Think famine is only a rural issue? Think again.

by Karly Kiefer

According to the U.N, the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the organization’s founding in 1945.  For the first time in modern history, four countries are on the brink of famine:  —Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia—threatening 20 million people. The images that often come to mind upon hearing ‘famine’—and indeed, the images that come up from a quick google image search—are distinctly rural–cracked earth, fields full of dried and dead crops, subsistence farmers and their families starving and skinny. And indeed, while famines usually disproportionately affect rural dwellers and those who live off the land, this is not the whole story by any means.  It is important to understand the linkages between famine and cities. Failing to understand how cities can be affected by famines means an incomplete understanding of the complex, interconnected nature of the issue.

Here are three important urban-rural connections that show the urban face of famine, defined as the extreme scarcity of food:

1. Urban Migration

Historically, famines have been responsible for mass migrations—often from rural to urban areas—as people temporarily or permanently relocate in search of food. The Irish Potato Famine, which occurred from 1845-1849 and was responsible for the death of 1 million in Ireland, caused a massive wave of rural to urban movement, not only within Ireland itself (the percentage of Dubliners born outside of Dublin increased from 27 to 39 percent between 1841 and 1851, for instance), but cross-nationally as well.  Over half a million Irish immigrated to the United States during that period—most of them settling in large cities such as New York and Boston.[1]

Many of the countries experiencing famine today are experiencing mass rural-urban movement. The graph to the right shows how the percentage of urban population has changed over time in the four countries currently experiencing famine. Increasing urbanization is a long-term trend beyond the scope of any specific short-term cause, and it is difficult to pinpoint one specific explanation for current urban migration trends in specific countries—indeed, most migrants move for a combination of reasons that may be linked to economic opportunity, escape from violent conflict, and weather related crises. However, there is reason to believe that today’s famines could exacerbate urban migration in certain places. After Somalia’s last drought and famine of 2011, for instance, “rural people migrated in large numbers towards urban centres, particularly Mogadishu, in the hope of accessing humanitarian assistance.”[2]

In many cases, those experiencing famine emigrate from the country completely, settling in refugee camps or cities in neighboring countries, as is currently happening with South Sudanese fleeing to Uganda to escape violence and famine. Uganda recently became fifth on the list of top refugee-hosting countries, with over a million refugees—800 thousand of which are South Sudanese[3]. While the majority of refugees settle in the refugee camps in rural areas of Northern Uganda, many are beginning to take advantage of Uganda’s progressive Refugee Act of 2006, which gives refugees the rights to live, work, and start businesses in Uganda’s towns and cities.[4] Kampala city now houses 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers, nearly 11,000 of which are South Sudanese.

2. Urban disease outbreak

As reported by Ann Thomas, a water, sanitation, and hygiene specialist for UNICEF, in a recent New York Times article, “During Somalia’s last famine, the deadliest areas were not the empty deserts where there was little food, but the displaced-persons camps near urban areas where, comparatively speaking, there was plenty of food”.[5] As those plagued by famine and drought in rural villages fled to makeshift settlements in and around urban centers such as Mogadishu, inadequate water and sanitation, coupled with increasingly crowded living conditions, led to the spread of communicable diseases such as cholera. While traditionally, IDP camps in urban areas may have been thought of as ‘separate’ from the rest of the urban fabric, the lines are becoming more blurry, especially in places like Mogadishu where IDP camps are so overcrowded that displaced persons are often forced to resettle many times.[6] Many of the IDPs who migrated to Mogadishu during Somalia’s 2011 famine have chosen not to return to their rural homes, and Brookings reports that differentiating between internally displaced persons and permanent urban poor residents in Mogadishu is increasingly difficult.[7]

Similarly, in Nigeria, the city of Maiduguri has recently become a disease hub, as the influx of internally displaced persons fleeing from famine and violence in the Northeast has nearly doubled the city’s population.[8] The capacity of cities to respond and adapt to an influx of displaced people—both with immediate, humanitarian aid, and with longer-term integration solutions for displaced persons who may never return to their rural homes—is critical to lessening the impact of famines.

Indeed, well-planned and resourced cities that can respond to the housing, service, and economic needs of ever-increasing populations are a crucial preemptive measure for all types of humanitarian crises and disasters.

3. Urban impacts of conflict and the destruction of supply chains dependent on cities

Not all famines are caused solely by nature and climate—political and social strife can cause or exacerbate famine, particularly when access to food is cut off, either as an inadvertent consequence of physical destruction and infrastructure decimation, or intentionally, as a strategy of war. Each of the four countries facing famine today is engaged in prolonged violent conflicts which have directly caused or exacerbated their famines.[9] Particularly for countries that depend on imports for food, urban and rural dwellers alike are reliant on complex supply chains that span across countries and cities. In Yemen, for instance, 90 percent of food is imported, most of it through the port city of Hodeida. As the civil war in Yemen drags on, Yemen’s President and his coalition of support from Saudi Arabia have blocked imports to Hodeida to stop militia groups from accessing imported arms.[10] This, as well as other blockades that have made highly populated areas inaccessible, has cut off supply chains and caused millions across the country to face food shortages and malnutrition. Infrastructure—specifically supply-chain infrastructure– in cities, thus, can be used both as a lifeline—and as a weapon—in human-caused famines.

This humanitarian crisis represents a convergence of many of IHC Global’s key policy topics—food security, urban water and sanitation, migration and its impacts. IHC Global is critically concerned about the global famines and will continue to advocate for a holistic understanding of their causes and increased funding to assist those affected.  Continued understanding of the urban-rural linkages and inter-connections that affect and are affected by famines are crucial to both responding to the famines facing the world today, and to preventing future famines.

[1] Sources: O’Grada & O’Rouke, 1997; PBS
[2] Source: Forced Migration Review, Feb 2014.
[3] Source: IRIN, 2017.
[4] Source: Refugee Livelihoods in Ugandan cities, IIED. March 2017.
[5] Source: NY Times
[6] Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, March 2015.
[7] Source: Internal Displacement in Somalia, Brookings. 2014.
[8] Source: Washington Post; Thomas Reuters Foundation
[9] Souce: Washington Post
[10] Source: Washington Post

Cities in the Age of Insecurity: A Recap

by Anjali Bean

IHC Global was pleased to be part of a panel on “Cities in the Age of Insecurity.”  The event was hosted by the Atlantic Council at their headquarters, in partnership with the Atlantic Council, Woodrow Wilson Center, the US National Committee for Habitat III, and IHC Global.  It was  part of a series of events  to engage  the US audience in the upcoming Habitat III conference in October.  The well attended event featured representatives, the Atlantic Council, the US State Department and the Prevention Project as well as IHC Global each giving their perspective on insecurity in cities – the drivers and the solutions.

Opening remarks of the panel were given by Dr. Nancy Stetson, the US Special Representative for Habitat III at the US Department of State. She opened the panel noting that while cities and urbanization have not historically been considered from a foreign policy perspective, national security experts are starting to view traditional “development” issues from a security lens. Urbanization can be a threat multiplier or an agent of stabilization, depending on how it progresses, and security leaders are beginning to understand this and the importance of viewing issues through an urban frame.

Dr. Stetson was optimistic of the opportunities that Habitat III presents, and hopes that inclusion at all levels remains a priority throughout the process. She warned that success cannot come exclusively from the top down and that the New Urban Agenda, which is an important expected outcome of Habitat III, must be focused on actionable implementation where national governments marshal resources and enable sub-national and local leadership.

There followed a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Peter Engelke, a Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. The panel included: IHC CEO Dr. Judith Hermanson; Dr. Ian Klaus, Senior Advisor for Global Cities, US Department of State; and Eric Rosand, Director, Prevention Project.

The three speakers came from diverse backgrounds reflecting the complex and interrelated aspects of urban security. Dr. Klaus spoke from a national government perspective, highlighting the steps the State Department is making to address cities as a unit for the first time as they become increasing important actors on the global stage. He noted that in order for the State Department to successfully address the issue of urbanization, there has to be high level leadership well as an effort to change the culture of work at every level within the agency. To engage with cities, there is an inherent challenge to balance official diplomatic relationships with countries, while also trying to develop ties at the sub-national level and deepening understanding of their pivotal role.

Dr. Hermanson spoke about security, as it might be understood from the personal and community level, noting that for the 1 billion living in informal settlements and slums and without secure tenure, employment opportunities or livelihoods, are also the most vulnerable to national upheavals, climate change risks, and other types of violence. She stressed the importance of spatial, economic and social inclusion, leading to a deeper psychological sense of inclusion, as important aspects of addressing insecurity in cities as well as increasing agency of those most marginalized.  There is no magic bullet, but Goal 11 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, focused on cities, and Habitat III together represent opportunities for countries and cities to unharness community will and to direct resources strategically to create more inclusive secure cities for all residents. You can view her full statement here.

Mr. Rosland addressed urban security from his long experience working to combat violent extremism throughout the world. He noted that the growth of terrorism is more local than ever, and that cities represent the place where individuals choose or deny the path to violence. He spoke about the need to increase opportunities for non-state actors to engage in security-focused discussions, noting the success of the State Department’s Strong Cities Network that supports city-level peer-to-peer learning to combat violent extremism.  He noted also that availability of community services and other tangible forms of engagement between national and local levels can be a very important factor in enhancing security and preventing extremism.

All three panelists stressed the need for local-level participation, at the community level, city and municipal level. , They also noted that financing remains a very difficult challenge, and in order for cities to meaningfully participate, new funding mechanisms must be developed and directed to city governments, and investment in equitable development must be viewed as a mutually beneficial exercise.

In the lively discussion that followed the panel discussion, participants raised various issues concerning the role of secondary cities, public diplomacy, climate resilience, and new financing mechanisms among others.