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Keywords:

  • archetypes;
  • famine;
  • response;
  • systems thinking

Famines have long been characterised by rapidly shifting dynamics: sudden price spirals, sharp increases in mortality, the media frenzy that often accompanies such spikes, the swift scaling up of aid flows, and a subsequent decline in interest. In arguing that these aspects of famine have been largely ignored in recent years due to attention to the ‘famine process’, this paper attempts to make these dynamics more explicit by applying systems thinking. It uses standard archetypes of systems thinking to explain six situations—watch, price spiral, aid magnet, media frenzy, overshoot, and peaks—that are present in many famine contexts. It illustrates their application with examples from crises in Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, and Sudan. The paper contends that the systems approach offers a tool for analysing the larger patterns in famines and for pinpointing the most appropriate responses to them, based on an awareness of the dynamics of the crises.