Famine that Kills: Sudan 2024

photo of mother and child walking away down a dirt road
Family goes for water and food, Свет Лана (Adobe Stock Images)

Sudan’s current slide into famine has no precedent in recent history. It threatens to become a mass mortality episode without parallel worldwide for forty years or longer. But the famine of 2024 is neither anomalous nor unforeseeable.

In this video lecture, and accompanying slide deck, I explain why.

Sudan’s 2024 famine is four food crises layered on top of one another. It is the simultaneous collapse of all the pillars of the national food economy.

One layer of Sudan’s food emergency is the crisis in smallholder agriculture due to decades of neglect compounded by drought and environmental deterioration. Historically, Sudan’s peripheries have suffered famine from these causes—notably in 1984/85.

A second layer is mass deprivation caused by war, specifically wars of pillage fought by militia against local communities suspected of sympathies for insurgents. This was the cause of severe famines in southern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. The legacy of those wars includes large populations of people forcibly displaced, to camps and cities, dependent on food aid or precarious livelihoods.

A third layer of crisis is urban hunger, caused by a collapse in the purchasing power of salaries in the public and private sectors. That’s historically rare, because governments are very sensitive to urban discontent. But the macroeconomic crisis that struck in 2016 led to urban food insecurity.

Bread was the symbol of the civil revolution of 2018-19. Failure to feed the people condemned that democratic revolution.

Even before full-scale war broke out in April last year, Sudan was facing unprecedented levels of humanitarian need—the ‘crisis before the crisis.’

On top of all of these is the massive disruption, displacement and devastation caused by the men fighting today. Both sides have used hunger as a weapon; neither has facilitated outside assistance or supported Sudan’s own humanitarians. The Rapid Support Forces are looting machine, pillaging everything in their path, including ripping the heart out of Sudan’s breadbasket state of Gezira.

Each of the five pillars of Sudan’s food economy has come crashing down.

Large-scale commercial agriculture in the center and east of the country, dependent on fuel, fertilizers, credit and migrant labor, is tottering where it has not fallen entirely.

Small scale village agriculture is disrupted due to the rampages of the RSF through Darfur and much of Kordofan, along with mass displacement.

Wheat imports that previously fed the cities have been reduced to a trickle.

Livestock herds are in the hands of soldiers and militiamen, owned and sold for the benefit of the belligerents’ war machines.

And food aid has practically ground to a halt. Millions of people dependent on food aid were plunged into starvation with horrifying speed. Famine conditions are reported in camps in Darfur.

Sudan’s neighbors are suffering too. Chad, South Sudan, and Ethiopia are all in food crisis. Libya and Egypt are inhospitable to refugees. We have never before witnessed multiple simultaneous food emergencies across the region in this way.

And as the needs escalate, the response capacity diminishes. Before the recent donor conference in Paris, Sudan’s emergency appeal was just 6 percent funded. The existing international emergency apparatus is clunky and slow. It needs to find creative ways of supporting the Sudanese volunteers and humanitarian professionals who are doing what they can.

The months ahead are dark indeed. Sudan is deep into the process of famine. Many will die. Famine will transform Sudan’s political economy, likely in ways that further impoverish the many. Sudanese society will be traumatized.

We should not wait to count the graves of children before calling this a famine and doing our utmost to stop it.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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