Slowing world hunger will take more than Ukrainian grain exports
NAIROBI, Kenya — In Afghanistan, starving children are flocking to hospitals. In the Horn of Africa, villagers trek for days through dusty wastelands to escape drought-induced starvation. In cities from Syria to Central America, families go to bed hungry.
On Monday, a grain ship that left the Ukrainian port of Odessa, the first since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, also carried fragile hopes that it could stem a global tide of hunger. Ukraine’s bulging stores hold 20 million tonnes of grain – trillions of trapped calories, until a diplomatic deal was brokered by Turkey and the UN last month. Sixteen more grain ships are expected to leave in the coming days, sailing through the mined waters of the Black Sea.
But experts say boosting Ukrainian grain exports will do little harm to a global food crisis that UN Secretary-General António Guterres says could last for years.
The scale of the crisis – fueled by wars, the economic devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme weather conditions often worsened by climate change – is so immense that no breakthrough would be a silver bullet.
According to the United Nations World Food Programme, as many as 50 million people in 45 countries are on the brink of starvation. In the 20 most affected countries, the situation is expected to worsen significantly by the end of the summer, he added.
This suffering is the extreme limit of an expanding spectrum of hunger. Around the world, up to 828 million people – a tenth of the world’s population – were undernourished last year, the highest figure in decades, the United Nations Health Organization recently estimated. food and agriculture.
As for Ukrainian grain, aid experts say it is unclear how much will reach hungry people in places like the Horn of Africa, where a four-year drought has left 18 million people facing severe starvation, or in Afghanistan, where more than half the population does not eat enough.
Ask Saad Ahmed.
Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan a year ago, causing an economic collapse, life has become an uphill struggle for survival, Mr Ahmed said. He hasn’t paid his rent for five months. He recently sold a carpet to buy food for his six children.
And as he queued for food aid alongside hundreds of other people in a once wealthy neighborhood of the capital, Kabul, Mr Ahmed said he could not even turn to his loved ones – the usual Afghan safety net.
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“They don’t have anything either,” he said. “How can I ask them for help? »
Funding for emergency aid is far behind. In Yemen, where 60% of the population depends on food aid, aid workers have reduced rations to make them go further.
“It’s the only country I’ve worked in where food is taken from the hungry to feed the hungry,” said Richard Ragan, director of the World Food Program in Yemen. “You have to make those choices because you don’t have the resources.”
Not so long ago, the world was well on its way to ending hunger.
Between 2005 and 2014, the number of undernourished people, as measured by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, fell by almost 30%, from 806 million to 572 million. The ambitious goal of ending world hunger by 2030, adopted at a summit in 2015, seemed within reach.
But much of those gains have come from China and India, where economic booms have lifted tens of millions out of poverty. In Africa, where 20% of the population faces hunger, progress has been extremely slow. The hunger figure remained stable for several years, until in 2019 it rose again.
Wars and extreme weather events have been the main drivers: a series of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, as well as cyclones, droughts and other natural disasters that have hit a series of vulnerable countries, mainly near from the equator.
Then, in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, crushing livelihoods and driving up food prices. For Blanca Lidia Garrido López, that meant cutting back on her family’s diet.
A single mother of six children, Ms. Garrido lives in Guatemala, one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, where she earns a living cleaning. As the pandemic progressed, she said in a phone interview, her income plummeted when her clients fell ill or canceled appointments.
Mrs. Garrido has stopped giving meat or chicken to her children, aged 3 to 18. Even eggs and beans have become a luxury. “I live day to day,” she says.
When the UN tally of hungry people climbed back to over 800 million last year, some said 15 years of progress had been undone. (Although due to population growth, the proportion of hungry people in the world has fallen from 12% to 10%.)
It signaled that chronic hunger – the kind that rarely makes the headlines, but still marks lives and sometimes ends them – was spreading.
In the village of Afosifaly on the southern tip of Madagascar, two-year-old Jenny Andrianandrainy is struggling to walk and showing signs of cognitive damage due to malnutrition, doctors say. He is one of 50 malnourished children in his district, many of whom were born at the height of Madagascar’s devastating drought between 2018 and 2021, which wiped out crops and left half a million people hungry.
Jenny’s pregnant mother has been selling twigs and foraging for wild leaves in a desperate attempt to feed her family. When Jenny was born, he weighed barely five pounds. Many of these children have an increased likelihood of dying before the age of five.
About 13.5 million children worldwide are “severely wasted”, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency. The cost to save a single life is modest: around $100 for a course of high-nutrition foods, according to Unicef.
Climate change caused by burning fuels is another factor. The world is getting warmer, causing water from fields to evaporate faster. Changing rainfall patterns can bring either too much rain at the wrong time or too little when farmers need it.
World powers blame each other for the hunger crisis.
On the eve of a visit to Kenya and Somalia last month, Samantha Power, director of the US Agency for International Development, accused Russian President Vladimir V. Putin of “waging a war against the world’s poor”. through his military campaign in Ukraine. . She also criticized China for giving only $3 million to the World Food Program this year while the United States gave $3.9 billion.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hit back last week, visiting four African countries where he blamed the West for soaring food prices. He has received a warm welcome in Uganda, a US ally, and in Ethiopia, where millions face starvation in the northern Tigray region.
For others, the Ukraine crisis shows that the global community can come together to solve humanitarian emergencies, but only when it wants to.
On Monday, a United Nations appeal for $2.2 billion in humanitarian aid to Ukraine was 93% fulfilled, according to the United Nations financial tracking system. But equally important appeals for countries like Sudan, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo received only between 21 and 45 percent of the requested funds.
In April, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the disparity raises questions about whether “the world is really paying equal attention to the lives of blacks and whites”.
Ukrainian officials say if their ships can continue to navigate the Black Sea – an uncertain gamble in the volatility of the war – they can ship 20 million tonnes in the next four months. But it could also be bad news for vulnerable nations.
Wheat prices have already fallen to pre-war levels, but fertilizer prices remain high, Máximo Torero, chief economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said in an interview. .
That means an increase in Ukrainian and Russian grain on world markets could drive prices down further, which would benefit consumers but hurt poor farmers who have already planted their crops with expensive fertilizers, Torero said.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that Ukrainian wheat, which is sold on the open market, will go to the most needy countries. The FAO has proposed a new financing facility to help 62 poor countries access these grains, as well as a global food reserve for aid groups like the World Food Programme.
“It’s not that the deal is bad,” Torero said. “But this is only one dimension of the problem.”
The machinations of global grain markets seem distant in the crowded children’s ward of Doctors Without Borders in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran.
One morning in March, doctors huddled around a malnourished one-year-old boy whose body had been ravaged by measles shortly before he died. Hours later, a seven-month-old girl in a nearby bed died of the same combination of illnesses. Then it was 11-month-old Hajera who began to breathe sharply and laboriously.
“My angel,” whispered her mother, Zeinab, as a nurse strapped an oxygen mask over her face and covered her tiny body in a hypothermic blanket.
Hajera survived that night, and the next too.
But on the third day, she also died.
The report was provided by Lynsey Chutel in Johannesburg; Christina Goldbaum and Yakoob Akbary in Kabul, Afghanistan; Asmaa al-Omar in Beirut, Lebanon; Ruth Maclean in Dakar, Senegal; Jody Garcia In Miami; Somini Sengupta in Los Angeles; Oscar Lopez At New York; and a New York Times employee in Damascus, Syria.