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The widely held view that malnutrition is a late indicator of famine is challenged on the basis of evidence that people often deliberately reduce their food intake as an early response to inadequate food security. This broadens the possible interventions in response to high malnutrition rates to include measures to support livelihoods under threat of collapse. In the late stages of famine, social disruption and distress migration often result in a degraded health environment which may raise the threshold of nutritional status associated with an increased mortality risk. It is important to assess the underlying causes of malnutrition and the associated health risks. At present, the main objective of nutrition surveys is usually to obtain a reliable estimate of the prevalence of malnutrition among children under five years of age, with little analysis of the underlying causes of malnutrition. Experience from the 1984-85 famine in Darfur led to the development of an alternative approach to nutritional assessment which could be applicable elsewhere in Africa. The combination of quantitative and qualitative methods was particularly valuable as a means of gaining a wider and deeper understanding of the nature of the nutritional situation.