine, which sought to improve advocacy and resource mobilisation to avert the risk of famine worldwide.  

Measuring and prioritising across the IPC phases

The high-level focus on famine has also brought renewed scrutiny to the way it is measured. Famine declarations are based on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) process, which draws on a range of indicators including mortality and nutritional survey data, and are determined through an intensive consultation process among country-level technical staff and government representatives. Food security measurements have the distinction of being both technically and politically complicated. While the IPC process is generally a positive example of interagency and government decision-making that attempts to be driven by objective data, this process broke down in South Sudan in 2020, resulting in two competing IPC analyses and classifications being released – one by the IPC technical working group and the other by the government. A review of what went wrong concluded that a combination of patchy data and growing distrust between the government and aid agencies were primary drivers, leading to accusations from each side that a technical process had been hijacked by preferences for particular outcomes.469 Elsewhere, governments have sought to avoid perceptions of state failure by delaying famine declarations; and in Yemen the IPC process was criticised by some key informants as being too opaque.470 The South Sudan experience, which featured a complete breakdown in relations between the government and the humanitarian system, reflects the growing challenges for famine response in conflicts, and ‘has begun to cast doubt over how the IPC should be managed in such contexts’.471  

There may also be a need to reconsider how the system engages in food crises, especially as the slow-onset and cyclical effects of climate change continue to build. Currently, IPC Phase 5 crises – famines – command greater attention and resources, as they tend to fit the classic humanitarian model of an acute, short-term response. Fewer resources and less attention are directed to protracted hunger crises, where populations remain at lower levels of emergency (IPC Phases 3 and 4) but for longer periods of time, resulting in higher excess mortality rates.472 For example, in South Sudan and Somalia, excess mortality was lower during the 2017 famine period than in the periods preceding and following it, and yet the famine commanded far more resources.473  

Funding for food crises

Even for addressing famine and more extreme food crises, the system is under-resourced. Despite the alarm raised on COVID-19’s likely impacts on food security, funding to food security, nutrition and agriculture dropped in 2020. Funding rebounded in 2021, with $7.75 billion going to these three sectors, although far lower than required, and this was the case before the start of the Ukraine–Russia conflict in early 2022, which is expected to have significant effects on levels of need and the cost of food aid. The Global Network Against Food Crises, for example, estimates that 36 countries facing food crises relied on Ukraine and Russia for 10% or more of their wheat imports.474  

Experts have also called for smarter funding for food crises, primarily through a better blend of development and humanitarian financing and a shift towards preparedness and prediction to support a more anticipatory and preventative approach. Examples over the study period included the Famine Action Mechanism, launched by the World Bank in 2018 to serve as an anticipatory funding mechanism for addressing food crises, and the rise of Forecast-based Financing and Action by the IFRC and WFP, which were used to support early action to address food insecurity in Mongolia and Somalia, among others, over 2018–2021. While the FAM is no longer in operation as a separate modality, its principles have been incorporated into several other Bank mechanisms, including a new Early Response Financing modality under IDA19, which provides financing to food security crises based on preparedness plans and early warning data.475 While the World Bank Group brings significant financial heft – as of 2021 its Early Response window stood at $1 billion – its focus on governments and its longer timeframes have made it difficult to observe its potential impact on food insecurity or on reducing humanitarian need. More widely, while development assistance for addressing food crises has risen over the past few years, it remains lower in total than humanitarian funding for the three key sectors of food security, nutrition and agriculture.476  

Finally, the rise in food insecurity was perceived as leading to an overemphasis on these needs over others, raising questions as to what the immediate future of humanitarian aid will look like if hunger remains a central focus. While food continues to be a priority concern for people in crisis,477 aid recipients in food-insecure areas in Yemen, DRC and Ethiopia also reported an over-emphasis on food aid that neglected other important needs, such as healthcare, psychosocial support, education, livelihoods and protection. 

Yemen case study: Understanding effectiveness in a food crisis

Author: Local researcher Yemen. Name withheld to protect the author’s identity. 

Estimates from late 2021 suggest that 16.2 million people (45% of the population) in Yemen are food-insecure and WFP has estimated that 47,000 people are living in famine-like conditions.478 Conflict is a key contributor to food insecurity, with its negative impact on the Yemeni currency, damage to transport infrastructure, disruption of business and incomes and displacement of populations. The most recent large-scale conflict began in 2014 between Ansar Allah and the internationally recognised Hadi government, later supported by a Saudi-led coalition. In recent years, a UAE-separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council, has split off from the Hadi government, dividing authority in the south of Yemen, while Houthi rebels control much of the north. Fighting intensified in 2021 as Houthi fighters tried to take control of the city of Ma’rib, the Hadi government’s last remaining stronghold in the north.  

A November 2021 assessment of the war’s impact estimated that, by the end of 2021, the conflict had led to ‘377,000 deaths – nearly 60% of which were indirect and caused by issues associated with conflict like lack of access to food, water, and healthcare’.479 Of these deaths, a majority were estimated to be young children, who are especially vulnerable to under-nutrition and malnutrition. By the end of the study period, WFP estimated that 2.25 million children under five needed treatment for global acute malnutrition (GAM)480 and the World Health Organization estimated that 400,000 were at risk of dying if they did not receive treatment. At the time of writing, the Ukraine war is expected to put increasing pressure on already high food prices in Yemen, by disrupting direct supply chains of wheat, rising global food prices, longer alternative supply chains and higher shipping costs. A rapidly deteriorating economy coupled with escalating conflict has led to claims that Yemen is home to the world’s worst food security crisis.  

‘Active hostilities, the presence of landmines, insecurity, poor road infrastructure [and] poor telecommunication network coverage’481 challenge operations and make it difficult to collate accurate food security data for many parts of the country. As in South Sudan, interviewees noted challenges in the IPC process, including irregular data and competing interpretations. While the IPC process is intended to facilitate analysis of robust quantitative datasets, it is ultimately a process based on building consensus between humanitarians and local authorities, delivered in relatively pressured time frames. An assessment by the Famine Review Committee of the IPC classifications in Yemen found the extrapolation of data used for the Acute Food Insecurity and Acute Malnutrition classifications to be implausible and concluded that there ‘is not a body of evidence supporting a famine classification.’482 While food security is a real problem in Yemen, the emphasis on IPC Phase 5 may have distracted from the large populations facing higher mortality and morbidity in areas classified IPC Phases 3 and 4.483 Moreover, the Famine Review Committee warned that ongoing changes in Yemen’s geopolitics, food supply chains and fuel prices present significant risk factors. More accurate, monitorable data is needed to ensure that the food security situation does not become more severe.484 

An important implication of the IPC famine declarations in Yemen has been the prioritisation of food aid in the response, which has had knock-on effects on other forms of support. Food aid and nutritional support comprised 48% of funding in 2021, with logistics accounting for an extra 15%. In December 2021, WFP was providing 13 million people with general food assistance.

An important implication of the IPC famine declarations in Yemen has been the prioritisation of food aid in the response, which has had knock-on effects on other forms of support.

Food aid has proved a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of families in Yemen and enabled recipients to supplement their livelihood strategies and invest their resources in other needs: ‘Most of the aid helps me provide my six kids with food; bread and butter, the school expenses and sometimes medicine’, explained one recipient. Cash and voucher assistance was also well received and helped to mitigate the issue of recipients selling their food aid package – usually at a lower value – to meet competing needs. The delivery of cash, vouchers, or in-kind food is determined by market functionality, WFP’s capability to deliver different modalities, and the availability of service providers. 485 UNHCR found that cash assistance led to an improvement in most food consumption indicators up to July 2021 and a reduction in the use of negative coping mechanisms, with 91% of households spending cash assistance on food.486 Monitoring from WFP does, however, show that the deterioration of food consumption in 2021 was more pronounced among cash recipients, possibly due to currency fluctuations.487  

There is also evidence of poor coordination in some sectors, ineffective targeting and low-quality food aid. Despite the increase in cash and voucher assistance, focus group participants in Yemen still reported reselling elements of their food baskets, and noted that the quality and diversity of the food provided had reduced over time, fetching a lower price at market. Aid workers in Yemen spoke of inefficient coordination between the actors providing different aid streams, explaining that agencies do not share recipient lists in some sectors and that there is a high chance of some individuals receiving multiple aid packages, while others are missed. This is compounded by the challenges humanitarian workers face in accessing conflict areas and conducting needs assessments, which make accurate targeting difficult. Households rely on resources mobilised through informal support networks to cope and survive.488  

A significant proportion of those in need receive at least some cash assistance, with 102 partners providing $456 million in cash and voucher assistance to 6.8 million people (of the 13.8 million receiving food assistance) between January 2021 and September 2021. However, interviews suggest that, for many, cash provisions are insufficient to meet basic needs. Other essential humanitarian assistance – in agriculture, health, water and education – have been neglected. With medical expenses rapidly increasing, some food aid recipients had sold food baskets to buy medicine for their family. In 2021, Oxfam estimated that two in every five families in Yemen used debt to purchase essential provisions, with pharmacists reporting debt increasingly being used to pay for medicines.489 Aid recipients reported some positive outcomes from livelihood programmes, but these projects are difficult to maintain in and sometimes end abruptly, causing frustration and disappointment. As the director of one local youth initiative observed: ‘What we notice is that the [aid recipients] are provided with the food packages, but they are never provided with the health and water assistance’.  

Food assistance is the primary need expressed by crisis affected people in Yemen and to date the humanitarian community has been successful at providing millions of people with food aid and nutritional support. However, the system is stretched as the economic situation deteriorates and conflict and violence continue. In the short term, providing aid recipients with a wide range of food and other aid may help stimulate local economies and enhance the resilience of crisis-affected people. In the longer term, political and economic solutions are required. As one aid worker put it: ‘Indeed, the problem in Yemen is not a problem of food, [or] food availability; it’s a problem of food affordability, and humanitarian assistance cannot really deal with that’. 

The problem in Yemen is not a problem of food, [or] food availability; it’s a problem of food affordability, and humanitarian assistance cannot really deal with that.


The Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) is an internationally accepted five-phase scale which governments and humanitarian actors use to understand the severity of food emergencies. Phase 1, is minimal food insecurity, phase 2 is ‘stressed’, phase 3 is crisis, phase 4, emergency, and phase 5, catastrophe/famine/likely famine. Acute food insecurity is IPC phase 3 or above. For a full description see IPC, ‘Integrated Phase Classification’, Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), n.d.


FSIN and Global Network Against Food Crises, ‘Global Report on Food Crisis’ (Rome: Food Security Information Network (FSIN), 2021).


Although one reason for this increase is due to differences in RRPs were included in aggregate appeals data – see Chapters 2 and 3 for more.


Alex De Waal, ‘Social Nutrition and Prohibiting Famine’, World Nutrition 9, no. 1 (19 April 2018): 31.


OCHA, ‘Global Humanitarian Overview 2020’ (Geneva: OCHA, 2020).


ALNAP, ‘The State of the Humanitarian System.’, ALNAP Study (London: ALNAP, 2018); D. Hillier and B. Dempsey, ‘A Dangerous Delay: the cost of late response to early warnings in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Afrrica, Oxfam, 2012.


Maunder et al., Somalia: An Evaluation ; D. Maxwell et al., ‘Viewpoint: Determining Famine: Multi-Dimensional Analysis for the Twenty-First Century’, Food Policy 92 (2020): 101832.


UN Secretary General, ‘With 30 Million Facing Famine, Secretary-General Announces Prevention Task Force, Warns Security Council against Cutting Aid as Solution to Economic Woes’, United Nations, 2021.


Margie Buchanan-Smith, Jane Cocking and Sam Sharp, Independent Review of the IPC South Sudan (London: HPG/ODI, 2021).


Buchanan-Smith, Cocking and Sharp, IPC South Sudan.


Maxwell et al. (Ibid); F. Checchi et al., ‘Estimates of Crisis-Attributable Mortality in South Sudan, December 2013-April 2018’ (London: London School of Higiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), 2018),


 Global Network Against Food Crises.


Global key informant interview.


Global Network Against Food Crises, ‘War in Ukraine and Its Impacts on Food Crises. A Review of Existing Analyses and Evidence’, Global Network Against Food Crises, 26 May 2022.


In the SOHS aid recipient survey, food continued to be the top need people cited when asked "What sort of aid was most needed?" at 38% of respondents.


WFP ‘Yemen Profile’, (Yemen, WFP, 16 Nov 2021).


Hanna, D. K. Bohl, and J. D. Moyer, ‘Assessing the Impact of War in Yemen: Pathways for Recovery’ (New York: UNDP, 2021).


Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) is a measure of acute malnutrition in refugee children aged between 6 and 59 months. GAM provides information on the percentage of all children in this age range in a refugee population who are classified with low weight-for-height and/or oedema. It is obtained by combining the number of children in this age range who have moderate acute malnutrition and severe acute malnutrition.


OCHA, ‘Yemen Situation Report’ (Yemen: OCHA, January 2022).


 D. Maxwell et al., ‘Famine review of the IPC Acute Food Insecurity and Acute Malnutrition Analysis: Conclusions and recommendations for five areas in Yemen.’ (IPC, 2022).


D. Maxwell et al., ‘Famine review of the IPC Acute Food Insecurity and Acute Malnutrition Analysis’




J. Kim et al., ‘Sharing to Survive: Investigating the Role of Social Networks During Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis’ (Washington DC: Resilience Evaluation, Analysis and Learning (REAL), 2022).


Oxfam, ‘Nearly 40 per Cent of Yemen Families Forced into Debt to Pay for Essentials’, Oxfam, 2021.