Food insecurity is on the rise globally and is unlikely to subside soon. Arif Husain, the chief economist of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), says hunger and migration “are no longer somebody else’s problem, we have to work collectively.”
War and drought left 124 million people facing acute food insecurity across the world, according to the WFP’s latest annual report published earlier this month. The figures are alarming and they are getting worse; increasing from 108 million people in 2016 and 80 million in 2015.
The numbers are unlikely to fall any time soon, Husain told EURACTIV. “Until we have peace, don’t expect these numbers to go down,” he said.
The WFP defines acute food insecurity as hunger that is so severe that it poses an immediate threat to lives or livelihoods.
War and climate shocks are the two driving forces of hunger and destitution. Eighteen war-torn countries account for 74 million out of the 124 million, while climate shocks and drought left 39 million people food insecure in 23 countries.
“What we are seeing is the vulnerabilities of people is continuing to increase because conflicts are becoming protracted,” said Husain.
“The Syrian crisis has now lasted seven years. The impact on the next generation in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan is terrible. We should do everything in our power to do something to resolve these conflicts.”
The European Commission and 28 national governments contributed €2.7 billion to the World Food Programme in 2017, making them its largest donor. But the money is at the low end of what is needed.
“We are very appreciative of what is coming from the Commission and the member states but the problem is that it’s not enough. We received $26 billion in 2016 in humanitarian assistance but it was 40% less than what was needed,” he added.
Of that, around 50% of the money was spent in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and South Sudan, with the remainder distributed across 44 countries.
Husain estimates that an additional $9 billion will be needed in 2018 to assist around 80 million people in the same number of countries.
“The humanitarian community must have full access and be able to bring lifesaving food and commodities. But we do need resources. Last year we were able to prevent four famines,” he says
Though emergency food assistance and cash are what we would normally associate with an organization like the WFP, the reality on the ground is that much of the Rome-based body’s work is with smallholder farmers to improve quality of production and supply, as well as a plethora of other programmes such as reforestation and local insurance schemes.
But basic infrastructure programmes also lie at the heart of its work.
“Our biggest economic impact is through building feeder roads,” said Husain.
“The classic case is the road connecting Juba to Torrit in South Sudan. Once that road had been demined, a huge amount of trade started to happen. We have to have a twin-track approach – we have to save lives and we have to build resilience,” he explained.
Ukraine is the only country in Europe hosting large numbers of starving people; its war-torn eastern region accounts for 1 million food insecure people.
But if war and drought are not on European soil, their effects are on the continent’s doorstep. Desperation to find a better life free from conflict and famine have been the main drivers of the migration crisis from the Middle East and Africa that has exorcised European politicians for the past three years.
Husain believes that the European Union’s thinking on migration is now more cohesive than several years ago, though this is “out of necessity”, he says.
“We need to understand what makes people move. We spoke to migrants and asked them: what makes you take the risk of putting your family on a boat that might go down?”
“The main finding was that migrants don’t want to move, people move 3-6 times on average in their own country before they go abroad. More than 90% of Africans want to stay in their own continent, and more than 80% of Asians,” he said.
The WFP is in the process of setting up a ‘migration pulse’, using state of the art data collection that it expects to have up and running in 2018.
“We need to know what makes people move, where do they go, what happens to them when they get there, and what happens to those who are left behind,” Husain said.