Journal Article


Famine Intensity and Magnitude Scales: A Proposal for an Instrumental Definition of Famine

Published on 1 December 2004

Ambiguities in current usage of the term ‘famine’ have had tragic implications for response and accountability in a number of recent food crises. This paper proposes a new approach to defining famine based on the use of intensity and magnitude scales, where ‘intensity’ refers to the severity of the crisis at a given location and point in time, while ‘magnitude’ describes the aggregate impact of a crisis.

The scales perform three operations on ‘famine’: first, moving from a binary conception of ‘famine/no famine’ to a graduated, multi-level definition; second, disaggregating the dimensions of intensity and magnitude; and third, assigning harmonised ‘objective’ criteria in place of subjective, case-by-case judgements. If adopted, the famine scales should contribute to more effective and proportionate responses, as well as greater accountability in future food crises.


Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

Publication details

published by
Howe, P. and Devereux, S.
Disasters, volume 28, issue 4


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