STORY IN FOCUS. INTERVIEW WITH DAN MAXELL, PROFESSOR IN FOOD SECURITY AT THE FRIEDMAN SCHOOL OF NUTRITION, SCIENCE AND POLICY
Dan directs the Food Security and Livelihoods in Complex Emergencies Research Program at the Feinstein International Center, and in 2016-2017, he served as the Acting Director of the Center. His recent research focuses on the re-emergence of famines in the 21st century and the politics of analyzing and declaring famine. Prior to joining the faculty at Tufts, Dan worked for two decades at humanitarian agencies and research institutes in Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya. His most recent position was Deputy Regional Director for Eastern and Central Africa for CARE International.
Q1. Please, could you explain your involvement with the creation of the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC)?
I was only peripherally involved in the creation—it was created by Nick Haan and his team at FSNAU in the mid 2000s. I provided some feedback on drafts etc. but it was Nick’s creation.
I’ve been a member of the IPC Famine Review Committee since its inception in 2014. But this is a specialized group that is only called when there is a famine or populations in Phase 5.
Q2. We saw the use of the IPC in Yemen with populations in IPC Phase 5 in December 2018 and armed conflict being held as the main driver of food insecurity. Yet the classification was made by the Global IPC Steering Committee and not by the Technical Working group. This made few if any headlines – do you think that the debate in this declaration internally served to neuter its impact internationally?
There was a major disagreement between the Famine Review Committee and the Technical Working Group about how to interpret the data—and the lack of data in some cases. We have detailed much of this in our Yemen case study report for the “Challenges and Constraints of Information and Analysis” study.
I think the headlines got out in front of the actual analysis—the major speeches by Mark Lowcock or Lise Grande mostly happened before the IPC analysis. When the IPC analysis didn’t say anything more spectacular than had already been said, the press lost interest.
Q3. How can the link between conflict and hunger be better incorporated into famine early warning systems (EWS)?
There has to be the will to incorporate conflict into food security analysis first.
There is data out there.
The governments of most countries in conflict simply don’t want conflict to be analysed because they are party to the conflict.
Little effort or investment has been put into conflict early warning in recent years. In some cases (Yemen is the most extreme example, but Afghanistan would be another case) the major donors don’t want conflict analysed because they are parties to the conflict. Early warning bulletins routinely say that “conflict is driving food insecurity” but that’s about as far as it goes.
Q4. How can these systems assist in starting to debunk the myths that starvation is primarily caused by climate and / or pre-existing food insecurity and poverty?
Well, that isn’t a myth, but it isn’t the whole story either. Climatic factors clearly did play a substantial role in the crises of both 2011 and 2017 in the Horn of Africa for example, and there is little doubt that populations suffering previous food insecurity and poverty are among the first to suffer even more when local social support systems come under stress from rapidly developing covariate shocks. But
the current crises in South Sudan or Yemen, or the crisis in the Lake Chad basin, are not significantly driven by climatic factors. These are political conflicts, and have to be recognized as such.
Q5. How do you think the famine early warning systems (EWS) and the data it relies upon could be used for accountability for starvation crimes?
Well, yes—and this is a very slippery slope.
I’ve seen IPC analyses shut down because certain parties were afraid that data was being collected “to send to the ICC”
That wasn’t true, of course, but certain parties—a government in this case—didn’t want some food security outcomes to be analysed, and especially did not want these outcomes attributed to certain causal factors. So the whole process was shut down. This inevitably makes analysts more self-censoring—fearing retribution, denial of access, or even being kicked out of the country. Again, all this is documented in several cases at the above website – at least for Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria.