The F-Word: What It Means and WFP’s Response

Emergency Response

Families desperate for food. Mothers unable to breastfeed. Children dying of hunger.

Aid workers know this picture of gut-wrenching need by one simple but devastating expression: the “F-Word.”

For some, it brings back haunting memories from the past. For Rose Ogola, an aid worker in South Sudan, it portends an unimaginable future. Not only for the most vulnerable trapped within its grips, but for each and every one of us who walk the earth amid such inhumanity.

“We risk losing a whole generation of children,” she told us.

Right now, 20 million people are facing famine around the world. In South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and northeast Nigeria, looming famine means millions now stand on the precipice.

What is famine?

The World Food Programme (WFP)’s John Aylieff will never forget the famine that swept Ethiopia in 1984. Hundreds of thousands of people died of hunger, and the media coverage of the crisis inspired him to become an aid worker.

“I remember seeing Ethiopia on my TV screen as a young and impressionable teenager, and that never left me frankly,” he said. “That stayed with me for my entire life, those images.”

Famine is a line in the sand that should never be crossed because it means that people are already dying of hunger. Specifically, famine is declared when three conditions are present:

When famine was declared in February in South Sudan, it was the first reported famine since 2011, when nearly 260,000 people died in Somalia during the Horn of Africa crisis.

“The threat of famine isn’t abstract for us,” said WFP’s Challiss McDonough. “I was in East Africa during the famine in 2011. Anybody who remembers something like that will do absolutely anything they can to keep that from happening again.”

The onset of famine is the result of a combination of complex factors. From the scourge of violence to the impact of extreme weather, they lay the groundwork for the existence of “famine-like” conditions that over time can worsen into actual famine:

  • A production shock due to extreme climate change or the disruption of agriculture caused by violence;
  • An economic shock when food prices are too high or markets have been crippled by conflict; and
  • An inability to respond when there is a lack of resources or impeded access to communities in need.

Conflict has been the principal driver of the current hunger emergencies in South Sudan, northeast Nigeria and Yemen, sparking food insecurity and displacing millions of people.

War in Yemen, for example, has raged since 2015, closing key ports through which ships deliver humanitarian relief. Meanwhile, government salaries have been slashed, reducing family income as food prices soar. The most vulnerable households have had little choice but to drastically reduce how much and how often they eat.

  • 7 million people are on the brink of starvation and 60 percent of Yemen’s population — about 17 million people — is coping with hunger.
  • Roughly 75 percent of households say their economic livelihoods are worse now than before the conflict escalated.

In April, at a fundraising conference in Geneva, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres spoke to his version of aid worker Rose Ogola’s vision of an unimaginable future, describing the impact on the most vulnerable in Yemen: “On average, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes in Yemen every 10 minutes,” he said.

How is WFP responding?

The World Food Programme (WFP) delivered life-saving food and nutrition assistance in March to more than 8 million children and families in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and northeast Nigeria.

This outreach included food distributions, vouchers where food is available, specialized nutritious food for malnourished children, as well as rapid response plans to reach people in hard-to-reach areas.

“As the world’s leading humanitarian organization, we know how to work in emergencies, even amid conflict,” said David Beasley, WFP’s executive director. “With our partners, in the most dangerous areas of Nigeria and South Sudan, we fly supplies and personnel in and out by helicopter … While we ardently wish for peace, we can and will still do our job as conflict continues.”

These efforts form part of an integrated famine prevention and response operation with partners including UNICEF and FAO, addressing food security and nutrition challenges as well as health, water, sanitation & hygiene interventions.

South Sudan

WFP reached almost 3 million people with food in June, including 45,000 people facing starvation. WFP is scaling up to provide assistance to 4.1 million people through the lean season. This includes airlifting and airdropping food to remote areas cut off by road due to heavy fighting and the rainy season, which typically begins in May and lasts until November.


WFP reached 1.9 million people with food in July. Despite new and generous donations, an earlier funding shortfall forced to suspend plans to further ramp up assistance during the June-September lean season. Rapid-response teams are delivering food and specialized nutritious food for children under the age of five at risk of malnutrition by helicopter to the hard-to-reach areas of Borno and Yobe states.


WFP reached a record 7 million people in Yemen with food in August and plans to scale up to reach a total of 9.1 million people monthly. Food vouchers are providing a family of six with a one-month supply of wheat grain, beans, vegetable oil, salt, sugar and Wheat Soya Blend, a protein-rich blended food.


The crisis in Somalia is a direct result of three consecutive seasons of poor rainfall. In August, WFP reached 2.2 million people in the worst-affected areas. WFP is also working locally to provide daily school meals to primary students.


Visit to learn more about how you can help prevent the spread of famine in South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia.