The man who helped define what famine means wants to push the aid sector to think about how to end it.
Nicholas Haan was a young aid worker in Somalia in 1992 when the country was in the middle of a famine that would kill an estimated 220,000 people. Decades later, after five straight failed rainy seasons, Somalia is on the brink of famine again. Haan, who describes himself as an “agitator for solving global hunger”, wants to break the cycle of short-term appeals and responses.
“I see the humanitarian community working pretty much the same as we have,” Haan told The New Humanitarian in a wide-ranging interview spanning his complicated relationship with the F-word, his $20 billion proposal to tackle famine, and how his own personal experiences with hunger shape his work today.
Haan’s aid career is intertwined with how humanitarian policy deals with extreme hunger. In 2004, he helped create the system used to measure severe food insecurity – a five-point scale with famine at the top called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system, or IPC.
Today, he sits on an expert panel, known as the Famine Review Committee, which is charged with weighing the evidence to make the final call on whether a hunger crisis meets the strict threshold of a famine. Its most recent analysis for Somalia found that famine – phase five on the scale – was narrowly averted in late 2022. But famine is still projected in some areas of the country in 2023, along with crisis-level hunger for half of Somalia’s population.
These decisions can be controversial, especially among those who believe a famine declaration will bring much-needed attention to underfunded crises.
After more than three decades working on extreme hunger, Haan says he’s focused on solutions. He calls himself “part-Silicon Valley”, fluent in malnutrition calculations and satellite vegetation analysis, but preaching “digital transformation” and “exponential technologies” at the same time.
Beyond his humanitarian analyst hats, Haan also sits on a UN working group looking at artificial intelligence and food security, and is faculty chair of global challenges at Singularity University, part of a US-based corporation that says it’s helping global leaders “to solve humanity’s biggest challenges”.
Haan spoke to The New Humanitarian from his home in Tanzania. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The New Humanitarian: You’re a humanitarian analyst, dealing with numbers and data. But you’ve also seen famine. What does it look like? What does it sound and smell like?
Nicholas Haan: It’s complete and utter devastation. It’s heartbreaking. It’s a complete collapse, a material collapse, of livelihoods and of markets, when people have lost all coping capacities. They can’t even feed themselves, don’t have enough water, are highly susceptible to diseases, and have lost all hope.
It smells like anything burning. Trash burning, manure burning – anything for people to be able to cook their things. And putrid smells of human effluence. That’s what it smells like.
It sounds like a lot of crying, a lot of misery from young ones and old ones. And for the real sick ones, it sounds silent: Dead people don’t make noise; last-gasp people don’t make a lot of noise. That’s why it’s important for us to speak on their behalf, whether that’s through numbers or through words.
“That’s what I’m advocating for right now, is getting us all to think differently: Think radically differently about what it would take to end hunger.”
If any human is ever amongst that and either smells it or hears it or sees it, you are compelled to challenge yourself, to ask, “What can I do better? What can we collectively do better to end this?”
That’s what I’m advocating for right now, is getting us all to think differently: Think radically differently about what it would take to end hunger. It’s doable. It’s not a supply issue: We’ve got plenty of food. It’s a distribution issue. It’s a priority issue. And technologies will help us achieve this by making it cheaper, faster, and more efficient, and for other people to get involved in solving this problem – not least of which, the most vulnerable people themselves.
The New Humanitarian: You worked in Somalia in 1992, when 220,000 people may have died due to famine. We’re here 30 years later talking about the same issue. Another famine in Somalia, between 2010 and 2012, killed an estimated 258,000 people. You’ve warned that “we’re doing the same thing over and over again”. What do you mean by this?
Haan: The first time I was in Somalia was in 1992. I was with Save the Children US at the time. That was my first exposure as a young person to utter devastation and famine conditions – I don’t know if 1992 was a famine because there was no such thing as a famine classification system.
What I’m seeing are the drivers – conflict and climate – are still present and getting worse. And I see the humanitarian community working pretty much the same as we have, in talking a lot about coordination, talking a lot about inter-sectoral analysis. Back then, it was contingency planning that was one of the flavours of the day. Well, now it’s anticipatory action. Eh – what’s the difference. Understand things are going to happen, prepare resources in advance, make plans in advance, and be ready to execute.
There’s no rocket science there. There’s repackaging and recommitments. And that’s always welcome – I don’t want to be totally disdainful of that, because we do need recommitments. But we also need to be thinking about accountability now. It’s not just a matter of repackaging the same concepts over and over again. We actually need to think differently.
The New Humanitarian: What would it mean for humanitarians to think differently about hunger?
Haan: We need to plan for and design for the future. And that means acknowledging that we are in a digital transformation. That has two main implications. How can technology be used for the humanitarian sector to do our job better, faster, cheaper?
If you’re not, as a humanitarian organisation, thinking better, faster, cheaper, then you will be made irrelevant, and you will be disrupted, and it will happen fast. And the way around that is for the humanitarian community to think afresh about our processes, our tools, our coordination mechanisms, so that we’re leveraging and taking advantage of these technologies.
“Are we really able to build back better and think that the same thing is not going to happen over and over again? Or are we going to think about the livelihoods of the future?”
That’s one aspect. The other is even more daunting. There’s another phrase that people use in the humanitarian world, which is “build back better”. A disaster happens; build back better. Great concept: You have a livelihood, a shock happens, you should be able to come back to your livelihood and strengthen it against future shocks.
The problem with that is twofold: The very basis upon which those foundations are built – if you’re a pastoralist in a marginal environment, and the climate continues to worsen and conflict is not going anywhere, are we really able to build back better and think that the same thing is not going to happen over and over again? Or are we going to think about the livelihoods of the future?
The New Humanitarian: What’s your elevator pitch to address immediate hunger in Somalia, while also preparing for the future?
Haan: To end hunger and famine, we need a grand vision. And here’s a two-point plan.
One: End immediate suffering now. We have the ability to do that with our NGO, and UN, and government capacities. They just need money and lots of it. So sign a check for $10 billion now.
Two: This is not in isolation. This is part of a grand vision for accelerating the digital transformation and making that accessible to the most vulnerable people on the planet. Here are the skills courses we’re going to deliver. Here’s the metrics that we’re going to hit in terms of numbers of people having achieved certification status with certain courses – which are available online from a phone and for free, so this is totally doable. The youth can gain highly monetisable digital skills that will give them and their families much-needed income and self-reliance. We also need to accelerate the adoption and application of advanced technologies for things like cellular agriculture and other food innovations, digital health, renewable energy generation, desalination and atmospheric water capture, and, most of all, internet access. There’s no reason why the most vulnerable people in the world should not have immediate access to these breakthroughs. But we will need some money to help promote that. And to bring in the private sector to make that happen. So, sign another check for another $10 billion for us to make that happen. This is going to cost $20 billion.
The New Humanitarian: But aid workers talk about how difficult it is to get the money for the immediate response. The 2022 humanitarian appeal for Somalia and the Horn of Africa went underfunded for months despite early famine warnings. What do you say to that reaction, that the money’s just not there?
Haan: One of the reasons why people are not funded is because there’s all kinds of questions around the numbers and the data and the calls for response. It’s opaque. It’s not evidence-based, largely. It’s ad hoc, piecemeal, wasteful. That’s the nature of humanitarian appeals, I’m sorry to say. And it’s not surprising that the donor community, when they’re feeling pressure, is increasingly questioning that, saying “hold on”.
You don’t do this piecemeal. If you do it piecemeal, you’ll be asking people for little donations here and there. That’s not the way you’re going to solve hunger. You’re going to solve hunger by talking in the order of billions of dollars and tapping into the deep pockets of the wealthiest people on this planet, and the wealthiest corporations on this planet.
That requires not only a Grand Bargain but a grand vision. And that’s what’s missing. The Grand Bargain is great, big picture thinking. But there needs to be a grand vision that really is not just about throwing money at the problem, but thinking radically different about what the end state of no hunger and no famine truly looks like, and designing, financing, and implementing for that. And in my mind it is utterly accomplishable. But it does mean leaning into this digital transformation.
I don’t think that the answer lies in myopically just trying to help people become better agro-pastoralists in environments where that’s just not conducive. It’s not conducive because of social conditions – conflict – and it’s not conducive because of extreme vulnerability to climate change, which is only getting worse. We’re just lying to ourselves if we’re not baking that into our plans.
The New Humanitarian: There’s a lot of public focus on whether or not a famine is declared – and criticism when it’s not, among those who believe a famine declaration would unlock aid funding. What do you think of the F-word itself – famine?
Haan: It sucks. The word famine is a double-edged sword. In the early days of the IPC, we sketched out these five phases – minimal, stressed, crisis, emergency, famine – for area-based classifications.
Very deliberately, I remember these conversations, we chose to call that phase 5, famine. It was done for a reason, and that was to take the word famine from being a rhetorical word, and make it a technical, scientific word. Within the IPC construct, famine is a technical term. It’s not a rhetorical term.
It means that 2 per 10,000 people are dying per day due to food-related causes. It means that 30% of the population is experiencing global acute malnutrition. And it means that 20% of the population doesn’t know where their next meal is going to come from tomorrow. So famine became a technical term, where death is already evident, society has already collapsed.
“I’m not happy with the confusion or expectation amongst decision-makers that we have to wait until we get to famine thresholds before we go all out with our resources and policies to end human suffering.”
On one hand, I’m very happy that the word famine is now used technically and not rhetorically. I’m not happy with the confusion or expectation amongst decision-makers that we have to wait until we get to famine thresholds before we go all out with our resources and policies to end human suffering.
It’s not like we suddenly cross a magic threshold between phase 4 and phase 5 where the light goes on and now we have to act. We should have been acting at IPC phase 4: emergency. That’s when elevated deaths are already happening. And, furthermore, we should have acted at IPC phase 3: livelihood crisis, to support people’s livelihoods before they get there.
If you ask me what I think of the word famine, or the F-word: It’s good that it’s a technically sound term now. It’s not good that it can be used for people to wait to act until it happens, when they should have acted before.
The New Humanitarian: Is there a need to change what’s at the top of the scale? What if you made phase 3 famine?
Haan: In fact, back in the early days of the IPC, we were having these very discussions: “If we’re saying that we need to intervene at phase 3, why not call phase 3 famine?”
The reason why is because we felt just the opposite is going to happen: The boy who cried wolf story, where people are going to get desensitised about what that word means.
Because there is a qualitative shift – albeit a difficult thing to describe – when we reach famine-type conditions, when society totally collapses. So there is a “there” there, it’s just that we shouldn’t wait for the “there” to act, and that is the problem.
“The word famine, to put a pin on it, tends to put too much attention on the food side, in what is a multisector humanitarian catastrophe.”
There is another problem with the word famine. And that is that the word famine is too closely associated with food. When you’re in a famine-type situation, it’s not just food that is needed, from a humanitarian perspective. Famine eats up all the oxygen in the room – of discourse and of literal resources moving into food. “Oh,” they say. “Famine, we need to give food! Lots of food.”
When you get to the famine levels, there’s a very intricate relationship between health, WASH, food, and protection. Those are now suddenly all interrelated with each other, and it gets into a downward spiral. So if you’re in a famine situation, and you respond with just food while the WASH systems have collapsed, and while the health systems have collapsed, and while protection issues are paramount because people are displaced, and when you’re displaced you’re vulnerable to gender-based violence and physical violence. And that makes your access to food, health services, and WASH, even worse. So, the word famine, to put a pin on it, tends to put too much attention on the food side, in what is a multisector humanitarian catastrophe.
The New Humanitarian: You’re very passionate about this; it feels very personal. Why do you choose to work on famine?
Haan: Hunger is just at the doorstep of all of us. We just don’t realise it. We’re wilfully ignorant of how vulnerable we all are to our food systems. Ukraine gave us a little taste of that. Since I’ve seen it and I feel the precariousness of our global food supply system; I feel this could be me too. So I need to be working to end hunger for my own benefit as well.
The New Humanitarian: You’ve spoken before about how your own family was on food stamps when you were a child. Is that something that informs how you approach your job?
Haan: We’re not robots. We draw from our personal experiences. In my case, I’m not shy to say there was a time in my life where my mother, who was raising us as a single mother, and we lived on food stamps.
That’s the programme in the United States where the government would give the households some stamps. You’d get a roll of these things. And you’d go to the grocery store, and I’m with my mom, and she’s got these stamps, which means we get to buy some milk and eggs, in line with people paying with cash. I learned what that feels like. You get a little bit embarrassed from that but you get to eat. And my mother with all her pride and courage, just saying, “Yeah, I’m going to feed my family.”
We wouldn’t have been able to live. I wouldn't have been able to be cognitively sharp, because I was privileged to live in a place that offered me food support when my mother, my family, needed it the most.
So yeah, I do have personal experience with hunger. I feel like I’ve benefited from social support; I’ve seen the success of social support; I’ve seen the limitations of social support. And I feel like I have a calling to help people with support who need it, and to do everything I can to get them to a point where they don’t actually need to rely on that support.