Help People Not Just to Survive, but Thrive, Says Secretary-General, Briefing Security Council on Countries at Risk of Famine

12 October 2017

Help People Not Just to Survive, but Thrive, Says Secretary-General, Briefing Security Council on Countries at Risk of Famine

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council briefing on countries at risk of famine, in New York today:

Nine months ago, some 20 million people were at severe risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and north-east Nigeria.  About 100,000 people in South Sudan were on the verge of starvation.

I expressed, at that time, my deep concern to Member States in two letters calling for urgent action and support to humanitarian and development agencies.  I also held a media briefing on the crisis, here in New York, with the principals of the World Food Programme (WFP), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and representatives from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

In March, I visited Somalia where I saw first-hand the need for a massive scale-up in international support to avert a famine.  I heard heartbreaking stories from people who had been forced from their homes by drought.

And last month, the high-level event on famine during the General Assembly highlighted our continued grave concerns.

The international community responded quickly to the warnings.  Donors came forward; nearly 70 per cent of funds requested have now been received.  Aid operations were scaled up.  Humanitarian agencies and their partners are now reaching close to 13 million people each month with life-saving food, nutrition assistance, health care and other support.  Development partners also stepped up, working with humanitarian agencies to link emergency relief with long-term programmes aimed at breaking the cycle of risk and vulnerability.

But while we have succeeded in keeping famine at bay, we have not kept suffering at bay.

Hunger continues for millions of people.  Children under five years old will suffer the mental and physical scars of stunting throughout their whole lives.

In fact, in the past nine months, the need for humanitarian aid has increased in these four areas.  The numbers of people at risk have grown.  In South Sudan, some 6 million people are severely food insecure, up from 5 million at the beginning of the year.

Humanitarian aid is saving lives.  But we have not dealt with the one major root cause of these food crises:  conflict.

Some 80 per cent of the World Food Programme’s funding is going to areas affected by conflict.  Around 60 per cent of the 815 million people suffering from hunger today live in the shadow of conflict.  Three-quarters of the stunted children in our world are in countries affected by conflict.  Until these conflicts are resolved, and development takes root, communities and entire regions will continue to be ravaged by hunger and suffering.

Taking each of these food crises in turn:

In north-east Nigeria, some 8.5 million people now need humanitarian aid.

There have been tangible improvements in food security in some areas, thanks to the efforts of the Government and humanitarian organizations.  But aid agencies face obstacles because of ongoing attacks by Boko Haram.  Operations by the Nigerian military also impact on access.  We believe up to 700,000 people in parts of Borno and Yobe states are completely inaccessible and may need urgent support.  Two thirds of health facilities in these states have been damaged.  Those that are functioning are short of staff, and lack safe water, basic drugs and equipment.  This poses very serious challenges in dealing with outbreaks of cholera, malaria and measles.

In Somalia, more than 6 million people depend on humanitarian aid for their survival.  Aid agencies and their partners face conflict, insecurity, blocked roads and unnecessary bureaucracy.  Four aid workers were killed in the first eight months of this year.  There were more than 100 violent incidents affecting aid organizations.

Large parts of southern and central Somalia are still under the control or influence of al-Shabaab.  Almost 1.9 million people who need help are beyond the reach of aid agencies.  Road access is severely limited by illegal checkpoints and blockades.  Al-Shabaab and other non-State armed groups target humanitarians and confiscate or destroy aid supplies.  Meanwhile, the Government frequently imposes bureaucratic obstacles that include arbitrary taxation, and interference in recruitment and the awarding of contracts.

In South Sudan, localized famine has been averted, but severe food insecurity has risen to unprecedented levels.  Government and opposition groups are preventing agencies from accessing areas of urgent need, including parts of the Equatorias and Greater Upper Nile, and areas south and west of Wau.

Nineteen aid workers have been killed since January, and more than 440 have had to be relocated.  Humanitarian supplies are regularly looted from convoys and compounds.  More than 830 incidents related to access have been reported this year, more than half involving violence against humanitarian agencies.  That amounts to more than one such incident against humanitarians every day.  Both Government and opposition forces are implicated.  The collapse of the economy has led to widespread violence and increased criminality, making the delivery of food aid even more dangerous.

In Yemen, the World Food Programme and its partners helped to avert famine by reaching 7 million people in August — an increase of more than 60 per cent since the first half of this year.  But many millions of people are still suffering.  Some 700,000 people in areas of Sa’ada, Hajjah, Hudaydah, and Taizz governorates are hard to reach because of bureaucratic obstacles, air strikes, shelling and ground clashes.

Both the Alliance of Houthis and Ali Abdellah Saleh controlling Sana'a, and the Government of Yemen, have imposed restrictions on the movement and transportation of humanitarian personnel and aid.  An economic blockade has led to a rise in fuel costs by over 50 per cent and food costs by 30 per cent since before the crisis.  Meanwhile the world’s largest cholera epidemic stands at some 800,000 suspected cases and more than 2,000 deaths.

The parties to conflict in all four of these countries have stated their commitment to humanitarian and human rights law — but most of them have not followed through.  I call on them, and those with influence over them, to translate that commitment into practical measures and to address impunity immediately.  That means allowing and facilitating rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief; only imposing constraints in good faith; and respecting and protecting humanitarian personnel and supplies.

I also call for urgent measures to address the root causes of conflict, improve access and mitigate human suffering.

Specifically, I ask the Council to continue to engage in and support the political process in Somalia, and encourage the Federal Government of Somalia and the federal member states to stabilize their relationship.  We see with concern that this process is not going as smoothly as we would like.  Without progress on politics and security, improvements in the humanitarian situation will be temporary.  It is critical that key issues defining the federal state, including the division of powers, agreements on revenue and resource sharing between the federal and state Governments are clarified.  I welcome efforts by the Government and several federal states to improve access by unblocking routes and removing illegal checkpoints, and I call for continued progress.

In Nigeria, I encourage the Government and its counterparts in the Lake Chad Basin to develop a regional strategy to address the root causes of the crisis.  I urge all partners to step up efforts to provide humanitarian aid, as well as long-term solutions for sustainable development.  It is critical that greater civilian presence is established in the newly accessible areas, and I welcome the Government’s efforts to achieve this.

In Yemen, we face increasing constraints and interference by the Alliance of Houthis and Ali Abdellah Saleh controlling Sana'a, the Government of Yemen and its partners from “the coalition to restore legitimacy in Yemen”, led by Saudi Arabia.  I call on all parties to ensure unhindered access to people in need.  I repeat the call for the payment of civil servants’ salaries and the effective and continued operation of the port of Hudaydah.  What is needed most is for the parties to return to the negotiating table and focus on agreement.  Member States with influence on them must also play their role.

Finally, I urge parties to the conflict in South Sudan to come to terms urgently, to prevent increased food insecurity, refugee movements that threaten to destabilize the region, and continued human suffering and misery.  I encourage all Member States to support the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) high-level revitalization forum that has gained momentum in recent weeks.  I urge the Government to facilitate access to people in need, to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers and supplies, and to remove bureaucratic impediments to aid.

Last month, the UN’s food and nutrition agencies released a report called “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World”.  This report underscored that we are now seeing a reversal of the long-term decline in hunger.  Conflict and violations of international humanitarian law inevitably increase vulnerability to all kinds of menaces including food insecurity, which in turn causes people to flee.  The World Food Programme estimates that a 1 per cent increase in food insecurity leads to a 2 per cent increase in refugees.

Conflict in one country creates demands on its neighbours to provide food and basic services to refugees.  This can lead to further instability, affecting the security of an entire region and beyond.

Prevention, as always, must be our watchword.  Early famine warning mechanisms have worked well in north-eastern Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan.  We will continue to support famine prevention and humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian aid and strengthened respect for international law must be complemented by investment in sustainable peace and comprehensive long-term solutions.

These countries are dealing with violent extremism at the same time as they are hit by economic recession and low oil prices.  They are powerful examples of the complex and multidimensional challenges we face.  They require a system-wide approach that addresses the humanitarian-development nexus and its link to peace.

Development agencies must engage early on, with innovative solutions.  The World Bank has shown that it is possible to scale-up development-oriented programmes, complimenting humanitarian response, even in fragile countries like Yemen.

I welcome these efforts, which must include regional neighbours and frontline States.  In the long term, we must focus on what communities and countries need to emerge from protracted conflict and instability.  We must help people not just to survive, but to thrive.

Right now, we must urgently commit to increasing humanitarian aid and funding the programmes we have in place.  Where we have not prevented or resolved conflict, we must support its victims and survivors.

It is unconscionable that aid agencies must make life-or-death decisions about who gets aid because of a shortage of resources.

I thank you for your solidarity and urge your continued commitment and support.

For information media. Not an official record.