Too little, every day

The UN World Food Programme is honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. How successful is the fight against hunger?

By Christian Böhme, Jan Dirk Herbermann and Hans Monath

The honor for the UN’s World Food Program may have surprised many. But with its decision, the Nobel Prize Committee in Oslo is drawing attention to a neglected catastrophe that is often suppressed, especially in affluent countries: global hunger and the tens of millions of people who suffer from it. People who have to ask themselves every day where they can get their next meal. That alone would be bad enough. But there is something else that is crucial: the fight against hunger goes hand in hand with a commitment to peace. After all, many conflicts and wars are caused or exacerbated by a lack of food. Now Corona is adding to the mix. The pandemic has significantly increased the need for food – and with it the number of people in need. The World Food Program’s task is to do something about the need.

How many people are suffering from hunger?

There were years when aid workers were hopeful. They believed that they could possibly reduce hunger. There was even the declared goal that no one should suffer from hunger by 2030. But this goal hardly seems attainable anymore. At the moment, 690 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat; 135 million suffer from acute hunger. About two billion also suffer from “hidden hunger,” which is the lack of essential nutrients. The main causes of this situation are poverty, wars and conflicts. But the consequences of climate change – which include extreme weather events such as storms, floods and droughts – are also exacerbating the situation.

Where is hunger particularly bad?

According to Welthungerhilfe, the hot spots are in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. According to the so-called World Hunger Index 2019, of the countries for which data is available, the Central African Republic is the only country affected by “severe” hunger. Four other countries – Chad, Madagascar, Yemen and Zambia – have a “very serious” hunger situation. The situation is also rated “severe” in many South Asian countries, including Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia. Other particularly hungry countries include Burundi, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Libya, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria.

What is being done about it – and what has been achieved so far?

Almost without interruption for two decades, the global community has succeeded with aid programs in reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty year after year. Sometimes by 1.2 percent, as in 2018, sometimes by 1.5 percent, as in 2019. However, the greatest progress in the fight against hunger has not been achieved with aid programs, but through a country’s own efforts: More than 700 million Chinese have escaped poverty since the Beijing government launched its economic reform program four decades ago. The autocratic system claims the figure represents more than 70 percent of successful poverty reduction worldwide.

What is the role of the World Food Programme?

David Beasley knows how to get the attention of his audience and the world. In April, the director of the World Food Program warned the UN Security Council that the pandemic threatens to trigger “many famines of biblical proportions.” The victims would be mainly in the world’s poor countries. The gloomy prophecy of the American shook up many governments. They support the WFP in the Corona Year with around eight billion U.S. dollars. The Nobel Peace Prize for the World Food Program is not least a tribute to the United Nations. “The UN plays a key role in sustaining multilateral cooperation,” it says. The world, shaken by corona, crises and wars, needs close multilateral cooperation more than ever, it says.

The award is a remarkable move in another sense as well. WFP chief Beasley is a Republican and thus a partisan of the U.S. president, an avowed opponent of multilateral principles. No sooner had Trump and his people taken over the administration in 2017 than they nominated the former South Carolina governor to head the World Food Program. That’s obviously paying off. The U.S. traditionally transfers the largest sums to the WFP. That hasn’t changed under Trump.

Is Corona exacerbating the situation?

Before the first Covid 19 infection had even been detected in developing and emerging countries, the pandemic was already having a dire impact on the global South. According to experts, the “largest capital outflow ever” set back efforts to improve the economic development of these countries by years. Day laborers or migrant workers there are often faced with the choice of either foregoing the equivalent of two dollars in income or exposing themselves to the risk of infection. The German Development Ministry fears that the corona-induced recession will plunge up to 115 million people into extreme poverty this year.

Is hunger a weapon of war?

A resounding yes. Indeed, this has been the case for centuries. But for some years now, this means of fighting the enemy has again been used in a very targeted manner. In Syria in particular, the regime of ruler Bashar al Assad has repeatedly violated international humanitarian law with this strategy. On several occasions, the president’s fighters have sealed off not only villages but entire regions held by the opposition. On the one hand, the aim is to wear down the people and thus force them to give up. After all, bread is just as important a resource as weapons, oil and drinking water, for example. On the other hand, control over aid and access to the needy can be instrumentalized to exercise power over them. For Assad is the one who allows – or denies – support.

How is Germany helping?

Germany is the WFP’s second-largest donor. In 2019, the German government provided the organization with around 790 million euros. Germany also provided the largest single contribution the WFP has ever received: in 2016, the German government pledged 570 million euros for programs in Syria and neighboring countries. After the basic contribution for the current year was increased to about 48 million euros because of the pandemic, the draft budget for 2021 calls for it to drop again by 42 percent. In fact, the federal government supported the program in previous years with a basic contribution of around 28 million euros – so it will be trimmed to normal size. Yet it is considered unlikely that the pandemic and its consequences will have been overcome by then.