United Nations Food Agencies Ask for $5.5 Billion to Avoid Multiple Famines Worldwide
The world is facing multiple conflict-driven famines, aggravated by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, and without immediate action, millions of people — from the Sahel to Afghanistan — could well find themselves on the brink of extreme hunger and death this year, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, warned the Security Council today.
His dire warning — delivered at the start of a videoconference Council debate on conflict-induced food insecurity — came as the United Nations’ two leading food-related entities — the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — are appealing for the emergency mobilization of $5.5 billion to help 34 million people who are facing emergency levels of food insecurity worldwide.
“Today, I have one simple message: if you don’t feed people, you feed conflict,” the Secretary-General told the Council, emphasizing how conflict and hunger are mutually reinforcing. At the end of 2020, more than 88 million people were suffering from acute hunger due to conflict and instability, up 20 per cent from a year earlier, and projections for 2021 indicate that that frightening trend will continue, with climate shocks and the global COVID-19 pandemic adding fuel to the flames, he said.
Elaborating, he said that hunger crises are escalating and spreading across the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and accelerating in South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan. More than 30 million people in more than three dozen countries are one step away from famine, with women and girls facing the double risk of forced displacement and malnutrition whilst pregnant or breastfeeding. He expressed deep concern about the situation in Tigray, Ethiopia, where insecurity and violence are disrupting the harvest season.
“In some countries, famine is already here,” he said, with parts of Yemen, South Sudan and Burkina Faso in the grip of famine or conditions akin to famine, and more than 150,000 people at risk of starving. In Yemen, where 16 million people face food insecurity, half of all children under the age of five are projected to suffer acute malnutrition this year. In South Sudan, 60 per cent of the population is increasingly hungry and food prices are so high that a plate of rice and beans costs more than 180 per cent of the average daily salary — the equivalent of about $400 in New York. Last year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced the world’s worst food crisis as 21.8 million people faced acute hunger between July and December 2020, he said.
“We have a responsibility to do everything in our power to reverse these trends, starting by preventing famine,” he said, announcing his decision to launch a High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine. Led by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and including representatives from WFP and FAO, the Task Force will aim to bring coordinated high-level attention to famine prevention and mobilize support for the hardest-hit countries. The Secretary-General urged Council members to support the Task Force, which will cooperate with non-governmental organizations and work with international financial institutions and other specialized United Nations agencies, including the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
Of immediate concern are the more than 34 million people who are facing emergency levels of acute food security, with WFP and FAO appealing for $5.5 billion in extraordinary resources to respond to their plight, he said. However, while all national economies are feeling the strain of COVID-19, “the solution does not lie in cutting aid to starving children”. Earmarking relatively small amounts of money for humanitarian aid is an investment not only in people, but also in peace. He went on to stress the need for unimpeded humanitarian access in conflict areas and the prohibition of starvation as a tactic of war. The latter is a war crime, he said, urging the Council to do its utmost to seek accountability for such atrocious acts and to remind parties to conflict of their obligations under international humanitarian law.
“I urge all States to make ending conflict — and not simply mitigating its impact — a key foreign policy priority,” he said, calling on Council members to use its privileged position to end violence, negotiate peace and alleviate hunger and suffering. “There is no place for famine in the twenty-first century,” he added.
Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, said that many of the countries at risk of famine three years ago, when the Council adopted resolution 2417 (2018), are in the same position today — and several others have joined them. “People in these areas are not starving; they are being starved,” and it makes little difference to them whether their plight is due to deliberate action or to callous negligence on the part of conflict parties and the international community. Sharing the stories of individuals living amidst hunger in Yemen, Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the Central Africa Republic, she called on the Council to make good on its unanimous agreement to break the vicious cycle of conflict and food insecurity.
Setting out a set of recommendations, she said that the Council should deepen its work on conflict and hunger “with a clear commitment to action”. In doing so, it should agree on depoliticized criteria to facilitate regular and mandatory reporting on those situations with a risk of conflict-induced famine or food insecurity. The Council must take genuine action to support the Secretary‑General’s call for a global ceasefire in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 15-member body should condemn the use of starvation as a weapon of war, the targeting of critical food infrastructure and restrictions on humanitarian access. It should also create meaningful accountability for starvation crimes.
In addition, the Council should endorse — and its members lead — the effort to fulfil the global appeal for $5.5 billion to meet additional needs to avert famine, especially in light of the pandemic, she said. To be effective, that aid must flow as directly and urgently as possible to local organizations, especially those led by women. It should also endorse a “people’s vaccine” for COVID-19 that is free and accessible to all, with rich nations unlocking global supply constraints to make vaccines available to all those who need it.
She went on to say that starvation is a symptom of a deeper problem in a world in which eight of the biggest food and beverage companies distributed more than $18 billion to shareholders in 2020. That is more than three times what is being sought today to avert catastrophe. “There is not a lack of food; there is a lack of equality,” she said, adding that peace is not just about the absence of war, but also the ability to live in dignity and to flourish, with employment, a home and stable, affordable food prices.
David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, recalled that, in 2020, when he warned that armed conflict, climate change and the pandemic threatened to push 270 million people to the brink of starvation, a famine of biblical proportions was averted. Today, however, the world is sliding back towards the edge of the abyss and “the concerns of 2020 are really the concerns of 2021”. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is poised to become the world’s largest hunger emergency, with 19.6 million people affected, up from 15.6 million in 2020. In Afghanistan, the number is nearly 17 million, up from 13.9 million; in Nigeria, 13 million, up from 5 million. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the war in Syria, more than 12 million people face crisis levels of food insecurity or worse, an all-time high.
“Make no mistake: man-made conflict is the real culprit,” he said. Discussing his visit to Yemen this week, against a backdrop of 50-kilogramme bags of WFP white beans, he said the country is “hell on earth right now” and well on the way to becoming the biggest famine in modern times. There, more than 16 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse, and approximately 400,000 children may die without urgent intervention. One mother he met sold her last canister of cooking gas to make the journey to a hospital to get help for her young daughter, who sadly died one and a half days ago.
Turning to the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which he visited in February, he said that the United Nations has substantially improved access for humanitarian workers and supplies following detailed negotiations with the Government of Ethiopia. “But the real work is only just beginning,” he said, estimating that 3 million people in Tigray need food assistance that must be met through an urgent increase in funding. Pointing to South Sudan, where 7.2 million people face crisis levels of food insecurity or worse, the situation is so desperate that children are being fed mud and the skin of diseased dead animals.
“So, when I ask Security Council ministers to provide $5.5 billion immediately to avoid multiple famines around the world, I urge you to open up your hearts, show compassion and give — and give generously,” he said. The financial cost of conflict, let alone the human cost, is about $14.5 trillion, based on 2019 figures, yet it would take a fraction of that amount to fund development programmes that could change lives in war-scarred nations and lay new pathways to peace. “Please don’t ask us to choose which starving child lives and which one dies,” he said. “Let’s feed them all.”
In the ensuing debate, Council members recalled their unanimous adoption of resolution 2417 (2018), on 24 May 2018, through which the 15-member organ drew attention to the link between armed conflict and conflict‑induced food insecurity and the threat of famine and condemned the use of starvation as a weapon of war. They underscored the impact of COVID-19 in war zones and echoed the Secretary‑General’s call, made on 23 March 2020, for a global ceasefire in response to the pandemic. Some questioned, however, whether the Council — with its mandate to protect international peace and security — was the appropriate forum to discuss food security issues.
The representative of the United States, Council President for March, spoke in her national capacity to recount her 1993 visit to a northern Uganda refugee camp which was overflowing with Sudanese refugees fleeing civil war and where a two-year-old girl was so malnourished she died, “right in front of me”. It was then that she said she understood what the words “famine” and “acute malnutrition” mean. “We’re talking about raw humanity,” she said, and pure suffering. In 2021, there is no reason why resources cannot be provided to people in acute need. “If it is caused by us, it must be stopped by us,” she insisted, stressing that six months after the “damning portrait” presented to the Council in September 2020, the outlook for hunger and famine looks even worse, in part because today’s conflicts are lasting longer and growing more complex, compounded by COVID-19 and climate change. In Yemen, 70 per cent of the population needs food assistance. Expressing alarm over conditions in Ethiopia, where fighting in Tigray has depleted food stocks and increased acute malnutrition, she called on all sides to stop the fighting and allow the man-made humanitarian situation to be addressed.
More broadly, better and more consistent reporting on crises is needed, she said. The Secretary-General must have the tools to bring situations of potential starvation into the spotlight. Pointing to acute starvation in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she went on to denounce the lack of data and reporting on the hunger situation in South Sudan. “There is only one reason we are being prevented from seeing the entire data set,” she said. “The Government does not want us to know.” She called on the Council to leverage its unique ability to demand and secure timely reporting, data and action, further requesting the Secretary-General to submit two formal reports to the Council annually, in addition to notifying it when there is a risk. “We must depoliticize reporting,” she stressed, so that no more innocent civilians starve to death. The Secretary‑General also must explore how to enhance data collection and analysis, she added.
Eva-Maria Liimets, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia, stressing that intentional starvation is a war crime, welcomed related amendments to the Rome Statute and called on States parties to quickly allow them to enter into force. Spotlighting the intersecting drivers of food insecurity, conflict, pandemics and climate change, she called for early international action and pointed out that several issues on the Council’s agenda have seen instances of unlawful denial of humanitarian access. Moreover, parties to conflict have looted humanitarian aid storage sites and destroyed crucial civilian infrastructure. Noting that resolution 2417 (2018) allows for the imposition of restrictive measures in such cases, she declared: “We must not shy away from using these provisions on which we unanimously agreed.” She went on to spotlight the critical situations in South Sudan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, each of which have seen worsening humanitarian situations. In the case of the former, she announced a new WFP contribution by Estonia; in Ethiopia she called for unfettered life-saving aid to be delivered in the conflict-affected Tigray region; and in the case of Afghanistan she warned that poverty and drought will now be further exacerbated by stalled talks between the Taliban and the Government.
Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ireland, said the Irish famine was the worst humanitarian disaster of nineteenth century Europe, recalling 1 million people perished and another million were forced to emigrate. This historical experience has led to Dublin’s belief in a shared global responsibility to act. In Syria, 10 years into the conflict, 60 per cent of the population and 80 per cent of those in the north‑west of the country face food insecurity. This is occurring in a country ranked in the top half of the Human Development Index some 12 or 13 years ago. He said his visit to the Bab al-Hawa crossing last month brought home again the human misery and waste of human potential that results from conflict. The unanimous adoption of resolution 2417 (2018) was a testament to the Council’s unity on the need to counter conflict-driven hunger. However, the intention of the text is not being realized for those most affected. Ireland is honoured to be working with Niger as the focal point on hunger and conflict on the Council for the next two years, hosting the first of the biannual briefings for 2021 next month to discuss the findings of the upcoming joint WFP-FAO report. While rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access is vital during an acute food crisis, the Council must look at early action to prevent food insecurity and famine, especially to safeguard child and maternal health. Doing so saves lives and money, and allows food systems to survive.
Raychelle Omamo, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Kenya, said food security is one of four priorities being pursued by her Government, aimed to deliver a paradigm shift in development, inclusion, cohesion and sustained peace. “However, we are doing this in the face of growing climate-related and environmental challenges in our region,” she said, citing climate change impacts and associated droughts, desertification, land degradation and desert locust invasions — all of which are multiplying the threat of conflict. Voicing particular concern about food insecurity in communities and areas where there is ongoing violent conflict, she called for new solutions in such areas as humanitarian aid delivery and linking humanitarian aid to national and local food production. The United Nations, regional organizations and Governments must prioritize the protection of critical civilian infrastructure, including farms, markets, water systems, mills, food processing and storage sites. States and regions experiencing armed conflict should do their utmost to provide and facilitate safe and unimpeded humanitarian access, not just extending food aid support, but also working to build local production capacity. Meanwhile, decisions and interventions by the Council should be based on facts and driven by empirical evidence, in order to ensure a balanced approach.
Dag-Inge Ulstein, Minister for International Development of Norway, recalling that 700 million people around the world do not know where their next meal will come from, expressed fear that the Council might reply, “we heard the warning, but failed to agree on how to act”. Nearly all countries experiencing acute food insecurity are affected by conflict. Expressing concern over conditions in Yemen, where 16 million people are food insecure and 2.3 million children under the age of five are at risk of malnutrition, he said only an inclusive, politically negotiated solution can bring this crisis to an end. He expressed concern over widespread food insecurity and reports of starvation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, amid the systematic looting and destruction of food, crops and agricultural equipment. Pointing to targeted sanctions as a possible Council response, he urged State parties to the Rome Statute to ratify or accept the recent amendment concerning the war crime of starvation in non-international armed conflicts without delay. “Most hunger stems from politics,” he said, adding: “We need political will and political solutions.” The Council must follow up more consistently when the Secretary-General activates the early warning mechanism in situations of risk of famine and widespread food insecurity, he said, and pursue all avenues to prevent and end conflict.
Saboto Caesar, Minister for Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, Rural Transformation, Industry and Labour of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said decades of progress in the quest for global food security are now being erased by the worst global pandemic in over a century, rampant climate change and ecological destruction, protracted conflicts and other acute challenges. Tackling hunger is both a moral imperative and an existential concern, he said, calling for a comprehensive, coordinated "whole-of-system" approach to address the root — and proximate — causes of fragility and insecurity. The Council must spare no efforts in facilitating full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access, while also working more closely with the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council to foster developmental solutions for people in conflict settings. Noting that his country has expedited the provision of food security both nationally and across the region, even during the pandemic, he spotlighted the crucial role of Caribbean farmers and fisher-folk and reiterated his call for urgent, decisive action to tackle the climate change challenges they face. “The continued suffering of our brothers and sisters in Haiti, one of the most food‑insecure countries in the world, is a painful reminder of the interlinkages between natural disasters, political and economic stability and acute hunger,” he said, calling for more interconnected efforts on those fronts. Global action is vital to keep temperature rise at less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, emissions must be cut and major donors — including international financial institutions — should scale up their assistance to developing and conflict-affected countries, he said.
Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State for the Commonwealth, the United Nations and South Asia of the United Kingdom, noting 16 million people in Yemen face starvation, pressed the Council to redouble its efforts to break the conflict cycle driving humanitarian crises. He drew attention to resolution 2417 (2018) on conflict-induced food insecurity, in countries both on and off its regular agenda, stressing that famine is likely taking root in South Sudan’s Western Pibor County, where 60 per cent of the country’s population faces severe food insecurity. The Government of South Sudan must do more to foster peace. In north-east Nigeria, more than a decade of conflict has left 1.2 million people unable to access humanitarian aid. And across Ethiopia, 18 million people will require humanitarian assistance in 2021. “Famine is not inevitable,” he said, calling for improved reporting and evidence of food insecurity and famine risk — including on who is blocking humanitarian access and how. The Council must act on the reporting it receives, as it has heretofore “failed to encourage any independent State investigations into the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”. It also must hold to account those driving conflict-induced food insecurity, including through sanctions against those restricting aid access.
The representative of China, emphasizing that food issues must not be politicized, said armed conflict, terrorism, natural disasters, global trade, supply chains and commodity prices all could trigger food crises. Food security is a result of global development deficits. As countries and regions facing recurrent famine risk are trapped in a cycle of non-development and armed conflict, the Council must address both the symptoms and root causes, first by pushing for political solutions to hot‑spot issues. Parties must respond to the call for a global ceasefire and adhere to the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference and non-use of force. Calling sustainable development the “master key” to resolve food security problems, he pressed developed countries to help developing countries build their rural infrastructure — including green, high-tech agriculture — and to continuously enhance the resilience of food systems. With assistance from China, 24 agrotechnology centres were established in Africa to improve agro-production capacity, benefitting 500,000 people. Further, macroeconomic policy coordination must be strengthened. He called on the United Nations to better promote multilateral cooperation, on the Group of 20 to accord greater priority to food and agriculture development, and on FAO and WFP to bolster coordination with United Nations resident coordinators to strengthen capacity‑building in the food industry.
The representative of Niger, recalling that his country is a co-focal point with Ireland on conflict and hunger-related issues within the Council, said it will work with other interested parties in this regard. In the Sahel, the overlapping map of conflict and food insecurity is not a coincidence, as climate change is exacerbating tensions. An acute food crisis is being amplified by terrorist attacks against civilians. Noting that 2.5 million people in the Lake Chad Basin face acute or severe food insecurity, and that an additional 3.3 million people need assistance in the central Sahel region, he said pandemic‑induced manpower shortages have delayed food processing, while quarantines make it difficult to deliver food assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons in need. Stressing that attacks on humanitarian convoys are unacceptable, he called for unfettered access and an end to actions that hamper aid delivery, condemning discriminatory access and the use of famine as a weapon of war as a violation of international humanitarian law for which perpetrators must be held to account. Drawing attention to resolution 2417 (2018), he expressed hope the Council will continue to guide actions that aim to break the cycle of conflict-related hunger.
The representative of India said food security is the basic minimum standard required when the world is facing as devastating a crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic. While resolution 2417 (2018) recognizes the link between conflict and conflict-induced food insecurity and the threat of famine, it is important to note that food insecurity is by itself not a sufficient condition for political violence and conflict. “The link between the two is context- and region-specific and varies according to a country’s level of development and the strength of its political institutions and social safety nets,” he said, adding that fragile States have weak capacities to design, implement and monitor food-related policies. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has only made food insecurity more complex, especially for displaced or vulnerable people. Advocating for more inclusive food systems that empower marginalized people by giving them a voice in local policies, he joined other speakers in calling for rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access in places such as north‑east Nigeria, Yemen and Mali. The United Nations must make this a priority by engaging with national and regional authorities and ensuing that humanitarian actors are guided by the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, and never allowing aid to be politicized. Outlining India’s support to countries around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the global community has a moral obligation to act in cases where millions are in desperate need of assistance.
The representative of Tunisia described the “scary” increasing numbers of people on the verge of famine, notably in Yemen and South Sudan, where a lack of food threatens the lives of millions, especially women and children. Climate change in various conflict theatres is the main reason behind resource scarcity, beyond causing violence and more widely threatening food security, an issue discussed by the Council on many occasions. Addressing its consequences requires more cooperation and a more effective approach. He condemned the use of starvation as a weapon of war, as a violation of human rights and a possible war crime. Calling for stronger international efforts to prevent the targeting of civilians during conflict, he stressed that “we cannot end famine and suffering if we do not silence the guns.”. He called for implementation of resolution 2532 (2020), respect for a global humanitarian ceasefire, and protection of humanitarian workers.
The representative of France said that Member States, United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and international financial institutions must be mobilized to stave off the risk of famine and food crises. Early warning systems should be strengthened and social safety nets for the most vulnerable promoted. Underscoring France’s response to food insecurity, he said that it is significantly increasing its funding for food assistance from €50 million in 2020 to €72 million this year. Supporting the call for a global ceasefire and a humanitarian pause, he said that the use of starvation of a weapon of war is a war crime that cannot go unpunished. He also condemned the growing number of attacks on humanitarian and medical personnel and called for greater efforts to find lasting political solutions to conflicts.
The representative of Viet Nam, recalling that the Council had recognized the vicious cycle between armed conflicts and conflict-induced hunger, warned that armed conflicts indiscriminately destroy crops, livestock, deprive civilians of critical food infrastructure and essential services for their survival, cause displacement and impede humanitarian assistance. Food insecurity in turn can create tension, destabilize peace processes, prolong conflicts, breed new ones and hinder reconstruction and recovery. “It is high time for the Council to renew efforts to break this vicious cycle,” he said, stressing that starvation must never be used as a method of war. International cooperation is crucial in enhancing a Government’s capacity to protect and meet the basic needs of its civilians and prevent famine, he added, emphasizing the need to advance a comprehensive long-term strategy aimed at supporting local communities to build resilient food systems. The Council should continue with an integrated approach to address the root causes of conflicts, such as poverty, injustice, militarism and disregard for international law.
The representative of the Russian Federation said that strengthened cooperation among Member States to address food insecurity is a priority. Without unified action and mutual trust, the Sustainable Development Goals cannot be expected to be achieved. However, to get the desired results, the Council must not interfere in the well-oiled and effective work being done by the General Assembly and specialized agencies. WFP’s contribution in countries dealing with complex political and military situations is hard to overstate, he said, noting with regret that today’s briefers did not include a representative of FAO, given its unique ability to comprehensively assess food security situations. He added that his delegation opposed the idea of creating a United Nations focal point that would help guide the implementation of resolution 2417 (2018), as that would muddy the work of the Rome-based agencies. He went on to note that, by some strange coincidence, hunger most affects those places, such as Iraq and Somalia, where State institutions have been destroyed as a result of the opportunistic actions of some countries.
The representative of Mexico said the production, processing and distribution of food, along with unequal access to food, are conditions that amplify social disparities, triggering violence even in less-fragile contexts. Stressing that food security is vital to conflict prevention, he said that in low‑resource countries, women represent 48 per cent of the agricultural labour force, yet they have less access than men to all forms of support, creating a powerful reason to empower women and girls in efforts to end hunger. Food chains are impacted by climate-induced natural disasters, creating potential food security problems, including in Latin America. He underscored that the deprivation of food access constitutes a crime against humanity, according to the Rome Statute, and thus condemned its use as a method of warfare. “It is simply unacceptable,” he said, urging the Council to address the multiple triggers of conflict, including food insecurity.