We have to learn to expect more and more cases of famine, because we’re at the beginning of what has been called the “grand reversal” in development gains, spurred by the pandemic but also reflecting the impacts of climate change, migration, ongoing conflicts and a sudden increase in global poverty rates that is tipping millions more into a hand-to-mouth existence.
Like probably every person in the world, our interlocutor, Amir Abdulla, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), wishes for the pandemic to end in 2021. According to Abdulla, “we can then begin assessing and picking up the broken pieces of the Sustainable Development Goals”. Last October saw the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the World Food Programme “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. As this interview unfolds, we learn that a huge amount of work lies ahead of us, as the pandemic is perhaps an acute reason, but represents only one of many factors that are driving people into hunger and poverty, not just in the developing world, but also within wealthy donor countries.
Being so mesmerised by the pandemic, did we forget about hunger? Where is this issue on the agendas of wealthy countries?
Donor countries are acutely aware of the dangerous situation facing the most vulnerable communities in the most at-risk countries.
However, the pandemic has exposed two things in particular. Firstly, it has revealed underlying fragilities in wealthy nations, which they have clearly struggled to address. They’ve had to tackle hunger, illness, mass unemployment and sudden spikes in poverty rates within their own borders. This has been a shock for donor governments, a shock for their electorates and a distraction from other matters, as they strive to restore normalcy to their economies. The second thing is that the socio-economic impact of the pandemic is going to run far deeper and for far longer than the pandemic itself, with spillovers that will ripple across the planet for many years to come. Cumulatively, in terms of economic loss, poverty, lost education, hunger, increased exposure to disease due to malnutrition and so on, the pandemic is likely to have an overall impact that will only become clear in later years, as long-term data reveals the bigger picture.
Cumulatively, in terms of economic loss, poverty, lost education, hunger, increased exposure to disease due to malnutrition and so on, the pandemic is likely to have an effect that will only become clear in later years, as long-term data reveals the bigger picture
How many more people were pushed into hunger by the pandemic and how much more funds were allocated to them? What do the numbers say when it comes to empathy?
We estimate that the numbers of people suffering from acute food insecurity in the 79 countries where we work might have risen by as much as 80 per cent, from 149 million people before the pandemic to 270 million people in 2020. It’s bad in West, Central and Southern Africa, but worst in Central America, where severe food insecurity has nearly quadrupled.
Right now the WFP faces a funding gap of around $5 billion, which reflects the hunger spike that came as a direct result of the pandemic, as well as the fact that the World Bank estimates that 150 million people will have been pushed into extreme poverty by the end of 2020. We reached almost 100 million people with food assistance in 2019, and we are planning for 138 million in 2020.
The virus is also changing the face of hunger by dragging new urban populations into destitution, as well as compounding the effects of climate change, conflict and socio-economic shocks in regions of the world that had previously escaped severe levels of food insecurity. One thing the pandemic has taught us is that we are really only as strong as our weakest link. The virus doesn’t recognise borders, ethnicity or nationality. Aside from the moral imperative of helping our fellow human beings, and the empathetic impulse, we have a clear selfinterest in tackling the pandemic effectively, and in trying to stabilise countries hit by conflict, climate change, endemic poverty and now the pandemic.
Given that the pandemic disturbed regions, people, transportation, export and production, how have you managed to adapt to tackle these numerous challenges?
The almost overnight breakdown in global systems of travel and transport threw up an unprecedented challenge. Cumulatively, the pandemic has provoked the largest humanitarian operation in our history. The WFP had to swiftly adapt its own existing massive and complex logistics and transport operations, transporting humanitarian workers and supplies to places previously served by commercial airlines, and carrying out things like medical evacuations. We put in place a hub-and-spokes system of global and regional hubs that has provided the backbone for global response efforts to COVID-19 through a network of passenger and cargo air links. Since late January 2020, we’ve dispatched more than 84,000 cubic metres of cargo (equivalent to more than 33 Olympic-sized swimming pools) to 170 countries – or 85 per cent of the world – in order to support governments and health partners in their response to COVID-19. These shipments include personal protective equipment, ventilators and emergency health kits, and WHO and UNICEF have been the main users of WFP services amongst the 64 organisations we’ve served. So, while it was lock-down for many, many countries, at humanitarian agencies we kept going, adapting our safety and access protocols as the situation developed.
As climate change really begins to impact our world, resource scarcity, hunger, displacement and conflict are going to be constant factors that destabilise the world and threaten peace
The WFP was nominated for a Nobel prize as the “driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. Based on your own merits, how did you fare in comparison to warlords?
Using starvation as a tactic of war is outlawed under international law, but the fact remains that war breeds hunger, and the majority of the people we feed are in conflict-affected countries, some of them – like Yemen, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Afghanistan – beset by war for many years.
The Nobel prize recognises the fact that, no matter how hard the conditions and numerous the dangers and complex dynamics of conflict, the WFP has doggedly persisted for six decades in its efforts to prevent civilians dying from hunger, despite the ravages of war. So, I would say that despite the interests and aims of warlords, we’ve done our best to continue saving and changing lives, and this fact has been recognised implicitly by the Nobel Committee.
According to some estimates, one in 11 people go to bed on an empty stomach. How many of them reside in their own countries and how many of them are on the move? What has changed in these dynamics over the years?
Your question highlights a complex dynamic that has been accelerated by the pandemic, and that’s the relationship between hunger and displacement. On one hand, the lock-downs have frozen people in place within their own countries, preventing them from working, and in places like Afghanistan – where 4 out of 5 people work in the informal economy – that quickly translates to liquidated household savings, poverty and hunger. Countries that employed huge numbers of guest workers lost those workforces as businesses and building sites closed, and workers were compelled to return home, having a severe impact on the one in nine people globally who earn remittances that form a fundamental part of many economies. Some 700,000 Afghans reportedly returned from Iran.
In Lebanon, more than half of displaced Syrians reported having lost their jobs by April. On the other hand, people are being, or will be, forced to migrate for work more than ever, and that will probably balloon once the virus has been handled. The last few years have shown that, in places like Central America, climate change is having a massive effect on subsistence farmers, who can no longer afford to keep farming after just one or two crop failures. There’s a subtle vicious cycle here that we need to understand much better through research. As the impact of climate change and its associated feedback loops compound radically and become more plainly measurable in the coming years, we’ll really begin to understand the scale of change, how quickly it has happened and more about what we need to do to alleviate suffering. Unfortunately, much of this will be in hindsight.
How far or close will we be to the goal of zero hunger once the pandemic ends? Would you say that it is already too late to fulfil SDG2, no hunger?
The current figures don’t bode well. At the moment we think that if the trend continues we will be far from Zero Hunger by the end of this decade, with perhaps 840 million people in a state of constant food insecurity unless we take immediate and decisive action. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound compounding effect on the drivers of food insecurity – mainly through declining economic activity and reduced household purchasing power. But the public health and economic crises we are witnessing today are also clashing with the global climate, which in turn is heating up risks of conflict around the world. Conflict continues to drive displacement and rob people of their livelihoods, while currency devaluation and escalating prices are curtailing food access. At the same time, we see flooding, dry spells and desert locusts threatening food availability.
According to the WFP, what are the worst countries for food insecurity?
The countries most immediately at risk of famine are, typically, all embroiled in conflict to varying degrees. Yemen, north eastern Nigeria, Burkina Faso and South Sudan are all teetering on the brink of famine, with WFP food the main buffer between daily hunger and actual starvation conditions. Another 16 countries are in a state of serious, acute hunger, with a majority of those also afflicted by conflict that effectively leaves them hovering in a state of food emergency. One indication of the magnitude of the famine issue that our world faces is that fully a third of the $15 billion of funds that WFP needs in 2021 is devoted just to famine prevention, with the remaining two-thirds allocated to the 690 million for whom hunger is a daily fact, as well as to our work in building the resilience of communities and using funds to get ahead of the disaster curve by, for example, distributing cash buffers to vulnerable families likely to be affected by adverse weather events like typhoons.
We haven’t decided precisely how to use the monetary part of the Nobel prize, but it will most likely be used to fund our ongoing research into the nexus between hunger and conflict
Has food become more expensive? And, if so, how has this impacted on your ability to feed those in the need?
Global food prices for staples rose sharply this year, which obviously has an immediate impact on WFP operations, because we need donors to dig deeper and give us the funds to make up the shortfall in our estimates. At the most extreme end, the price of vegetable oil rose by almost 15 per cent. This rise in cereals, sugar, dairy and meat happened for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the conditions created by the pandemic and the resulting increased rates of poverty that strike the most vulnerable hardest. But it also includes crop failures, higher consumer demand in certain countries and a combination of factors making agricultural output even less productive in many countries where we work – extreme weather events in Central America, floods in Yemen and afflictions like plagues of locusts in East Africa. So, this meant more people needing more food at a time when food became more expensive, all of which made the task of feeding hundreds of millions of people much tougher. That’s the major reason we currently have a funding gap of $5.1 billion.
You warned in April 2020 that “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a few short months.” How close did we come to this prediction?
The short reply is that we were close then, that we’re still on the brink of those catastrophic conditions and that we’re likely to remain there at least for the duration of 2021. We have to recall situations like Somalia in 2011, when a famine killed 260,000 people. That famine was officially declared in July, when it was already way too late to effectively mobilise resources and most people had already died two months earlier. So, these public declarations we make today indicate an imminent and very real threat that can tip over into widespread famine within weeks. We have to learn to expect more and more of these declarations, because we’re at the beginning of what has been called the “grand reversal” in development gains, spurred by the pandemic but also reflecting the impact of climate change impacts, migration, ongoing conflict and a sudden increase in global poverty rates that is tipping millions more into a hand-to-mouth existence.
More people needing more food at a time when food became more expensive made our task of feeding hundreds of millions of people much tougher
This is the 12th time the Nobel Peace Prize has gone to the UN, one of its agencies or personalities – more than any other laureate. What does this prize mean for the UN in practical terms?
The prize primarily recognises the WFP’s role in fighting hunger and fostering peace in conflict-affected areas. It’s also further recognition of something that the UN Security Council recognised in 2018 when they passed Resolution 2417, which acknowledged the close connection between conflict and hunger. It’s a tribute not only to the WFP’s daily and highly visible work on the front lines of hunger in peace and war, but to the entire UN family, as well as the work that international agencies and NGOs, supported by governments and the international community as a whole, do to stop famine in its tracks, prevent hunger, build resilience and take on the huge new challenges emerging as a result of climate change and climate shocks. It signals a renewed commitment to multilateralism and global solidarity when it is more needed than ever.
How would you utilise the monetary part of the prize?
We haven’t decided precisely how these funds will be allocated, but they will most likely be used to fund our ongoing research into the nexus between hunger and conflict, i.e. hunger as a result of conflict, and hunger and resource scarcity as a factor in why people might go to war with each other. As climate change really begins to impact our world, resource scarcity, hunger, displacement and conflict are going to be constant factors that destabilise the world and threaten peace.
What is your New Year’s wish?
That a real end to the pandemic is in sight, so that we can begin assessing and picking up the broken pieces of the Sustainable Development Goals. We have a huge amount of work ahead, and people need hope even when they are hungry, tired and frightened.