Mass Starvation: Global Humanitarian Trends Put Humans in Jeopardy

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Despite the UN appealing for record amounts of money for humanitarian aid in 2018, humanitarian spending has been decreasing. According to reports from the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (UNOCHA), the deficit between the necessary funding and what’s actually available from donations continues to grow, due partly to a decrease of $1.2 billion USD in donations from 2016 to 2017.  The number of people globally who require some form of aid has increased steadily in the past decade, and in 2018 the UNOCHA reports that coverage for 105.1 million people has been requested.

According to International Relief Information Networks (IRIN), an overwhelming number of humanitarian issues that will be important to address in the coming year but, despite the scope of challenges, “the political will needed to resolve conflicts, welcome refugees, and address climate change also appears to be waning.” In fact, many of the world’s leading nations, which have the most influence to create a positive impact through donations, are adopting a draconian and frankly anti-human standpoint regarding humanitarian aid, prioritizing their own budgets over humanitarian aid programs that save lives.

Among the reasons cited by politicians and policymakers for decreased spending on humanitarian relief is a call to focus on structural reform as opposed to short term relief, creating more permanent solutions to these issues. As Alex de Waal, author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, has noted, the humanitarian system developed in past decades has led to hundreds of thousands of lives saved in comparison with the record of the 20th century. However, the current trend toward reduced humanitarian spending threatens to roll back this recent progress. These cutbacks disproportionately affect countries in some of the world’ most vulnerable regions. In an interview with Alex de Waal, the famine researcher, Tufts University’s Heather Stephenson asked de Waal about the possibility of putting an end to famine.  De Waal replied, “At any time up to a couple of years ago, I would have been extremely hopeful… Now I’m much less certain about that, as we are seeing some of this introverted, xenophobic, transactional, zero-sum politics. It’s not just here in the U.S. You also see it in Europe.”

As the UNOCHA’s funding overview showed, in 2017, the percentage of coverage in funding for countries like Haiti, Ethiopia, and Senegal was below fifty percent, a significant deficit when compared to other countries with relatively more mainstream media focus, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Humanitarian fundraising is highly dependent on  media attention, “with all its built-in biases and focus on sensational images,” the editors of AfricaFocus noted in a January 2018 report on deficits in humanitarian aid.

In January 2018, President Donald Trump described Haiti and the entire African continent as “shithole countries” in a meeting on immigration with congressional leaders. Despite Trump’s poor judgment, his high-visibility racist and xenophobic attitude did inadvertently reflect recent inequities in humanitarian funding, as Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, a Malawan historian, noted in an article originally published in Malawi’s Nyasa Times and republished online by AllAfrica. Although Trump’s incendiary and inexcusable comments received extensive coverage from establishment news outlets, the emphasis of these reports was on Trump’s ineffective leadership, rather than on the role of US foreign policy and the lack of humanitarian aid as factors that impact the fortunes of the countries targeted by Trump’s vitriol.


“10 Humanitarian Crises to Look out for in 2018,” IRIN, January 1, 2018,

Heather Stephenson, “Mass Starvation as a Political Weapon,” Tufts Now, January 18, 2018,

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, “Professor Zeleza on Trump’s ‘Shithole’ Africa: The Homogenization and Dehumanization of a Continent,” Nyasa Times, January 15, 2018,

Student Researcher: Maceo Gaines (University of Vermont)

Faculty Advisor: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)