A few months ago, a text message made the rounds on the cellphones of aid workers in Southern Africa. "Starving child found in Malawi!" it exclaimed.
For workers assisting in what was supposed to be a widespread hunger crisis covering six countries, it was breaking news with a twist: a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the scarcity of victims.
Despite predictions that 11 million to 14 million people were facing potential starvation, few of the traditional signs of hunger had materialized. There were no hordes of migrants leaving their homes in search of food, no hospitals filling with malnourished children, no graveyards filling with the dead.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) says that famine was averted last year because the organization did its job well, intervening before the crisis mushroomed. Critics counter that the problem was never as large as the WFP and other agencies warned.
The real answer probably lies somewhere in between.
About a year ago, the WFP began warning that because of drought conditions, Southern Africa faced food shortages of crisis proportions. The World Health Organization said as many as 300,000 people could die if help didn't come soon, and the WFP asked for more than $500 million in aid. Donors opened their wallets, the WFP and their nongovernmental partners mobilized, and since June of last year, 650,000 metric tons of food was distributed to some 10 million people. It was the largest humanitarian response in the organization's history, though Iraq is expected to be bigger.
As Carol Bellamy, executive director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) put it, Southern Africa was grappling with a "lethal mix of drought-induced food shortages and HIV/AIDS" that required massive humanitarian intervention.
The WFP and aid agencies were careful not to label the situation in Southern Africa a famine, generally defined as the mortality rate in a region doubling with 20 percent of the children suffering from acute malnutrition.
"We're so used to in Africa seeing stick figures and corpses [during hunger crises]," says Judith Lewis, director of the WFP's regional operations in Southern Africa. "We didn't wait to see that before we started intervening here. That's why people didn't die, because we did our job right."
Guy Scott, a former minister of agriculture in Zambia and now an agricultural consultant, is one critic who isn't so sure WFP should get all the credit. In a recent study, he argues that the WFP exaggerated the number of people in need in Zambia by a factor of at least two. He doesn't claim that the exaggeration was intentional, but says the organization's assessment of the situation was based on flawed data and influenced by the government which had a political interest in seeing as much free food distributed as possible.
Mr. Scott also points out that for a period of three months after the Zambian government banned genetically modified American grain, the WFP distributed less than one-third of the food they said was needed. For the two months after that, it was less than half. If things were so bad, he argues, there should have been some visible negative effects from these five months. Not only is there no evidence of increased deaths, he says, but there is also little evidence that malnutrition reached a crisis level among children, who usually suffer the quickest in times of food crises.
Ms. Lewis admits that the international community underestimated the African people's abilities to find ways to deal with the problem. Wild fruits, winter crops not accounted for in food security assessments, income from informal labor, and community networks all helped people mitigate the effects of the food shortages. But she maintains that the scale of the intervention was an appropriate response to the available information.
There is some evidence that the food shortages did increase malnutrition. Although there are no statistics on whether deaths increased, a recent report by UNICEF found that overall malnutrition in children - already chronic in most of these countries - increased over the previous year. More significantly, they say, they found that malnutrition in the worst areas generally declined, while it increased in the best areas.
"This indicates that our response was appropriately targeted," says Urban Jonsson, southern and eastern Africa director for UNICEF.
But most central to the United Nations' argument is the idea that AIDS is dramatically changing the nature of food insecurity in Africa and that our current methods analysis may not fully describe the affects of today's food shortages.
The buzz-word at the UN is "new variant famine" - that is, famine set off by the traditional causes such as bad weather or political instability, but exacerbated and made more complex by AIDS.
Alex de Waal, a program director at the UN and the author of the "new variant" idea, says that because AIDS often hits the able-bodied, traditional statistics such as childhood malnutrition rates fail to reflect the magnitude of the crisis. If laborers weakened by AIDS are unable to sow and reap, a mild food shortage can be made worse. Because of this, the need to intervene at an earlier point is greater. Deaths, then, should no longer be the measure of a "new variant" famine.
"There's a tendency for people to say that because this doesn't look like what we think of as a famine, it isn't one," he says. "It's much more like famines we've had in Asia, where you have social status and it's the people on the bottom who suffer.... There are no famine camps [in Southern Africa], so it's not as visible. But that doesn't mean there aren't people dying and suffering."