More from UNDESA Vol 25, No. 02 - February 2021

The pandemic has revealed the true cost of inequality

By Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit

In 2020, the entire world knew what it was to be hungry. Millions went without enough to eat, the many victims of COVID-19 were starved of air, and the lonely and remote were deprived of human contact.

Yet while no one was spared the impact of the pandemic, for many it was a taste of the challenges that those at the bottom of the pyramid have long faced, while the most vulnerable have been pushed even closer to the very limits of existence.

Millions of people in several countries are now facing famine. Hospitals are running out of oxygen. And conflict and violence are making life even more precarious.

The pandemic has revealed the real cost of long-term inequality around the world.

Our food systems nourish 7.8 billion people and counting. It is food that employs more than a billion worldwide in agriculture alone and offers the promise of economic growth and development. And it is food that impacts our very ecosystems, down to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the climate we enjoy, come rain or shine.

Food systems offer real possibilities we can build on to improve and make them more appropriate for the well-being of people and our planet, but there is much that needs to change if we are to be successful.

COVID-19 has brought to the fore the connection between food, health and quality of life, but also how many of our food systems are failing us, especially where inequality is most prevalent.

Poor diets, leading to obesity, disproportionately affect low-income communities that are already experiencing the worst challenges to quality of life. It is because of inequalities that the impact of COVID-19 is three times worse among low-income communities where conditions directly related to food are more prevalent.

The pandemic has powered an unprecedented global appetite for change, from the movements to secure free school meals for disadvantaged children to agricultural reforms taking place worldwide. The urgency created by COVID-19 has demonstrated how quickly the global community can respond and adapt to existential threats, and it is this energy that must be channelled into transforming food systems to be more inclusive, more equitable and more sustainable.

Even before the pandemic, 2021 was destined to be a “super-year” for food. A year when the right to safe and nutritious food, and the production, consumption and disposal of food finally received the requisite global attention as the UN convenes the world’s first Food Systems Summit.

The change needed will require everyone around the world to think and act differently because every one of us has a stake and a role in functioning food systems. Now, more than ever, national leaders must chart the path forward by uniting farmers, producers, scientists, hauliers, grocers, and consumers, listening to challenges and insights, and pledging to improve each aspect of the food system for the well-being of mankind and our planet.

Policymakers must listen to the millions of farmers and indigenous communities as custodians of the resources that produce our food, and align their needs and challenges with the perspectives of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurant owners, doctors and nutritionists to develop national commitments that level the playing field.

Progress is already under way. More than 50 countries have joined the European Union and African Union in engaging with the Food Systems Summit and its five priority pillars, or Action Tracks, which cut across nutrition, poverty, climate change, resilience and sustainability. And more than three dozen countries have appointed a national convenor to host a series of country-level dialogues in the months ahead, a process that will underpin the Summit and set the agenda for the Decade of Action to 2030.

Everyone around the world must feel invited and empowered to participate in the Food Systems Summit to start the journey of transitioning to more just and sustainable food systems. It is a “People’s Summit” for everyone, and its success relies on everyone everywhere getting involved through participating in Action Track surveys, joining the online Summit Community, and signing up to become Food Systems Heroes who are committed to improving food systems in their own communities and constituencies.

Too often, we say it is time to act and make a difference, then continue as before. But it would be unforgivable if the world was allowed to forget the lessons of the pandemic in our desperation to return to normal life. The writing on the wall is clear that our food systems need reform now. Humanity is hungry for this change. It is time to sate our appetite.

* The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA.

SDG 10 in numbers

Despite some positive signs – such as lower income inequality in some countries and preferential trade status for lower-income countries – inequality in its various forms persists.

The COVID-19 crisis is making inequality worse. It is hitting the most vulnerable people hardest, and those same groups are often experiencing increased discrimination. The wider effects of the pandemic will likely have a particularly damaging impact on the poorest countries. If a global recession leads to reduced flows of development resources, that impact will be even more severe.

Access more data and information on the indicator for SDG 10 in the SDG Progress Report 2020.

Least developed countries in 2021 — progress amidst the COVID-19 crisis?

2021 commemorates the 50th anniversary of the creation of the least developed country (LDC) category by the United Nations. In March 1971, the Committee for Development Policy (CDP) identified the first 25 LDCs, followed by the formal endorsement of the category by the General Assembly in November that year. Currently, there are 46 countries on the list.

In February 2021, the CDP will undertake its triennial review of the list of LDCs to recommend countries for inclusion and graduation. Twenty-four international experts will review the latest available data for 15 indicators for all developing countries. The process also involves analyzing detailed assessments and conducting frank discussions with five countries that could qualify for graduation due to their remarkable development progress in recent years: Bangladesh, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, and Timor-Leste.

However, the review this year will be different. As the pandemic has plunged the whole world into a health, socio-economic and financial crisis of an unprecedented scale, COVID-19 threatens to have devastating effects on all LDCs and can negatively impact the preparations of the graduating LDCs.

The CDP has carried out a comprehensive study of the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the LDCs as data for the LDC criteria is available only up to 2019. A new set of supplementary graduation indicators for all developing countries, the detailed assessments of the five graduation candidates and country consultations will further enable the CDP to fully incorporate the impact of the pandemic in its review.

Despite facing the long-term impact of the pandemic and the loss of preferential treatment, most of the five graduation candidates continue expressing their unwavering commitment to graduation, recognizing graduation as an important milestone in their development. Their enthusiasm should encourage development and trading partners to engage in active dialogue with these LDCs to provide the support they require to ensure a smooth and sustainable transition in these challenging times. They deserve it.

Learn more about the work of the Committee for Development Policy (CDP) here.

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