Chris Hillbruner has a little-known job with an extraordinary responsibility: to determine how close a given country has come to famine.
In his six years at the U.S. government's Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS NET, he's only officially declared famine once before, in Somalia in 2011.
Hillbruner explains that the bar for declaring famine was deliberately set high to avoid the confusion of the 1980s and 1990s, when well-meaning aid agencies acted like the boy who cried wolf.
"Famine," Hillbruner says, "is a word that gets thrown around a lot."
Consider Somalia, a country that's been mired in war and chaos for more than two decades. When FEWS NET declared famine there in 2011, aid money poured in, as did television cameras. The famine was quickly defeated.
But by the time the Somali famine was officially declared, at least half of its 260,000 victims had already died. So by the time conditions become so dire that they warrant the famine label, it can be too late.
Holly Solberg, the emergency response director for CARE International, worked in Somalia before and after famine was declared. She hopes South Sudan doesn't have to reach such an extreme state before it merits an international rescue.
It is far cheaper, she points out, to avert a famine before it begins, than to alleviate it once it's declared.
"Sadly," she says, "it does often take using that 'F-word' before people actually realize there is a crisis."
South Sudan is the world's newest nation, gaining independence from Sudan three years ago. But it's also one of the poorest and most troubled. The neighboring states have clashed periodically since independence, but the most recent fighting has been between South Sudan's government and rebels, a quarrel that has been a major factor in the food shortages.
A Technical Definition
While a famine connotes a biblical apocalypse, the official definition is highly technical.
For example, 30 percent of children have to be acutely malnourished; 1 in 5 households has to have an "extreme lack of food." Famine is the fifth and last stage of food insecurity on something known as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system, or IPC.
The stage just before famine is "emergency," marked by 20 percent of households being "unable to meet basic survival needs even with extreme coping," such as selling all of their livestock and assets.
The northeastern part of South Sudan, the area with the heaviest fighting, is now in a Phase 4, or emergency.
Despite this, aid agencies say they are having trouble raising money. The United Nations says it has raised half of the $1.8 billion it needs for this year. Aid workers worry that just as in Somalia, the international community won't act in a big way until there are images of starving children on their TV screens.
Most worrisome, the food crisis assessments in South Sudan have not yet taken account of all the people hardest hit by hunger.
Chris Hillbruner of FEWS NET says that his assessment teams simply can't reach those hard-hit regions, because of heavy rains and violent conflict. He believes that there are "pockets" in South Sudan "that are worse off than we are currently able to classify."
South Sudan's crisis points to the problem at the very heart of the famine warning system.
The very conditions that make food so hard to come by in South Sudan — war, floods and tribal feuding — are precisely what make it almost impossible for experts to collect the data and determine how bad the food situation has become.
With the harvest coming in next month, Hillbruner says, the imminent threat of famine in South Sudan has been pushed back a few months to early 2015.
But no outsiders know exactly what is taking place in some of the most isolated areas. That may take a peace agreement that actually sticks between South Sudan's government and the rebels.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A U.N. helicopter apparently was shot down yesterday while on a routine cargo flight over South Sudan. It illustrates the difficulty of bringing food aid to the war-torn country and the challenge of figuring out how serious that food crisis is. There's a U.S. agency that's supposed to make that determination - the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS NET. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, it may take the arrival of famine - that powerful F-word - to open up the world's coffers.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Chris Hillbruner has a little-known job with an extraordinary responsibility - to tell us how close any given country has come to famine. In his six years at the U.S. agency FEWS NET, he's only officially declared famine once before in Somalia in 2011.
CHRIS HILLBRUNER: The bar for declaring a famine was deliberately set a little bit higher.
WARNER: Because, he says, what governments want to avoid is the confusion that used to happen in the '80s and '90s when some well-meaning aid agencies would act like the boy who cried famine.
HILLBRUNER: Famine is a word that gets thrown around a lot.
WARNER: And the word, itself, is potent. Consider Somalia - a pretty neglected country most of the time, but when FEWS NET declared famine in 2011, aid money swarmed in. So did TV cameras. And that's when this suddenly-famous food crisis was defeated. A lesser-known fact is that by the time the word famine was declared, at least half of its 260,000 victims had already died. In other words, by the time a situation gets as bad as famine, you've already arrived too late.
HOLLY SOLBERG: Sadly it does often take using that F-word before people actually realize there is a crisis.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
WARNER: Holly Solberg is the emergency response director for CARE International. She wants to make sure that South Sudan doesn't look like another Somalia - rescued only at the last minute. Earlier this summer, I found myself in a malnutrition clinic run by the International Rescue Committee in the remote South Sudan region of Ganyliel. No cars can get here during rainy season. In fact, food aid has to arrive by plane. I was rode here on a palm-bark canoe. Under a tree, I met a woman named Nya Buol. She was suckling twins.
NYA BUOL: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: She admits that there is no milk for these toddlers. Her breasts are dry. IRC estimated in June that over 30 percent of children here were acutely malnourished. That situation's improved since the agency arrived. But the United Nations says that it's only raised half of the $1.8 billion it says it needs this year to keep supplying clinics like this one. Holly Solberg worries that, just as in Somalia, the world is waiting for those images of starving kids to hit their TV screens.
SOLBERG: We don't need to wait until that happens. And so let's get the media there sooner. Because the truth of the matter is, if we respond earlier, prevention is less expensive than treatment.
WARNER: International media, of course, can be blamed for lots of things. But even if this crisis did get more coverage, it would still have to compete with other major catastrophes, like Ebola and the Syrian refugee crisis, for the world's generosity. And in South Sudan, there's a harvest coming in now, so the real risk of famine is likely some months in the future - probably closer to February. The more media difficulty in South Sudan is this - that none of the food crisis assessments so far have included all the people hardest hit by hunger. And that's because, says Chris Hillbruner of FEWS NET, his assessment teams can't reach them because of heavy rains and violent conflict.
HILLBRUNER: It's very possible that there could be pockets that are worse off then we're currently able to classify.
WARNER: And this, he says, is the problem at the very heart of the whole famine early warning system - a system that he, himself, is the lead analyst for. The very conditions, he says, that might bring the first waves of famine to South Sudan - war and rains and tribal distrust - are precisely what make it impossible for experts to collect the data that might deliver the country that attention-getting famine credential. Gregory Warner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.